Participatory Action Research for Positive Change

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Focus Groups

Like with interviews, I could write a book about focus groups since there is so much so say about it. Like in my video lecture (to be found on the 7Senses YouTube channel) I have put some main points together for you. In this chapter we are going to discuss ‘live’ focus groups for PAR. First of all, why would you do a focus group? Sometimes one on one interviews are not enough to obtain all the required data for your action research, so you want to have a group of people together to answer questions and discuss topics. Especially in development projects, it is important to know how people interact, communicate and work together. Focus groups come in handy there because you can observe exactly that. They provide insight on multiple and different views on the subject, and on the dynamics of interaction within a group context.

Method Focus Groups
Goal Depending on PAR stage: 1. Making a PAR-design together with stakeholders; 2. Interviewing a group of stakeholders; 3. Co-creating action plans with stakeholders.
Ideally to be used in which stages? Orientation, System exploration, Insights sharing & Solution identification, Action plan co-creation
Level of difficulty Difficult, training and preparation needed
Time investment On average 2 hours per focus group, if you also transcribe: about 4 hours per our of focus group
Costs Drinks, snacks, small gestures to your participants (optional), maybe venue rental
To combine with PhotoVoice, Village Mapping, Interviewing, Appreciative Inquiry, Road to Progress and other (creative) methods
  • When you want to make sure stakeholders feel aligned with the design of your PAR;
  • When you want to explore perspectives of a group of people on a topic;
  • When you want to study group dynamics between stakeholders;
  • When you feel participants may express themselves better when in a group;
  • When you want to facilitate reflection on outcomes of the System Exploration stage;
  • When you want to facilitate the co-creation of action plans on a certain prioritized solution.

Let’s go through some advantages and disadvantages, starting with the advantages. First, in focus groups you not only gain information from different stakeholders at once, but you can also observe group dynamics. How do people react to each other? Which stakeholders take the lead? Are there any tensions? Et cetera. Second, people may feel less threatened to share things in a group setting compared to a one-on-one interview, especially when expressing dissatisfaction about something and when they are among peers experiencing the same issue. Third, if you do it right, it creates mutual understanding and with that, you trigger social learning. When for example an idea is presented by someone, it may create new ideas in other participants. This is the reason why focus groups may come in very handy after one-on-one interviews, so that the researcher can present the results and ideas gathered from those interviews and then discuss them during the focus groups to further concretize those ideas. Last, as people influence each other, you may get a lot more input and ideas, because people often build upon each other’s answers. There are also some disadvantages you may want to consider before choosing focus groups. First, in a group setting, sometimes people hesitate to talk in-depth about sensitive subjects, or when they have to reveal things they don’t want others to know. For example, when I did action research on Saba with fishermen some focus groups were difficult as fishermen did not want to reveal their fishing strategies to other fishermen. So if you want to do focus groups, you have to take these kinds of difficulties into account. Second, people may influence each other and there may be group pressure, which can cause some people to not express their true views, so during focus groups some people will be tempted to give more socially acceptable answers. There are many ways to reduce this, but you can never fully prevent this. Third, you may get over-recruitment when people bring their neighbors, friends etcetera. In rural area’s of developing countries there may not be a closed meeting room so you have to sit outside, resulting in uninvited visitors who start giving their opinions too. This may not be a disadvantage though, when it provides useful new insights. Last, during focus groups, some people may be overruling others. As a facilitator you have to make sure all participants can express their views which can be a challenge.

The aim of focus groups in action research can be twofold. So let’s take a look. If we take the rough phasing of action research: look, think and act, you can see the first phase as data collection, the second as presenting the results and co-creating solutions and the third as implementing the solutions. First, you can do focus groups with the aim of collecting data on a topic, the first phase. During this phase you may choose to start with a focus group to determine interview topics, or, to start with individual interviews to then further unravel most important topics from those interviews in a focus group. Focus groups in this initial phase give you insight in the perspectives of people on the topic, their problem definitions, the current situation vs the desired situations and more. A second aim of focus groups can be to present your findings to the community, after which you can have a group talk where you let the participants reflect on those findings. This is also a form of data collection as in the first aim, but the difference is that in this case you use the prior collected data in order to come to solutions to solve the presented issue. So basically the respondents are co-creating solutions here. During the Act phase you do not have focus groups anymore, rather meetings or get-togethers. The difference is that in focus groups you are still collecting data, and in meetings and get-togethers this is not a goal per se.

So, let’s see how a focus group can be set up. Focus groups typically consist of six to ten participants, but the groups may also be smaller or larger. I recommend smaller groups if the problematique is very complex and bigger groups if brainstorming for multiple idea generation is required. You may choose to set up homogeneous focus groups, in which you only let people from the same background come together, or duo stakeholder groups – in which you let people from two different backgrounds come together or heterogeneous focus groups – in which you let people from three or more different backgrounds come together. What you choose highly depends on the topic and aim of your action research, group dynamics, social relations and the like. Let the locals advise you! In action research it can also be a structure in which you start with homogeneous focus groups, then invite them for duo-stakeholder groups and finally invite them –or their representatives- in heterogeneous groups. Or you go straight from homogeneous to heterogeneous groups, or the other way around! So, multiple strategies, choose wisely and choose together with the community because it can make or break your PAR! The number of focus groups also varies, depending on your type of PAR. Typical is four to six focus groups. Less than four becomes risky as your data may not be accurate enough because it represents little information. More than six becomes quite time-consuming, may become chaotic and participants have less opportunity to speak. One focus group usually takes up one to two hours and you usually need quite some extra hours to analyze the results of such focus group.

How to select your participants? If you want a sample of an a-select group, see if you can randomly draw people from a list, or for example visit every tenth household in the community. Another method which I use often is snowball sampling, which means you ask your respondents whom they think should attend the focus groups. Networks of personal contacts can also be good gatekeepers for social groups. Ask for example community leaders to help you invite people for a focus group. In tense situations it would be a good idea to use this snowballing method and check with locals if the selected participants would be a good ‘match’ to have in one room. However, this is not for all research contexts appropriate. Sometimes in politically sensitive situations people may choose only high-status people, friends, family or people from a certain political group, causing a biased selection of society or simply missing out on certain perspectives. Also here, choose wisely how you select your participants and ask locals what they think would be the best way to go!

The outcome of a focus group is also very much influenced by the physical environment. Some venues may be very scary or intimidating –for example government buildings for people who never go there, or they are boring, or maybe a little too chique or classy, leading to sub-optimal results. Ask your respondents what venue feels most comfortable for them. Sometimes you get offered a venue by the government or a big organization, which is very kind of course, but when there are tensions between your respondents and the government or that organization, then obviously that is not the best location to choose, especially in initial stages of your action research. Even colors and smell in the room seem to influence people’s mood, creativity, group dynamics and the like. And is a venue actually required, or can we just sit somewhere outside? Let’s talk about the chairs and tables. Often forgotten, but greatly determines the outcome and atmosphere of your focus group. Sometimes we unintendedly put chairs in a way that is offensive to locals, or in a way that disadvantages certain people, so think of how to set up the chairs and tables of your focus groups. In PAR often you see people sitting in a circle or U-shape, either with or without a table, big or small. Some communities prefer sitting where they normally have village meetings, like outside under a tree. It also depends on the add-on research methods you use. For example, World Café is a method in which on several round tables in the room there are questions posed and people are subdivided in groups to focus on each question. Tables are then put as in a typical café and the focus group can be subdivided into different rounds, where the subgroup switches per table or even switch groups. If you apply a simulation game in order to test several different scenario’s for which we need play units and a poster one table for all respondents is best.

You as a Participatory Action Researcher will facilitate the focus group, so make sure you have the required skills! Your role as a facilitator is vital. You have to establish a relaxed atmosphere, enable all participants to tell their stories on an equal level, listen actively, steer the group members when they get off track and observe group dynamics. That is quite a task, and therefore you may want to invite another researcher who makes notes and focuses more on the observational tasks. Further, it mainly comes down to the interviewing skills you also need during normal interviews. Thorough training and preparation is needed before starting a real focus group. So make sure you practice multiple times, on different subjects, with different groups!

Like one on one interviews we distinguish a start, a middle and an end.

The start
The middle
The end
  • Tips (blog)
  • Click here to read a blog containing 8 more tips for facilitating fantastic focus groups! (in Dutch)