A Focus Group Discussion (FGD) is a discussion of a group of persons guided by a facilitator, also called moderator, during which group members talk freely and spontaneously about a certain topic fixed in advance in a group environment.
A focus group generally includes 6-12 persons selected by the researcher, who are knowledgeable about a specific subject. This group is usually chosen in a non-random fashion.
The focus group strategy is often used as a starting point for developing a survey. The researcher can get a better idea of how respondents talk and think about topics.
A Focus group also helps when a researcher needs to get background information on a topic.
Such group interviews can stimulate new ideas and concepts, reveal potential problems in research design, and help interpret evidence generated from a quantitative study.
There are several advantages to using focus groups. These include, among others, the following:
- They provide quick and inexpensive sources of information from a diverse range of respondents.
- The researcher has the opportunity to talk directly to the respondents to clarify, elaborate, and better understand ideas and views.
- Respondents have the chance to develop their reactions to and build other reactions upon; the responses of other participants in the group, and this may create a dynamic ‘synergistic’ effect.
- They offer a way to gather information from individuals who are usually difficult to deal with, such as children, people with a high level of education.
- Successful focus groups can be carried out through teleconferencing even when the individuals in the group cannot be physically drawn together in a specific place.
The moderator often leads to a topic with less structured, usually open-ended questions to elicit the broadest and most original responses.
Then he moves to more structured questions to draw out more specific information.
However, the moderator must be careful not to lead the respondents so fully that he or she is responding (Steward and Shamdasani, 1990: 64). Many different types of questions might be included in a focus group discussion:
- Main research questions that direct the research;
- Leading questions that help to get a deeper level of meaning;
- Challenge questions that rephrase a respondent’s words to get the group to reiterate or challenge on the answer;
- Steering questions that guide the group back to the main subject;
- Obtuse questions that allow the members to discuss uncomfortable questions by addressing them in terms of other people’s feelings or reactions;
- Factual questions that allow group members to address non-risky subjects and can be used at points when the discussion is getting too much emotional;
- “Feel” questions that allow the expression of personal feelings;
- Anonymous questions that often begin by asking group members to write out an idea that immediately comes to mind when they think of specific issues.
A focus group session might encounter a variety of potential problems. One way to avoid problems is to select group members carefully.
Steward and Shamdasani suggest, friends should not belong to the group, because friendships distort the anonymity of the group.
The researchers also advise moderators to control the participation of legitimate experts, who may inhibit responses from others in the group; self-appointed experts, who may intimidate other members and who may be more difficult to move to a genuine helping role; and hostile group members, whom the moderator may need to ask to leave, possibly after a short break.
In sum, Focus Group Discussions techniques can be used to
- Focus research and develop research hypotheses by exploring in greater depth of the problem to be investigated and its possible causes;
- Formulate appropriate questions for more structured, large-scale surveys;
- Supplement information on community knowledge, benefits, attitudes, and behavior already available but incomplete and unclear;
- Develop appropriate messages for the health-education program;
- Explore controversial topics.
A focus group discussion session has the following components (BMRC document, undated)
- Conducting the session;
- A decision on the number and duration of the session;
- Analysis of the results;
- Report writing.
These are explained below;
Preparation for Focus Group Discussions
This component involves the recruitment of the participants, physical arrangement, and preparation of a discussion guide. Participants should be of the same socio-economic background as far as possible or of similar background about the issue under investigation.
The age and sex composition of the group are expected to facilitate free discussion.
If it is intended to obtain information on a topic from several different categories of informants who are likely to discuss the issue from different perspectives, the focus group should be organized from the major category.
- A group for men and a group for women, or
- A group for older women and a group for younger
Participants should be invited at least 1 or 2 days in advance, and the general purpose of the Focus Group Discussions should be explained.
Physical arrangements facilitate communication and interaction during the Focus Group Discussions. It is advisable to arrange the chairs in a circle.
The venue should be quiet and adequately lighted and that there will be no disturbances. Utmost care is to be taken to hold the Focus Group Discussions in a neutral setting. This will encourage participants to freely express their opinion and views.
The preparation of a discussion guide is important in Focus Group Discussions. There should be a written list of topics to be covered in the discussion. It can be formulated as a series of open-ended questions.
Guides for different groups gathered to discuss the same subject may vary slightly, depending on their knowledge or attitudes and how the subjects can first be explored with them.
Conducting the session
As we have indicated earlier, one of the members of the group should act as a moderator. One should also serve as a recorder. Note that the facilitator in no way should act as an expert on the topic.
His or her role will be to stimulate and support discussion. He should not try to comment on everything that is being said. He also should not feel that he has to say something during every pause in the discussion. He must wait, observe, and see what happens.
The functions of the facilitator include the following:
- Introducing the session
- Encouraging the participants
- Encouraging the involvement
- Building rapport
- Controlling the rhythm of the meeting, and
- Summarizing the session
We discuss the above points in brief.
Introducing the session
The facilitator will introduce him or herself and also the recorder to the members of the group at the very outset of the session. He or she will also invite the participants to introduce themselves.
The facilitator will explain the purpose of the Focus Group Discussions, the kind of information needed, and the way the collected information will be used.
The facilitator will be enthusiastic, lively, and humorous and, at the same time, should demonstrate his or her seriousness and interest in the group’s ideas.
He/she will formulate questions and encourage as many participants as possible to express their views. He must not bother about whether the answer is right or wrong.
It is highly likely that the session will be comprised of participants who are quite dominant. Such participants must be carefully dealt with.
One way to tackle them is to avoid eye contact or turn slightly away to discourage the person from speaking or thanking the person or switching over to a new subject. Sometimes there will be persons who are reluctant to participate.
Such participants may be dealt with using a person’s name, requesting his opinion, making more frequent eye contact to encourage his involvement.
Rapport building is an important aspect of Focus Group Discussions. In doing so, the facilitator should observe non-verbal communication.
He should closely note what the participants are saying and what he/she means by saying this.
At the same time, the facilitator should be careful about his facial expression, movement, voice, and tone. He should also note down the same of the participants.
Controlling the rhythm of the meeting
The facilitator will carefully listen and move the discussion from topic to topic.
To maintain interest in the discussion, he should subtly control the time allocation to various topics.
If the participants jump from one topic to the other, the facilitator should allow the participants to continue the discussion for a while in the interest of the additional information that may be of importance.
Number and duration of the session
The number of focus group sessions to be conducted depends upon project needs, resources, and whether new information arising out of contrasting and controversial views is still emerging from the session discussion.
As to the duration of the session, a focus group session typically lasts up to an hour and a half. There is, however, an exception to this depending on the topic that is addressed to the group in the first session.
Analysis of results and report writing
After each focus group discussion, and analysis of the results should be attempted, and a full report of the discussion should be prepared that reflects the discussion as completely as possible using participants’ own words.