things to report about focus group data collection for social science reporting

For better or for worse, focus group discussions are a common way of gathering qualitative information in the social sciences, as a standalone activity or used in parallel or sequentially with other types of research activities. My general sense is that focus groups are used far too often when one-on-one interviews [do not use FGDs to attempt to try to ‘efficiently’ do many individual interviews at once] would have been more appropriate to the information sought (and the analysis done, if indeed it was done at all).


This last point is important: certain ways of gathering qualitative data are more appropriate to gaining certain types of information (for example, are you collecting sensitive information? Are you actually relying on the power of group discussion and reflection to generate useful insights or are you trying to conduct several (slapdash) individual interviews at once?).


For interpretation, it is quite helpful if researchers explained and justified their choice of qualitative data collection strategy given their research aims. (Surely appropriate justification and description of methods is part of the research transparency agenda, regardless of whether we are discussing quantitative or qualitative data?)


More generally, as part of my work with IDinsight, i have been putting together a guidance document on making apt use of qualitative data and qualitative approaches to research for the aims of evaluation and learning. It is still very much a work-in-progress but a small sub-section is “stuff you should about data collection include in your write-up if you opt to use focus groups.”


Here’s my working list of what i would want to know about your data collection activities in order to render your presented results from group discussions far more interpret-able, believable, and useful in informing future work [note that much of this can be written up before data collection begins and could even be part of a commitment to (pre-) analysis & reporting plan! Deviations from the plan could also be reported after data collection is complete]:


Objectives, justification, sequencing

  • How do the focus group discussions fit in the overall research strategy? What informed the questions asked (theory, a prior research stage, etc)?
    • For example, is the work being done to inform the intervention design or is it being used to understand a previous result?
  • What were the main questions/topics/themes intended to be covered in the groups and were these meaningful in the given overall research aims? (Please say something more useful than ‘to add context or color.’)
    • Was the intention to be hypothesis generating, hypothesis testing, or both? Clarify if different topics/themes were pursued for different purposes.
    • Was the intention to be inductive, deductive, or both?
  • Why were focus group discussions selected as the data collection strategy given the research objectives (and practical constraints)?


Positionality and placement

  • Who (in the sense of positionality) was part of the moderating team (such as a facilitator, a note-taker, and an interpreter if relevant)? Why did this make sense given the research setting and questions? Was the team the same for all groups conducted? If not, what dictated the differences?
  • Where were focus group discussions held? (this can be general, such as ‘a community space was identified in each village with the help of a local elected official’)? Was the space sufficiently private and free of distraction in most or all locations?


Composition and other group details

  • Who comprised the group (in a general sense, such as ‘women with children’)? How were these people selected? Did people in the groups generally know each other or not? Why was this composition strategy seen as the appropriate composition given the research objectives?
  • If different compositions of groups were sought (such as interviewing men and women separately or program participants and non-participants separately), why did this make sense in this context for the given research objectives (and how did it connect to a broader theory of change and/or expectations about heterogeneous experiences)?
  • How many groups were conducted all together? Why was this seen as a sufficient number? (Ideally, the answer will include some reference to saturation on key themes.)
  • What as the minimum, mean, and minimum size of all the groups conducted?
  • What was the minimum, mean, and maximum duration of all of the groups conducted?


Iteration throughout data collection

  • Did the goal of the focus group discussions change over the course of the work? If so, how and why?
  • What main changes were made to the interview guide / key topics explored over the course of the data collection? (And, if not obvious, why were these changes made, such as being too contentious or an unconsidered angle emerged?) Any key lessons about questions that ‘worked’ or did not?


More to follow on details to report for data organization and analysis, including elements of capturing power dynamics during groups… In the meantime, thoughts welcome on this list. i’m updating the list as ideas come — so far, many thanks to @urmy_shukla and @_alice_evans for some additional ideas (added 19 Sept 2016).


Share your thoughts, please! The more minds, the merrier

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