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Focus Groups – From Qualitative Data Generation to Analysis

Course Dates and Times

Monday 29 February to Friday 4 March 2016
Generally classes are either 09:00-12:30 or 14:00-17:30
15 hours over 5 days

Virginie Van Ingelgom

Université catholique de Louvain

Focus groups have become quite fashionable in social science, over the last decade, notably because of the richness of discourse and interactions that they give access to. But the method is more demanding than usually expected. Using focus groups not only requires more resources than other qualitative method; it also implies to make a large series of decisions concerning the different technical aspects involved from design and organisation to analysis. These many decisions suppose to be very clear about one’s research objectives. The course will introduce students to the variety of focus groups’ uses, in terms of epistemology and research topics. Then the complete process of focus group’s organisation will be discussed in details – including classical problems like sampling, designing questions and moderation, but also more “down to earth” questions like setting the room, recording, contacting, selecting and rewarding participants etc. Lastly, an important part of the course will be devoted to the analysis: focus group discussions are more complex to analyse than standard face-to-face interviews. A mix of several methods (interpretation, codification and automatic textual analysis) will be suggested.

Instructor Bio

Virginie Van Ingelgom is a Research Associate Professor F.R.S. – FNRS at the Université Catholique de Louvain and an associate research fellow of the Centre for European Studies, Sciences Po Paris.

She is the author of several articles, on the issue of legitimacy at national and European levels, on the possible emergence of a ‘European community’, and on the methodological issues of using qualitative comparative analysis.

Virginie is also the author of the Jean Blondel PhD Prize-winning Integrating Indifference (ECPR Press, 2014) and she recently co-authored Citizens’ Reactions to European Integration Compared: Overlooking Europe (2013, Palgrave).

In 2016, she was awarded an ERC Starting Grant (2017–2022).

Group interview, collective interview, group discussion, multiple interviews, focus group… all these kinds of interviews tend nowadays to be called focus groups. The idea that interviewing several people at the same time might be more advantageous than interviewing them separately was discovered long time ago, and Merton’s “focused interview” was only one among several suggestions about the reasons and the ways to do so. Merton’s model became successful in the field of applied research and consulting where its technical aspects were refined during the 70s and the 80s. In the 90s, social sciences rediscovered the method which is now generally called “focus group”, but the variety of uses and techniques, apparent in the diverse original denominations, persists.

In order to define more precisely what is meant by this term, one can begin with the three-point definition provided by David L. Morgan, an author who was essential in developing this method for use in social sciences. He defines a focus group as ‘as a research technique that collects data through group interaction on a topic determined by the researcher’ (Morgan 1997: 130). Three elements stand out in this relatively inclusive definition. Firstly the focus group is a research method designed to collect data. It is thus intended for research interests, in other words collecting discursive data destined for analysis, provoked and collected by a researcher on themes that she or he has chosen. Secondly, in the focus group the source of data lies in the interaction within the discussion group; the social relations that characterise them are not reduced to the relationship between the interviewer and interviewee but require the interactions of a collective discussion to be taken into account. Thirdly and finally, the focus group supposes the active intervention of the researcher in the creation of the group discussion in order to collect data.

This definition enables to exclude a series of configurations similar to focus groups such as collective interviews used outside a research context, for example, for marketing or training purposes. It also enables to distinguish this method from other procedures that included multiple participants but which do not allow the emergence of interactive discussions between them, such as group experiments aimed to record actions rather than discourse. This definition also excludes direct observation of naturally occurring discussions which cannot be described as interviews to the extent that the researcher does not intervene in the creation of data. Collective interviews therefore cannot be assimilated to ordinary conversation, such as might occur in everyday life. Finally, the focus group thus differs on these different points from the citizen conferences initiated by political actors as a way of including citizens in the political decision making process and reinforcing deliberation and public.

What chiefly characterises focus group is the richness of the data: discourse in this case has to be considered as action and cannot be reduced to the expression of pre-existing opinions. But this richness is costly, in comparison with what can be achieved with more standard research method. Collecting the data supposes a complex and expensive organisation, which is quite difficult to assume for young researchers working on their own project. More importantly, analysing focus group data is far more difficult than face-to-face interviews, at least for research purposes, and takes a lot of time. This tends to be forgotten because of the current fashion for focus groups. Thus it seems quite important for doctoral students and young researchers to get a clear idea of the consequences of this methodology before going for it; this is the first purpose of this course. However, part of the fascination for focus groups comes from the fact that the method embodies most of the challenges and specificities of qualitative research. In reviewing all the difficulties of focus group research, the course will come across most questions faced by qualitative researchers, both epistemologically and technically.

The course topics will be organised in a classical way. First the history of focus group research and its developments will be present in order to identify the domains and research questions where it is the more useful (day 1). Then the design of the groups including sampling, questioning and moderating, as well as issues related to their practical organisation will be detailed and a real focus group will be organized by students (days 2 and 3). Last but not least, a strong emphasis will be put on analysis, from principles to techniques and tools (day 4). Indeed, an important part of the course will be devoted to the analysis: focus group discussions are more complex to analyse than standard face-to-face interviews. A mix of several methods (interpretation, systematic comparison, codification and automatic textual analysis) will be suggested. Finally, special attention will be given to the students’ research projects (day 5). The course also aims to help them decide if the method is appropriate to their own project and to make a first design of an affordable focus group series that would meet their research objectives.

Practically, lecture will take place in the afternoon, and in the morning, students will go through various exercises, using focus group recordings and transcripts as well as numerous examples taken from the literature. Results of the personal and group exercises will be discussed the following afternoon.

Basic knowledge of qualitative research and previous practice of face-to-face interview will be an asset.

Day Topic Details
1 History, developments and principles of focus group research
  • Lecture: the major steps in the history of focus group research. What are focus groups, what they are not? What are they appropriate for, and not. 
  • Assignment: students will work in group and read a book using focus groups in different ways. Each group of students will prepare a short presentation of one of these books (focusing on methodological aspects).
2 Diversity of focus group uses in current social sciences
  • Lecture: discussion on the variety of examples reviewed by the students the day before. Designing a focus group series
  • Assignment: students will watch a focus group recording and analyse the mode the moderation and start the recruitment process for one focus group realized with actual WS’ participants.
3 How to design and moderate focus groups?
  • Lecture: discussion about different kinds of moderation techniques. Designing questions and group moderation. Focus groups in a mixed-method perspective
  • Assignment: Students will prepare a research design of their own using focus group.
4 How to analyse focus groups?
  • Lecture: Principles and steps of focus groups analysis. Realization of a focus group with WS’ participants.
  • Assignment: Students will analyse the transcript of the focus group they have previously watch (see day 2), using the techniques suggested in the morning (work in groups) or will begin to analyse the focus group realize in class.
5 Analysis: using tools Personal feedbacks on research project
  • Lecture: Students’ presentation of analyses prepared the afternoon before. Presentation of two software packages that may be used for focus groups analysis: a Caqdas software package (Atlas.ti/RQDA) and an automatic content analysis one (Alceste/Iramutec).
  • General debriefing of the research designs prepared on day 3.
  • Debriefing of the course.
  • Individual feedback on students’ focus groups research design.
Day Readings
1 On day 1, students will read and comment on one of the following books: - William Gamson, Talking Politics, Cambridge University Press, 1992 - Michael Billig, Talking of the Royal Family, Routledge, 1998 (2nd ed.) - Katherine Cramer Walsh, Talking about Politics, The University of Chicago Press, 2004 - Sophie Duchesne, Elizabeth Frazer, Florence Haegel and Virginie Van Ingelgom, , Citizens' Reactions to European Integration Compared. Overlooking Europe.Palgrave MacMillan, 2013. One copy of each will be available. Students are strongly advice to choose one book before the Summer school, get access to it and read it before the course begins. + Robert K. Merton & Patricia L. Kendall, “The Focused Interview” in The American journal of Sociology, vol.51, n°6 (May), 541-557.
2 David L. Morgan, “Focus Groups” in Annual Review of Sociology, 1996, Vol. 22, 129-152
3 Sophie Duchesne, Elizabeth Frazer, Florence Haegel, Virginie Van Ingelgom, Guillaume Garcia & Andre-Paul Frognier (2013). Reflections on Design and Implementation. In Duchesne, & S., Frazer, E., Haegel, F. & Van Ingelgom, V., Citizens' Reactions to European Integration Compared. Overlooking Europe (p. p. 174-195). Palgrave MacMillan.
4 Jenny Kitzinger & Clare Farquhar, « The Analytical Potential of “Sensitive Moments” in Focus Group Discussions », in Rosaline Barbour & Jenny Kitzinger (Eds.), Developing Focus Group Research. Politics, Theory and Pratice, London: Sage, 1999, pp. 156-172. Greg Meyers, “Displaying Opinions: Topics and Disagreement in Focus Groups”, Language and Society, vol.27/1, 85-111.
5 Udo Kelle, "„Emergence‟ vs. „Forcing‟ of Empirical Data? A Crucial Problem of „Grounded Theory‟ Reconsidered”, in Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Volume 6, No. 2, Art. 27, May 2005

Software Requirements

No software will be used by the students but Atlas.ti (RQDA open-source) and Alceste (Iramutec, open-source) will be presented as examples of tools for analysis. RQDA – To be added to the packages.

Hardware Requirements



Barbour RS, Kitzinger J, eds. Developing Focus Group Research: Politics, Theory and Practice. London: Sage 1999.

Barbour RS, Doing Focus Groups. Sage (Qualitative Research kit), 2008.

Bloor M, Frankland J, Thomas M, Robson K. Focus Groups in Social Research. London: Sage 2001.

Conover, P. J., Searing, D. D., and Crewe, I. M. (2002) 'The Deliberative Potential of Political Discussion ', British Journal of Political Science, 32: 21-62.

Creswell, J. W. (2003) Research Design Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches, London: Sage.

Elman, C., Kapiszewski, D., and Vinuela, L. (2010) 'Qualitative Data Archiving: Rewards and Challenges', PS: Political Science & Politics, 42: 23-27.

Krueger R.A., Casey, M.A., Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research, Sage, 2014.

Liamputtong, P., Focus Group Methodology: Principle and Practice, Sage, 2011.

Morgan D.L., Focus Groups as Qualitative Research. London: Sage 1988.

Morgan D.L., ed. Successful Focus Groups: Advancing the State of the Art. Newbury Park, CA: Sage 1993

Morgan D.L., Krueger R.A. Focus Group Kit, Vols 1–6. London: Sage 1997.

Stewart, D.W., Shamdasani ; P. N., Focus Groups: Theory and Practice (Applied Social Research Methods), Sage, 2014.

Wilkinson, S. Using focus groups. In D. Silverman (Ed.) Qualitative Research: Theory, Method and Practice. 2nd edition (2004). Sage. (177-199)

Recommended Courses to Cover Before this One

Summer School:

  • Research Design Fundamentals - Samo Kropivnik

Winter School:

  • Research Design Fundamentals - Samo Kropivnik
  • Introduction to Qualitative Interpretive Methods – Marie Østergaard Møller

Recommended Courses to Cover After this One

Summer School:

  • Introduction to Nvivo for Qualitative Data Analysis – Marie-Hélène Paré
  • Qualitative Data Analysis: Concepts and Approaches - Marie-Hélène Paré

Winter School:

  • Introduction to Qualitative Data Analysis with Atlas.ti – Johannes Starkbaum
  • Introduction to Nvivo for Qualitative Data Analysis – Marie-Hélène Paré
  • Introduction to Qualitative Interpretive Methods - Marie Østergaard Møller
  • Quantative text analysis - Heike Klüver
  • Writing ethnographic and other qualitative-interpretive research: Learning inductively