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Focus Groups: The Right Tool for Me? By Beverly Peters

Beverly Peters
Beverly Peters

Greetings! I am Beverly Peters, assistant professor of Measurement and Evaluation at American University. I have over 25 years of experience teaching, researching, and designing, implementing, and evaluating community development and governance projects, mainly in southern Africa. I have spent the bulk of my career using qualitative methods to evaluate projects; and write a blog for American University on Qualitative Research Methods for Monitoring and Evaluation.

In this 6-part series, I will discuss Using Focus Groups for Monitoring and Evaluation. The series will walk the evaluator through the use of focus groups, from deciding if it is the right tool to use for your data collection needs, to conceptualizing, planning, and moderating focus groups. Let’s get started!

I oftentimes find myself in situations where colleagues are keen to incorporate qualitative methods into their evaluations, and usually their data collection tool of choice is the focus group. Why is this the case? The use of focus groups is widespread, known even to those unfamiliar with qualitative methods in general. We recognize the power of the focus group to collect data, from its genesis and continued use in marketing research. Focus groups are relatively less expensive and time consuming than interviews or other qualitative data collection methods, and yet still generate the insider perspectives and understanding needed for evaluations. We all know colleagues that have used focus groups successfully for needs assessment, program design, and monitoring and evaluation. We may even have heard of evaluators using focus groups to shed light on findings from other data collection methods, such as quantitative surveys. But is the focus group really a panacea for accurate, inexpensive, and quick data collection? I think not.

I would argue that focus groups are a powerful qualitative data collection tool, only when the research or evaluation question warrants their use. The purpose of a focus group is to facilitate group dialogue and interaction through moderation. This interaction can produce insights as participants interact with each other. As Sarah Tracy tells us, focus groups allow for a cascading effect of conversation, as comments from participants link into each other. Evaluators see how people articulate their ideas, which can provide insight into the topic under discussion. The group interaction also helps with recall and gives the evaluator rich descriptions of shared experiences. Usually, focus group participants show less inhibition than individuals in interviews, as participants interact with each other.

Remember that focus groups help evaluators to understand how people think or feel about something, including community needs or project performance. When weighing up the use of focus groups, consider both the method and the environment in which you would hold the focus group. Consult your Evaluation SOW. Consider your evaluation questions and research topics. Figure out what data you need, and if it would benefit from group interaction and the cascading of conversation. If you need statistical, sensitive, or individual data from participants, or if people are polarized by a topic, then a focus group is not the best way to collect the data you need. In these cases, surveys or individual interviews will be a better way to collect valid, reliable data for your monitoring and evaluation activities.

Look for Part 2 tomorrow, and Parts 3-6 in the coming months!

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2 thoughts on “Focus Groups: The Right Tool for Me? By Beverly Peters”

  1. I look forward to this series, as I find focus groups to be a very helpful tool for evaluation. I attempt to incorporate focus groups into evaluation process whenever possible.

    I have two observations about this excellent article. First, the article only seems to consider focus groups from the perspective of the learning of the evaluator. Since one key purpose of evaluation is to support the learning agenda of the organization whose work is being evaluated, the best focus groups also endeavor to provide learning opportunities for participants. Taking on this idea of focus groups as learning opportunities for participants always has implications for the selection of participants, as well as for the design and facilitation of groups.

    In addition, I wonder about the suggestion that focus groups are not an appropriate tool for surfacing sensitive information or dealing with questions that may polarize participants. Focus groups on sensitive issues are more risky that other focus groups and demand more from both the planner/facilitator and the participants, but done well they can surface important qualitative information for the evaluation and can result in very important learning for participants. It is particularly important that such focus groups be carried out with the full knowledge and close cooperation of the commissioning organization. at every stage.

    Again, thanks for addressing this important topic.

    1. Thank you for the comments, Kevin!

      My thoughts on your first question are around semantics. I would characterize a focus group around conversation geared toward gathering information for the evaluator or researcher. When the purpose changes to provide learning opportunities for participants, then I would consider this to be more of a participatory learning exercise. I think that we are on the same page here.

      Your second comment is a little more tricky. When a topic is extremely sensitive, I have found that participants (especially those that know each other, or are even remotely familiar with each other) are less likely to be candid about their responses. For example, when I was conducting focus groups on microcredit organizations in southern Africa, women did not want to talk about their income in the group–they were concerned that what they said could get back to their husbands or other extended family members. I could ensure my confidentiality, but I could not guarantee that other women in the focus group would. This was not lost on participants.

      An observant evaluator who is familiar with the local culture will know when the topic is too sensitive for a focus group. If the sensitivity inhibits people from sharing opinions or skews the opinions shared, then the topic may be better suited to individual interviews. Another example would be if harm (including community ostracism) could come to the participants if they voiced their opinions.

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

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