Focus Group Practice

Puchta, Claudia and Jonathan Potter
Sage Publications, London

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Cover of book Based, unusually, on a collaboration between a market researcher and a social psychologist, this book concentrates on rendering explicit the processes and skills involved in moderating focus groups. The central theme is “turning practices into strategies” and each chapter ends with an excellent summary, which provides concise and helpful hints. I especially liked the critical attention paid to the way in which notion of “attitudes” has been formulated in research and the text does a thorough job in unpacking these, neatly emphasizing that attitudes are “performed” rather then being “pre-formed”.

Whilst this is intended primarily as a text for market researchers, the authors argue that many of the issues discussed are also germane to using focus groups across the social sciences. However, the focus of the book is somewhat too narrow to really fulfil this claim. Interaction is here valued for its capacity to illuminate individual perspectives, rather than its potential to generate collaborative group products. Of course, this is unlikely to be a concern for market researchers. However, for those of us who seek to use focus groups in other contexts it would be useful to move beyond a predominantly negative view of the group effect. Focus group researchers could benefit from some advice regarding other ways of capitalizing on interaction as a resource in analysis. Similar reservations relate to the emphasis on eliciting descriptive statements in preference to evaluative comments, and to keeping the talk flowing through the moderator. Puchta and Potter’s dismiss participants’ tendencies to “play the marketing expert” or “social analyst” as unhelpful and potentially disruptive. However, social science researchers may well wish to harness participants’ insights and may, therefore, seek to encourage such talk.

Many focus group texts emphasize the inordinate skills of the moderator whilst remaining tantalizingly vague about the actual conversational gambits, which can be employed to specific effect. This text, in contrast, seeks to unpick these “mundane skills”, acknowledging that what appears effortless can actually be hard work for the moderator. Many useful hints are provided in terms of providing “candidate answers” using “repeat receipts”, encouraging participation through asking people to “chip in”, asking elaborate “projective questions” and “softening conflict” between participants.

Although the authors are clear that this book is intended to be read in conjunction with other texts which deal with the planning of focus groups, the focus on running groups does limit its usefulness. The discussion neglects to consider in detail a range of research issues surrounding the purpose of the research and design choices, which undoubtedly impinge upon moderating possibilities. The context in which market research is carried out is rather different from that involved in social science research. For example, market researchers are frequently involved in a performance behind a one-way mirror, as indicated by Puchta and Potter”s description of the skills required as that of making opinions, beliefs and attitudes visible. Not surprisingly, this is likely to give rise to a product very different in form, content and interpretation.

In this text virtually all the examples are drawn from market research. Thus, some of the recommended approaches and gambits are likely to be less useful for research, which poses different questions, reflects other disciplinary concerns, or is aimed at eliciting the perspectives of specific groups. For example, much social science research involves participants in vulnerable situations, such as children, the elderly, or those with chronic conditions. Not only are focus group participants treated as a homogeneous group; insufficient recognition is accorded the predispositions of individual researchers, and I cannot help but wonder whether the “finger-snapping” and “waving of hands” advocated as moderating tools are something with which the social science researcher would feel equally comfortable.

Illuminating as many of the examples are, however, I did end up questioning the use to which this book is likely to be put. I was reminded of a story told to me as a student about the legendary Garfinkel who, it was alleged, experienced great difficulty in carrying out the everyday task of ordering a loaf of bread, so attuned was he to the nuances of conversational gambits. Ultimately I could not help but conclude that this text, whilst it involves an insightful and skilful conversational analysis of focus group discussions, falls somewhat short of providing a template for training focus group moderators. Although I would heartily recommend that would-be moderators dip into this book, I do fear that over-zealous attention to the techniques outlined might well result in just this sort of crippling self-consciousness. As Puchta and Potter themselves admit, many of the skills involved may be taken for granted by experienced moderators. In summary, I suspect that, although this book may have its place in terms of suggesting approaches to eliciting data, there is no real substitute to learning “on the job”.

Rosaline S. Barbour
University of Dundee