Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Catterall, M. and Maclaran, P. (1997) 'Focus Group Data and Qualitative Analysis Programs: Coding the Moving Picture as Well as the Snapshots'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 1, <>

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Received: 18/11/96      Accepted: 18/3/97      Published: 31/3/97


Most qualitative data analysis programs include a code and retrieve function. We argue that on-screen coding and the retrieval of coded segments, or snapshots, can result in researchers missing important process elements in focus group data, the moving picture. We review the literature on the analysis of focus group data and conclude that the focus group is not simply a data gathering technique where data collected are analyzed for their specific content such as all text relating to a particular theme. Important and potentially insightful communication and learning processes occur in focus groups as a result of participant interaction. These processes in the data can only be identified by several readings of the whole transcript and tracing an individual's text in the context of other participants' text; this is difficult to effect on-screen. Thus, we recommend that transcripts are coded on-screen for content and off-screen for process.

Code and Retrieve; Computer Software; Focus Groups; Group Interaction; Qualitative Research


Focused interviews with individuals and groups were developed in the 1940s by Merton and his colleagues (Merton et al, 1956). In the focus group, group interaction is employed to generate data and as a source of data for analysis (Goldman and McDonald, 1987; Gordon and Langmaid, 1988; Morgan, 1988; Stewart and Shamdasani, 1990; Templeton, 1994). Group forces or dynamics become an integral part of the procedure with participants engaged in discussion with each other rather than directing their comments solely to the moderator.

It is assumed that group interaction will be productive in widening the range of responses, activating forgotten details of experience, and releasing inhibitions that may otherwise discourage participants from disclosing information (Merton et. al., 1956).

Hess (1968) described the benefits from participant interaction as synergism, snowballing, stimulation, security, and spontaneity. Asbury (1995) is one of many researchers to argue that focus groups produce data rich in detail that are difficult to achieve with other research methods. However Fern (1984) and Bristol and Fern (1996) suggest that there is little empirical evidence to support the view that focus groups are superior to other methods in this respect. Additionally the same group processes that are considered to promote participant security and disclosure can also have less positive effects (Merton et. al., 1956; Albrecht et. al., 1993).

Focus groups have been employed by market researchers since the 1950s (Goldman and McDonald, 1987), and during the 1980s there was a resurgence of interest in focus groups from social scientists (Morgan, 1993). The expanding literature on focus groups in market research, medical sociology, nursing, and health sciences proves somewhat problematic for a number of reasons.

Firstly it is difficult to distinguish clearly between focus groups and other group interviews, although Frey and Fontana (1993) have attempted to do so. The distinguishing features of the focus group are generally agreed, namely that the discussion is focused on a particular topic and that group dynamics assist in data generation. One of the most consistent findings from the small group research literature is that all groups, no matter how temporary, will be subject to group processes. By this definition, all groups convened to generate data on a particular topic for research purposes are focus groups, even those that are formed for the convenience of interviewing eight people concurrently rather than serially. Additionally, much of the European market research literature employs the term group discussion, qualitative research, and a number of 'branded' equivalents such as sensitivity panels (Schlackman, 1984) and extended creativity groups (Cooper, 1989) rather than focus group. Indeed some market researchers refer to focus groups in disparaging terms (Sampson, 1985). However the group is named, group dynamics are considered an important part of the data generation process.

Secondly, Calder (1977) drew attention in the marketing literature to different types of focus group distinguishing between exploratory, clinical and phenomenological groups on the basis of research purpose and the underlying research approach or philosophy involved. There have been many subsequent attempts by practising market researchers to classify groups on the basis of philosophy, research purpose, cross-national and cultural differences, differences in practices employed to generate the data, methods of analyzing the data, and various combinations of these criteria (Cooper and Branthwaite, 1977; Mendes de Almeida, 1980; Fleury, 1985; Chandler and Owen, 1989; Cooper, 1989; Schlackman, 1989; Sykes and Brandon, 1990; Valentine and Evans, 1993; Valentine, 1995). This variety impacts on importance of analysis in the research process (Robson and Hedges, 1993), and the approach to data analysis and interpretation (Chandler and Owen, 1989).

Analysis of Focus Group Data and the use of Computers

There is relatively little discussion in the market research and the social science literature on the analysis of focus group data. The benefits of focus groups and how to run focus groups are the predominant themes in the literature. Researchers in both domains have commented on the lack of attention to analysis in the literature (May, 1978 ;Griggs, 1987; Knodel, 1993), and in market research practice (Chandler and Owen, 1989; Robson and Hedges, 1993; Valentine and Evans, 1993). Nevertheless the limited literature on analysis reveals a basic difference in the approaches adopted by market researchers and social scientists.

Generally, market researchers adopt an holistic and interpretative approach to the data and this is accompanied by a dismissive and rather negative attitude to the employment of coding, numbers, counting, and computers to assist with analysis (see Griggs, 1987 for an exception). Gordon and Langmaid (1988) identify two approaches to the analysis of focus group data in market research. The large-sheet-of-paper approach is the equivalent of manual cut and paste and involves breaking the transcripts down into text segments and allocating these under themes and headings identified deductively and/or inductively. This approach is clearly considered as inferior to the annotating-the-scripts approach which involves reading the transcripts (and/or listening to the audio tapes) and writing interpretive thoughts about the data in the margins. The benefits of this approach are that each transcript is considered as a whole rather than as a set of discrete responses and that it allows the analyst to re- experience the group, body language and tone of the discussion.

Robson and Hedges (1993) identified that whilst market researchers distinguish between analysis and interpretation (data handling and thinking, p. 32), there is a marked reluctance to perform any 'mechanical' tasks with the data; this includes too much or any attention to coding. Robson and Foster (1989) consider that an overemphasis on coding could lead to the data being treated as if they were quantitative. Market researchers may be conflating cutting and pasting exercises and coding with equivalent processes in the analysis of open-ended questionnaire responses. It may be the case also that market researchers and their clients are conflating the use of computers with content analysis and quantitative analysis programs since both parties suggest that computers have no place in qualitative research (Gordon and Langmaid, 1988; Robson and Hedges, 1993) There are few published accounts on the use of computers in qualitative data analysis (see Moore et al, 1995 for an exception).

Morgan (1988) suggests that qualitative market researchers are so keen to position themselves from their quantitative counterparts in the eyes of their clients that they deliberately eschew anything to do with numbers and counting. The explanation is probably less instrumental than Morgan implies. Qualitative market researchers, particularly those who publish on the subject, distance themselves from what they consider to be 'poor' qualitative research involving what is variously termed cognitive (Sampson, 1985; Robson and Foster, 1989), journalistic (Schlackman, 1989) and discursive (Chandler and Owen, 1989) approaches to analysis where data from groups are taken largely at face value and responses may be counted. By comparison, 'good' qualitative research involves a therapeutic or clinical interpretation (Sampson, 1985; Cooper, 1989; Schlackman, 1989) or the cracking of cultural codes (Chandler and Owen, 1989; Valentine and Evans, 1993).

Social scientists who employ focus groups have a much more positive attitude to coding, cutting and pasting data, counting words or text segments, and using computers to assist with analysis. Agar and McDonald (1995) commented that the principal issue of interest in the focus group literature was the quantification of focus group data though this seems a rather unfair assessment. Cutting and pasting of text segments and content analysis, both qualitative and quantitative, are advocated by Morgan (1995) and Stewart and Shamdasani (1990) respectively. The employment of computer software is discussed by Stewart and Shamdasani (1990) and Morgan (1993), and Knodel (1993) describes a coding and retrieval approach employing The Ethnograph.

In spite of its salience in market research and increasing use in social science research, there is very little empirical research on the focus group technique (McDaniel, 1979; McQuarrie and McIntyre, 1987). Much of what we know about focus groups dynamics and ideal composition of focus groups draws implicitly or explicitly from small group research in psychology, including the work of Merton et al (1956). What Frey (1994) considers to be the main disadvantage of small group research is what makes it so useful to focus group researchers. Frey argues that the methodology employed by small group researchers has tended to involve zero- history groups formed for a short term purpose in a laboratory environment as opposed to existing groups studied longitudinally in their natural environment. In the brief discussion that follows we explain how the research on small group dynamics can inform the analysis of focus group data.

Group Dynamics and Data Analysis

An understanding of group dynamics is important for focus group researchers in two respects. Firstly, it can help the researchers identify the conditions that promote interaction and open discussion of participants views and experiences within groups. Secondly, it can assist the researcher in the analysis of the data through an understanding of what was happening in the group as well as why it might have been happening.

Bales (1953) identified that a group goes through a sequence of stages simply as a result of its existence as a group. Market researchers refer to focus groups in the stages of forming, storming, norming, performing and mourning (Gordon and Langmaid, 1988; Robson and Foster, 1989). An understanding of these stages can help the moderator move participants through the initial difficult stages of the discussion. Additionally, the small group literature has and continues to inform focus group researchers about the conditions for enhancing interaction between participants including the composition of groups, the role of the moderator in the group, and environmental factors (Miranda, 1994).

Researchers in market research and social sciences have long recognized that group dynamics are something of a double edged sword in focus groups - both the single most important asset in promoting discussion amongst participants and the single greatest threat to open discussion of issues by all participants (Merton et al, 1956; Robson and Foster, 1989). However, when it comes to the analysis of focus group data the same researchers tend to view what is termed 'the group effect' solely in negative terms, as a threat to the authenticity of individual participants views and experiences. Researchers comment on how difficult (impossible) it is to extract the views of individuals from those of the group, the groupthink phenomenon (Janis, 1982), and the contamination of the individual's true response (Carey and Smith, 1990; Crabtree et. al., 1993; Asbury, 1995; Carey, 1995; Morgan, 1995). In other words there is a sense in which focus group researchers desire the benefits of group interaction in encouraging information disclosure and convenience (eight interviews for the price of one) yet regret that group may contaminate the views of individual members. The exception would be where group dynamics are employed specifically for intervention purposes (Basch, 1987; Crabtree et al, 1993).

By comparison a small number of focus group researchers in market and social science research recognize that the group effect is a considerable resource in data analysis. Kitzinger (1994) having reviewed focus group research reports concluded that, 'it is hard to believe that there was ever more than one person in the room at the same time'. Schindler (1993), in his review of the research that preceded Coca Cola's doomed launch of new coke in the mid-1980s, revealed that the social influence effects that occurred in the focus group research were predictive of what actually occurred in the larger marketplace after the new product launch. The group results were mistrusted in favour of individual interview responses. Both Schindler and Kitzinger argue that whilst focus groups can provide insight into the experiences of individual participants, the real value of group data is to be found from analyzing the interaction between participants.

This point is reinforced by Albrecht, Johnson and Walther (1993) who argue that too often the communication that occurs in focus groups is ignored in the data analysis. They argue (p. 54) that opinions are, 'generally determined not by individual information gathering and deliberation but through communication with others'. Thus the interaction between participants in focus groups and the interplay and modification of opinion that occurs may in fact provide data that is, 'more ecologically valid than methods that assess individuals' opinions in relatively asocial settings' (p. 54).

The focus group is not a natural social setting even when groups of friends or colleagues are convened in a 'natural' setting such as one of the participant's homes or a workplace cafeteria. Nor is the discussion in a focus group a 'natural' conversation since few 'natural' conversations focus on a single topic for such a sustained period of time under the direction, active or passive, of a moderator. However the focus group is a social event and is generally one that participants enjoy regardless of whether the discussion topic is low involvement such as the shapes of soft drinks bottles or high involvement such as breast cancer. Its primary benefits are that it provides valuable information on how people talk about a topic and how they respond in a situation where they are exposed to the views and experiences of others (Schindler, 1992; Albrecht et al, 1993).

Implications for Focus Group Data Analysis by Computer

Since the 1980s qualitative researchers have been using computer programs to assist in the analysis of their data. Early programs, such as The Ethnograph (Seidal and Clark, 1984), provided assistance with the clerical tasks associated with analysis including, for example, retrieval of all data with the same code. Certainly, one of the chief benefits of computer programs is recognised by Bryman and Burgess (1994) as their ability to alleviate the arduous cutting, pasting and subsequent retrieval of field notes or interview transcripts. In addition, to providing clerical assistance, however, there are now a wide variety of programs such as HyperRESEARCH (Hesse- Biber et al, 1991), NUD*IST (Richards and Richards, 1991), AQUAD (Huber and Garcia, 1991) and ATLAS/ti (Muhr, 1991) which can be employed to help researchers in theory development and testing. This is done largely by means of testing in the data the hypothesized links between categories or concepts (Dey, 1993; Gerson, 1989). Some of the more advanced software packages make it possible to graphically display these links between codes (Kelle, 1995).

Of course programs cannot replace the analyst's core role which is to understand the meaning of the text, a role which cannot be computerized because it is not a mechanical one (Kelle, 1995). Programs can only be expected to support the analyst's own intellectual processes and particular programs will be more appropriate for different types of qualitative research as has been illustrated by Burgess (1996) in his recent collection of user reports across a range of projects.

As regards focus group data analysis even those researchers who are most enthusiastic about the use of computer programs to assist in qualitative data analysis have recognized that process elements in the data can be lost in the coding and retrieval functions that are a key feature of program architecture (Agar, 1991; Weitzman and Miles, 1995; Catterall and Maclaran, 1996). Indeed, Coffey et al (1996) suggest that the general model of data marking and retrieval in CAQDAS is responsible for the increasing trend towards homogeneity in ethnographic research. It is true, as Kelle (1995) and Lee and Fielding (1996) point out, that the early code and retrieve facilities have been supplemented by a whole variety of additional features such as memoing, features for defining linkages between codes and hypertext systems. These do not, however, facilitate an accurate documenting of processes taking into account both temporal sequencing and group interaction. The problem is likely to be exacerbated where the analyst engages in one step on-screen coding and is presented only with such data as the screen can display at any moment in time. It should be noted that the loss of process dimensions is not confined to analysis employing computers, it is just as likely to occur in manual cut and paste operations (Richards and Richards, 1994).

This results in a snapshot approach to data analysis where what is analyzed are individual photographs (segments of text) brought together as an album (report). By comparison the annotating-the-scripts approach is more likely to capture the whole moving picture of the unfolding script or story that is the focus group discussion.

Cut and paste approaches, manual or computer, can fail to capture or even recognize the following events in the unfolding story of the focus group:

An analysis of the interaction in focus groups can reveal:

The primary purpose of coding is to organize the data in a way that assists further analysis and interpretation. Most programs have been designed in a manner that encourage the analyst to fracture the data and it is difficult to identify how an analysis of the interaction in focus groups can be undertaken when one step on-screen coding is employed. In other words, the analyst will need to work with the complete transcript as an off-screen document in order to identify the events described above. One approach we use is to trace issues and/or participants through each transcript from beginning to end with the assistance of highlighter pens. For example, we might be trying to identify the arguments relating to a particular issue that stimulate others to rethink their position and those arguments that may be discounted or challenged. The arguments can then be coded or labelled on a range of dimensions including, say, strength of response provoked, type and range of emotions evoked and so on. There is probably some benefit we could gain from transferring these codes or labels from paper to screen. However if there is a benefit, we have yet to discover it (them).

Let us illustrate what we mean with a working example from a study in which we were recently involved. A series of focus groups were conducted to examine gender issues within the context of the role carried out by female marketing managers. Management is an area where women have often had to adopt 'malestream' behaviour patterns to succeed (Wilson, 1995). Consequently many women managers do not acknowledge gender to be a problem, nor perceive the irony implicit in the assumption that their adoption of male behaviour patterns makes gender issues irrelevant. We deliberately chose focus groups rather than individual interviews on the basis that the interaction of participants would provide a revealing source of data in respect of their adoption or rejection of male behaviour patterns. The following quotes are exerts from a focus group transcript which trace the changing opinions of one respondent (initials TM) in response to the group interaction. Initial memos which we attached to these demonstrate the context in which the quotes were made.

MEMO: (In response to a general discussion on gender issues she is fairly dismissive as regards its relevance to her organisation)

TM1: "I don't find it [gender] a problem. There are so many women my organization at a managerial level that all the men are used to us"

MEMO: (As the group proceeds and participants discuss friendships and confidants at work she acknowledges the following:-)

TM2: "I wouldn't confide in male colleagues because I don't want them to think that we're weaker. I wouldn't want them to feel that they have somehow got somebody second best because I'm a woman. I wouldn't want to give them any excuse wrong. So I would confide in a female."

MEMO: (Someone then asks whether male colleagues would confide in her and she replies 'no' but adds:-)

TM3: "I think if they did confide in you it would be a sort of vindication of your professionalism that you had arrived, that you were at that stage where you were worthy of being confided in."

MEMO: (Sometime later she comments as regards her home life and family responsibilities)

TM4: "I have a baby and when I leave him off and he's bawling and screaming I feel, oh, this is awful. I get into the car and shut the door. I make myself totally switch off. Then I find I haven't thought of him at all for quite a considerable time and that makes me feel awful too but I know I can't do everything."

MEMO: (There is increasing rapport between respondents as all discuss aspects of balancing family/work. TM more than the others believes that it is not appropriate to discuss home issues at work)

TM5: "I work with a girl and she's always buying time to work and she's always talking about things, which I mean, I don't mind, it's just conversation. But if you have male colleagues, mind you, you wouldn't discuss those things really."

MEMO: (Participants then discuss the reverse - bringing work back home which is a situation which applies to several)

TM6: "That's interesting. I definitely take work back home with me. I thought it was just me, I thought I'm just that particular personality - I'm conscientious and I try very hard to do my best. But it's obviously not a personal thing. Yes, maybe it's a female thing."

MEMO: (Finally we ask participants to think of anything they want to add)

TM7: "I've been thinking again about our organization and I've just realized that when any new male employee begins he immediately gets asked to join the football team and this goes across all levels and hierarchies. There is no similar thing for the females and so I suppose this must give them [male employees] an advantage. After all, they become 'all boys together', even with our directors and top managers. So they feel more relaxed with them than we do, I think"

The above illustration of off-screen coding, together with our memos, shows how the contributions from respondent TM became more reflexive in their nature as the focus group continued. Temporal sequencing in this instance was very important to record TM's changing opinions within the overall context of the group discussions. What is initially a dismissive attitude to gender issues in management changes subtly to one of increasing awareness and finally to an acknowledgement that certain issues may even impinge on the management role in her own organisation. Changing attitudes such as these were documented for several respondents and proved to be key findings from the research. The group interaction was, in this instance, a particularly important factor as during discussions the female participants began to bond and relax their 'professional' facade, exchanging stories of their experiences. After these interactive aspects had been annotated and coded for all respondents we were then able to continue our analysis on- screen using code and retrieve facilities to document themes such as responses to organizational cultures, experiences with customers and networking behaviour etc.

In summary, then, when we work with focus group data, two separate codings, analyses and interpretation activities take place. We work on-screen when we are dealing with transcript content, for example, in what ways can participants' experiences with a particular topic be categorized. We work off-screen when we are dealing with the interaction aspects of focus groups.


The employment of focus groups as a research technique is increasing in marketing and in the social sciences. Our review of the literature on focus groups revealed that whilst there is a large body of literature relating to focus groups, we know very little about how focus group data is analyzed and interpreted. We argued that the interaction between participants is a key data resource for analysis and interpretation. However, it is not clear that focus group researchers agree on this, and it appears that some focus group researchers consider this data resource as a nuisance.

For those focus group researchers who are interested in interaction and communication in focus groups, the current crop of computer programs appear to offer little benefit and may be even detrimental to the analysis and interpretation process. However since packages increasingly support the procedures, routines and features described by users (Lee and Fielding, 1995) we look forward to the development of a program which will facilitate these process aspects of focus group research in the very near future.


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