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Developing Focus Group Research: Politics, Theory and Practice

Barbour, Rosaline S; Kitzinger, Jenny (Editor)
Sage Publications: London
0761955682 (pb); 0761955674 (hb)
15.00 (pb); 40.00 (hb)

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The growth of qualitative research has been one of the more extraordinary aspects of sociological investigation over the last 20 years. It has a long but, until recently, narrow history. Its half-sister participant observation has been with us for generations despite its lack of numbers and 'proof', and there are obvious affinities with aspects of anthropology and ethnography. Yet it still seems curious that an approach unequivocally based on the judgement and perceptions of the researcher (this is true for both the data collection and analysis stages of the work) should have become so allied with quantitative research where, at least in theory, objectivity and statistical significance are king. Or possibly queen.

This fascinating book provides more than a dozen detailed explorations of a range of findings, concerns and experiences from the trickier end of the qualitative research spectrum, and should be on the bookshelves of all social researchers, whether their specialisation is qualitative or quantitative. The projects used as examples include studies of children's perception of accident risk, of organisational change in the NHS, of community concerns about safely near Sellafield, and a study of street children in Kathmandu. From within these and other examples the authors examine the problems of respondent selection (for example, are those of most relevance the least likely to take part?); of the nature and ethics of the relationship between researchers and researched (what precisely is informed consent, for example, and how can respondents be protected from undesirable spin-offs, practical or perhaps emotional, from the research?); of the context and models within which research tends to take place; of the practicalities of moderation, and of data analysis (how can we deal with, for example, irony, sarcasm and silence except by working from the tapes or spending a small fortune on highly specialist transcription?). And a great deal more.

It is impossible, of course, to reflect the full range of papers in a review of this length but I was particularly struck, amongst other things, by a discussion of the potential conflict between naturalism and data validity. Complex, interrupted and overlapping responses from informants (a nightmare both to moderate, and to disentangle and understand) can often generate crucial data, whereas a sequential, formal and polite exchange of views is probably not tapping into the underlying beliefs, experiences or concerns which are the holy grail of qualitative research.

In which context, it seemed odd that one of the papers appears to suggest that it is somehow surprising that qualitative research, aside from supplying depth of understanding, can also generate ideas - relevant facts or concepts - which have not previously been recognised. Surely one of qualitative research's strengths is that it is a counterbalance to the tendency of researchers to assume (arrogantly assume?) that the theoretical consideration of a topic will reveal everything that matters, which then only needs to be quantified or further understood? In my experience, the public often have - literally - other ideas.

Having worked in both the commercial and - more recently - academic sectors, I am used to the two sides (at best) ignoring each other. It was nevertheless disappointing to note that there is very little about or from the commercial sector in this book (no familiar names and nothing in the otherwise impressive list of references), and what there is tends to be critical. Surely both sides can learn from the other? Much commercial work, of course, explores public attitudes to products or advertising - neither of them central to the lives of many academics - though there is a growing exploration of public policy with central and local government increasingly required to consult their customers. Either way, commercial research is not as perfunctory as parts of this book tend to suggest, and I suspect that virtually everyone involved in qualitative data collection and analysis would benefit from reading not only this Barbour/Kitzinger book but also - an unashamed product of the commercial sector - Wendy Gordon's book Goodthinking (Admap 1999).

Michael Warren
Visiting Professor, University of Surrey

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