Advanced Focus Group Research
Edward F. Fern
Sage Publications: London
x + 254
The history of the Focus group is a rather convoluted tale. The unexpected offspring of research carried out to investigate the impact of propaganda films on groups of US civilians during World War II, the method was first formulated by the young Robert Merton, a junior member of the team led by the legendary research methodologist Paul Lazarsfeldt (in The Focus Group, 1950). The idea of having subjects forming their ideas in the context of groups, rather than as isolated individuals suited this topic, and seemed a very distinctive way of gathering 'qualitative' data.
Few sociologists showed much interest in the method for almost a quarter of a century following the publication of Merton's monograph, however, and by the late 1970s, the focus group was in the sole possession of market researchers looking to make 'qualitative' methods more scientific. As Fern points out, since the early eighties, the method has been seen once again grazing in its ancestral homelands, the scrubby bottoms abutting 'pure' social science, in the green (funding) pastures of policy and evaluation related research. Although the author makes much of this burgeoning ubiquity, this book, like most publications on this method, is almost entirely derived from marketing research, and displays, in equal measure, the virtues and vices of that enterprise.
The primary virtue is an eclecticism making it unashamed to borrow from diverse traditions, and to look at the business of data gathering with the innocent eyes of disciplinary outsiders. Although this text is firmly rooted in marketing research concerns, it brings together in a quite refreshing way concepts and research findings from a variety of disciplines. In somewhat the same manner that current advertising recycles old pop songs, this text revisits the old Parsonian dream of a unified social science, and while there is a certain nostalgic frisson in the sight of concepts and ideas from a range of disciplinary backgrounds being thrust together, rather like a collage of unlikely objects, or social analysis by Andre Breton, it is also clear that these tunes were not written for this era.
This, then, is also the main vice. Forming a methodological framework aiming at scientific strengthóso long the ambition of market researchersóbreezily draws together what seem, on the most charitable reading, wholly unsuitable and inappropriate concepts and frameworks. Should they consult this volumeóan unlikely event, given the unintentional but clear 'keep-out' signs posted in the early declarations of the aims and objectives of the bookóit takes little imagination to predict the outrage of anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists at the violation of concepts and methodological principles they have fussed and fought over for the past century.
This is a great pity. There is a good book to be written on the actual value of focus groups for the social sciences, and part of it needs to take in the projects of market researchers. They have certainly added valuable insights to the development of this method, and from this other social researchers can indeed benefit, learning from mistakes as well as adopting some useful practices. Most market research hails from a world utterly alien to academic social scientists, however, bounded by constraints and values hitherto antithetical to the practices of academic social researchers. One of the reasons that focus groups have begun to be more widely used is that they do offer a way of gathering data which can be understood by the increasing numbers of social research funders coming from non-traditional academic sources, particularly those interested in evaluating policy initiatives. Whether they like it or not, academic social scientists find themselves having to court the same clients that marketing researchers have always faced, and have to take more seriously than ever before their main requirements- speed, value for money and operational relevance. The great temptation- and consequent weakness- is to miss out the necessary connection between this kind of method and the other, more traditional forms of gathering and validating hypotheses. It will be a great pity if the potential value of the focus group, well understood by Merton and Lazarsfeld, was to be missed in this current dash for cash.
Dr Leslie Gofton
University of Newcastle