Communication Focus Groups
by
Kim Hoffman, Javier Ponce-Terashima
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0179

Introduction

Focus groups are a research method using multi-person interviews to generate qualitative data from participants’ interaction. The purpose is to induce conversation between participants to answer questions relevant to the study goals. In contrast to one-on-one interviews that are also widely used in qualitative research, the source of the data is in the “interaction” between participants, including similarities and differences between their experiences, opinions, and perceptions. This helps researchers understand not just what the participants think about a topic, but also why they think that way. Focus groups can cover a wide range of topics that are skillfully “moderated” by the researcher. The earliest known focus groups can be traced to Bogardus in 1926 and Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld in 1941 but did not take hold as a qualitative method in the social sciences for another twenty-five years. Since then, a significant body of knowledge has been created; since the late 20th century, more than twenty-five thousand peer-reviewed, published articles using focus groups have been published. This article will focus on uses within the realm of published scholarly research although focus groups are routinely used within the field of market and consumer research, and additional gray literature may be found in other sources.

Core Texts

The works cited in this section include texts oriented to both academics as well as those in applied business settings. Several seminal books are available for the study of focus groups. Although previous work exists, in 1988 the first editions of what would become two of the most popular textbooks about focus groups were published: Krueger and Casey 2014 and Morgan 1996 (the latter cited under Focus Group Composition, Analysis, and Use). These texts explained the logistics of carrying out focus groups in scholarly settings and are especially helpful for focus group design. Other texts are better suited for researchers, while others are targeted to professionals in the business field. Langford and McDonagh 2003 is geared toward a business audience, but the authors offer creative applications that can be made to more academic audiences such as social scientists. It also has a helpful section on conducting focus groups and excellent case studies of actual application in various disciplines. Other texts such as Bader and Rossi 2002 focus on conducting focus groups in specific environments and groups such as employees. David Morgan has been tremendously prolific in pushing the field forward, as exemplified in Morgan 1993, Morgan 1997, and Morgan and Krueger 1998, providing not only pragmatic tools in these texts but also academic rigor. Barbour and Kitzinger 1999 is also a well-known work and especially helpful to those who are working on focus group design. Lastly, Bloor, et al. 2001; Fern 2001; and Greenbaum 1998 are all important contributions for researchers new to the field of fields groups, given their emphasis on introducing the reader to core concepts.

  • Bader, Gloria, and Catherine Rossi. 2002. Focus groups: A step-by-step guide. San Diego, CA: Bader Group.

    E-mail Citation »

    A practical and useful guide that focuses on the details that researchers must attend to while implementing focus groups. Very helpful tools such as sample agendas and checklists are provided.

  • Barbour, Rose, and Jenny Kitzinger. 1999. Developing focus group research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781849208857E-mail Citation »

    This edited collection from Britain is notable for its chapters on both participatory, action-oriented approaches to focus groups and discourse-oriented approaches to analysis.

  • Bloor, Michael, Jane Frankland, Michelle Thomas, and Kate Robson. 2001. Focus groups in social research. London: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781849209175E-mail Citation »

    An introductory book from a group of British researchers with an emphasis on health issues. Includes a nice section on conducting “virtual” focus groups, a burgeoning focus group method.

  • Fern, Edward. 2001. Advanced focus group research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781412990028E-mail Citation »

    Despite the title, most of the material in this book is relatively basic. It is most useful for its distinction between Exploratory, Experiential, and Clinical Tasks. The overall orientation is to social psychological theory rather than practical application.

  • Greenbaum, Thomas. 1998. The handbook for focus group research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781412986151E-mail Citation »

    One of the core introductory books from an authority on focus groups in the field of marketing research. Most suited for readers actively working in advertising or other applied settings.

  • Krueger, Richard, and Mary Anne Casey. 2014. Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    Now in its fifth edition, this is a popular text on how to conduct focus groups from the initial planning to the analysis and reporting. It provides a useful introduction to community-oriented focus groups, that is, where the research team is usually working for a nonprofit or government agency, and where the product is typically a final report rather than a published article.

  • Langford, Joe, and Deana McDonagh. 2003. Focus groups: Supporting effective product development. London: Taylor & Francis.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203302743E-mail Citation »

    This is an introductory text that is aimed at those involved in industrial design, product design, human computer interaction, workplace design, systems analysis, and more, to generate new designs and support decision making.

  • Morgan, David L. 1993. Successful focus groups: Advancing the state of the art. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781483349008E-mail Citation »

    Morgan’s edited collection provided some of the first published work on focus groups that went beyond the introductory level. It is notable for several chapters that cover the link between focus groups and survey research.

  • Morgan, David L. 1997. Focus groups as qualitative research. 2d ed. SAGE Qualitative Methods Series 16. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781412984287E-mail Citation »

    The volume in the SAGE “little blue books” series provides an introduction to focus groups within the context of academic approaches to qualitative research. It is directed at graduate students or other researchers who are relatively new to field of qualitative research. The author provides guidance on critical design decisions.

  • Morgan, David L., and Richard A. Krueger. 1998. Focus group kit. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    This collection of relatively brief volumes adds up to a reference source that provides relatively detailed discussions on each of the major elements in focus group research. Note, however, that much of this material is more oriented toward community-based rather than academically oriented focus groups, and this is especially true of the volume on analysis.

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