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FOCUS GROUPS

Focus groups are recruited to discuss a particular topic—anything from people’s feelings about brands of beer to their experience in toilet training their children. The method derives from work by Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton in 1941 at Columbia University’s Office of Radio Research. A group of people listened to a recorded radio program that was supposed to raise public morale prior to America’s entry into World War II. The listeners were told to push a red button whenever they heard something that made them react negatively and to push a green button when they heard something that made them react positively. The reactions were recorded automatically by a primitive polygraph-like apparatus. When the program was over, an interviewer talked to the group of listeners to find out why they had felt positively or negatively about each message they’d reacted to (Merton 1987) (box 8.4).

BOX 8.4

NOT ALL GROUP INTERVIEWS ARE FOCUS GROUP INTERVIEWS

Sometimes, you just find yourself in an interview situation with a lot of people. You're interviewing someone and other people just come up and insert themselves into the conversation. This happens spontaneously all the time in longterm fieldwork in small communities, where people all know one another. Rachel Baker (1996a, 1996b), for example, studied homeless boys in Kathmandu. When she interviewed boys in temples or junkyards, others might come by and be welcomed into the conversation-interview situation. If you insist on privacy, you might find yourself with no interview at all. Better to take advantage of the situation and just let the information flow. Just be sure to take notes on who's there, who's dominant, who's just listening, and so on, in any group interview.

The commercial potential of Lazarsfeld and Merton’s pioneering work was immediately clear. The method of real-time recording of people’s reactions, combined with focused interviewing of a group, is today a mainstay in advertising research and product design. MCI, the now defunct long-distance phone company, used focus groups to develop their advertising when they were just starting out. They found that customers didn’t blame AT&T for the high cost of their long-distance phone bills; they blamed themselves for talking too long on long-distance calls. MCI came out with the advertising slogan: ‘‘You’re not talking too much, just spending too much.’’ The rest, as they say, is history (Krueger 1994:33).

 
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