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Two Cases of Focus Groups

Knodel et al. (1984), for example, used focus groups to study the fertility transition in Thailand. They held separate group sessions for married men under 35 and married women under 30 who wanted three or fewer children. They also held separate sessions for men and women over 50 who had at least five children. This gave them four separate groups. In all cases, the participants had no more than an elementary school education.

Knodel et al. repeated this four-group design in six parts of Thailand to cover the religious and ethnic diversity of the country. The focus of each group discussion was on the number of children people wanted and why.

Thailand was going through fertility transition in the 1980s, and the focus group study illuminated the reasons for the transition. ‘‘Time and again,’’ these researchers report, ‘‘when participants were asked why the younger generation wants smaller families than the older generation had, they responded that nowadays everything is expensive’’ (Knodel et al. 1984:302).

People also said that all children, girls as well as boys, needed education to get the jobs that would pay for the more expensive, monetized lifestyle to which people were then becoming accustomed. It is, certainly, easier to pay for the education of fewer children. These consistent responses are what you’d expect in a society undergoing fertility transition.

Ruth Wilson et al. (1993) used focus groups in their study of acute respiratory illness (ARI) in Swaziland. They interviewed 33 individual mothers, 13 traditional healers, and 17 health care providers. They also ran 33 focus groups: 16 male groups and 17 female groups. The groups had from 4 to 15 participants, with an average of 7.

Each individual respondent and each group was presented with two hypothetical cases. Wilson et al. asked their respondents to diagnose each case and to suggest treatments. Here are the cases:

Case 1. A mother has a 1-year-old baby girl with the following signs: coughing, fever, sore throat, running or blocked nose, and red or teary eyes. When you ask the mother, she tells you that the child can breast-feed well but is not actively playing.

Case 2. A 10-month-old baby was brought to a health center with the following signs: rapid/difficult breathing, chest indrawing, fever for one day, sunken eyes, coughing for three days. The mother tells you that the child does not have diarrhea but has a poor appetite.

Many useful comparisons were possible with the data from this study. For example, mothers attributed the illness in Case 2 mostly to the weather, heredity, or the child’s home environment. The male focus groups diagnosed the child in Case 2 as having asthma, fever, indigestion, malnutrition, or worms.

Wilson et al. (1993) acknowledge that a large number of individual interviews make it easier to estimate the degree of error in a set of interviews. However, they conclude that the focus groups provided valid data on the terminology and practices related to ARI in Swaziland. Wilson and her coworkers did, after all, have 240 respondents in their focus groups; they had data from in-depth interviews of all categories of persons involved in treating children’s ARI; and they had plenty of participant observation in Swaziland to back them up.

Note some very important things about these studies. First, neither of them was based on a single focus group but on a series of focus groups. Second, in both studies, the groups were homogeneous with respect to certain independent variables—gender, number of children desired or produced, ethnicity—just as we saw with respect to experimental and sampling design. Finally, in the study by Knodel et al., the 24 groups were chosen to represent a subgroup in a factorial design—again just as we saw with experiments in chapter 4 and with sampling design in chapter 5. In other words, these focus group studies were designed to provide not only in-depth data about the reasons behind people’s behavior, but data that could be systematically compared across groups.

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