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The group moderator gets people talking about whatever issue is under discussion. Leading a focus group requires the combined skills of an ethnographer, a survey researcher, and a therapist. You have to watch out for people who want to show off and close them down without coming on too strongly. You have to watch out for shy people and draw them out, without being intimidating. Tips on how to do all this, and a lot more, are in The Focus Group Kit, a series of six how-to books (D. L. Morgan and Krueger 1998). Don’t even think about getting into focus group management without going through this kit (box 8.5).

BOX 8.5


Focus groups typically have 6-12 members, plus a moderator. Seven or 8 people is a popular size. If a group is too small, it can be dominated by 1 or 2 loudmouths; if it gets beyond 10 or 12, it gets tough to manage. Smaller groups are better when you're trying to get really in-depth discussions going about sensitive issues (D. L. Morgan 1997). Of course, this assumes that the group is run by a skilled moderator who knows how to get people to open up and how keep them opened up.

The participants in a focus group should be more or less homogeneous and, in general, should not know one another. Richard Krueger, a very experienced focus group moderator, says that ''familiarity tends to inhibit disclosure'' (1994:18). It's easy to open up more when you get into a discussion with people whom you are unlikely ever to see again (sort of like what happens on long air flights). Obviously, what ''homogeneous'' means depends on what you're trying to learn. If you want to know why a smaller percentage of middle-class African American women over 40 get mammograms than do their white counterparts, then you need a group of middle-class African American women who are over 40.

In a focus group about sensitive issues like abortion or drug use, the leader works at getting the group to gel and getting members to feel that they are part of an understanding cohort of people. If the group is run by an accomplished leader, one or more members will eventually feel comfortable about divulging sensitive information about themselves. Once the ice is broken, others will feel less threatened and will join in. Moderators should not be known to the members of a focus group, and focus group members should not be employees of a moderator. Hierarchy is not conducive to openness.

In running a focus group, remember that people will disclose more in groups that are supportive and nonjudgmental. Tell people that there are no right or wrong answers to the questions you will ask and emphasize that you’ve invited people who are similar in their backgrounds and social characteristics. This, too, helps people open up (Krueger 1994:113).

Above all, don’t lead too much and don’t put words in people’s mouths. In studying nutritional habits, don’t ask a focus group why they eat or don’t eat certain foods; do ask them to talk about what kinds of foods they like and dislike and why. In studying risky sexual behavior, don’t ask, ‘‘Do you use condoms whenever you visit a prostitute?’’; do ask people to talk about their experience with prostitutes and exactly what kind of sexual practices they prefer. Your job is to keep the discussion on the topic. Eventually, people will hit on the nutritional habits or the sexual acts that interest you, and you can pick up the thread from there.

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