Focus groups began to be widely applied in marketing research during the 1950s and 1960s. This approach to data collection was used to assess the market for products and the motivations of consumers to purchase and consume them. The advent of focus group research marked a shift in data collection for advertising and marketing analysis. This shift went from a focus on survey research and quantitative measures to a qualitative approach focused on consumer preferences and motivations. Because of this emphasis, focus group research became a central component of the broader field of motivational research pioneered by academics and practitioners such as Paul Lazarfeld and Ernest Dichter (Caterall, 1998). Dichter was arguably the face of motivational research, particularly when this methodology was applied to business and marketing (Fullerton, 2007). He gained notoriety for the application of focus group methods to product development and marketing. One of the early examples of Dichter’s use of this approach was his work for the Mattel toy company where focus groups were used to develop the concept for the Barbie doll (Ames, 1998; Lord, 2009). Dichter applied similar techniques to the development of products for automobile manufacturers, the tobacco industry, food and cosmetics companies, and other businesses. On a parallel path, focus group research gained traction in the social and applied sciences. The appeal of focus group research was that it was relatively cost effective and provided for in-depth analysis of a specific topic of interest. These attributes make focus group research particularly attractive to program evaluators and policy makers. For relatively low costs, focus groups can be used to conduct exploratory research with large numbers of individuals in a short period of time. The focus group method is also tangible to study participants and end-users of data, since it mirrors how issues and policies are discussed by groups in public forums. Despite these advantages, focus group research entails several drawbacks. Unlike one-on-one interviews, focus groups involve multiple participants. The dynamics of group interviews required greater preparation and forethought on the part of investigators. Group dynamics must also be considered
when analyzing data from focus groups. The inclusion of multiple participants in focus group research necessitates the use of multiple investigators who take on specialized roles in focus group research. Typically, these roles include moderating, data collection, and managing the logistics of a focus group. Some logistical constraints are distinct to focus groups. Focus groups require that several people come to a designated location at a prescribed time. In contrast, one-on-one interviews can be scheduled more flexibly at times and locations that are convenient to sole interviewees. A research team must also create an environment conducive to conversation, and manage participants in a manner that affords everyone an opportunity to speak. Still, well executed focus groups can result in the collection of a wealth of qualitative data at lower cost and in less time than could be accomplished through extensive field observations and semi-structured interviews. In the remainder of this chapter, we review techniques used in focus group interviewing. We place an emphasis on aspects of focus group research that apply to community development and social welfare policy. There are sections on: the composition of a focus group, the role of the moderator and other members of a research team, the elements of a questioning route, and the administration of a focus group. After covering these core issues of focus group research, we turn to a discussion of the application of new technology to group interviewing and the use of focus groups for empowerment and social change.