chapter  21
11 Pages

Interviews and focus groups


Interviews and focus groups provide contextualization of human behavior that allows researchers to understand the meaning of that behavior (Silverman 2006). The central purpose of both methods is the generation of data on lived experiences and on the meaning which individuals or groups under investigation derive from them. The two methods draw on common procedures and assumptions, which will be discussed below. However, as facilitated interactions on a given topic that involve multiple participants, focus groups are distinctive in a number of respects. The particular format of an interview or focus group will reflect its function

within a given research design. The structured interview uses a standardized sequence of closed questions and is generally conducted within a pre-set time frame to elicit factual or quantitative information. Here, standardization, neutrality, and optimization of the reliability and validity of findings are paramount. Semi-structured interviews feature a core of common questions around which interaction in response to the interviewee’s framing of central interview issues is allowed to emerge. The focus here is on the elicitation of perceptions, beliefs, or motives. The unstructured interview maintains the focus on the central research question but will develop conversationally, allowing for interviewee-led contributions. Sometimes data from semi-structured and unstructured interviews provides the basis for further focus group investigations. While recruiting participants and organizing interviews and focus groups require considerable planning, these data-gathering methods can generate rich data (albeit limited in terms of the generalization of results) within a relatively short period of time. Numerous guides have shaped the formalization of interviews (see Gillhalm

2000; Seidman 2006; Roulston 2010; Kvale and Brinkman 2014) and focus groups (Morgan 1993), the central features of which are highlighted below. Research using interviews and focus groups for data collection may require prior ethical approval, and participants should be asked to provide informed consent. If participants are associated with institutions (e.g., universities, hospitals, governmental agencies, or companies), they may be subject to that

institution’s particular approval requirements. The setting of the interview or focus group should safeguard participants’ privacy and facilitate rapport with the interviewer or the group facilitator. The nature of data collection and analysis requires recording of the interaction. The use of audio or video equipment may affect interactions in various ways and should be acknowledged. Thus, a reflection about the potential impact of recording on participants’ behavior in the specific context of any study should form part of the analysis. The means to conduct audiovisual recording in order to access verbal and non-verbal communication are readily available. In choosing a setup for the recording equipment, in particular, in the case of focus groups, researchers should make sure that significant features are captured without the arrangements being overly intrusive. Interview and focus group questions and prompts should operationalize

and translate research questions into terms that are understood and shared by the participants. Kvale (1996: 131) provides a helpful inventory of generic interview prompts, which is applicable to both methods:

Introductory questions (How did you get interested in X?) Follow-up questions (What does X mean?) Probing questions (Could you say more about X?) Specifying questions (What did they reply to X?) Direct question (Are you happy with X?) Indirect questions (How do you feel about X?) Interpreting questions (Would it be right to say that you are happy here?) Structuring prompts (I now would like to change the topic.) Silent prompt (Signals time for reflection.)

While the prompt/response format will play some part in the running of a focus group, Robson (2011) notes that this should not be maintained at the cost of the interaction among group members, which constitutes a particular strength of this method. Purposive sampling, in which participants are matched to central research

criteria, is frequently adopted in interviews and focus group research. On the issue of sample size for interviews, Seidman (2006) proposes two guiding principles. First, it must reflect the range of participants that make up the population, and therefore display sufficiency. Second, saturation is achieved when interviews cease to yield new information. Both principles can be applied to studies using single or multiple focus groups; however, a further consideration is optimum group size to engender group interaction. Morgan suggests a group size in the range of six to ten participants (1993). Advantages and disadvantages associated with different types of group composition, and the characteristics of data generated through them, should be considered when setting up focus groups. Homogeneous groups, for example, might present a more monolithic and consensual view of a given issue, whereas groups

whose participants represent different backgrounds and perspectives may provide a less consistent or more multifaceted outlook. When planning is completed, a trial run of the plan with a small repre-

sentative sample or group can assist in finalizing procedures. With regard to the interviewing itself, Kvale (1996: 147) identifies the following qualities of a good interviewer:

Knowledgeable-is familiar with the focus of the interaction Structuring-states the purpose of the interaction, checks whether participants have questions, brings discussion to a conclusion

Clear-asks simple, short questions, avoiding jargon Gentle-allows thinking, pausing, finishing Sensitive-is an attentive, empathetic listener Open-is flexible in response to what is important Steering-is clear about what is to be found out Critical-is prepared to challenge, points out inconsistencies Remembering-relates statements to what was said previously Interpreting-clarifies meaning without imposing it

In addition to the above, good focus group moderators should be able to create a balance between ensuring the effective participation of group members while permitting interactive dynamics to emerge among them. Initial engagement with the data will often involve the transcription and

coding of the recordings; however, the chosen method of analysis will depend on the research question. In light of the interpersonal nature of interviews and focus groups, a reflective engagement with issues, such as the potential impact of researcher bias or expectancy effect, perceptions of social desirability, or the rapport between the interviewer or facilitator and interviewees or participants, must be factored into the analysis. In addition, when the data generated requires translation, the translation processes should form part of this methodological reflection. Digital tools and online platforms now make it possible to hold interviews

and focus groups with participants who previously might have been difficult to reach. The impact of these new technologies on forms of interactivity between interviewer or facilitator and respondent(s), as well as on the dynamics within a focus group, requires researchers’ attention and further investigation (see Paulus et al. 2014).