[A focus group discussion session is] a discussion in which a small number (usually six to 12) of respondents, under the guidance of a moderator, talk about topics that are believed to be of special importance to the investigation.
(Folch-Lyon & Trost 1981, p.444)

A Focus Group Discussion (FGD) is a qualitative research technique used to gain insight into a group’s thoughts, opinions, and ideas about a topic of the researcher’s interest.

When do researchers use FGDs?

  • when the subject being researched is complex
  • when interactions between participants are considered insightful
  • when participants feel more comfortable discussing a topic in a group setting

FGDs also help researchers increase their knowledge on a subject and enable them to understand misleading results, clarify statistical data, and/or strengthen the validity of their research.

For example, a researcher who conducted a survey about the effect of housing insecurity on mental health finds that for most respondents increasing rent prices led to worse mental health outcomes. To better understand why this is, the researcher holds a FGD asking participants to explain their experiences with rent increase and why they think that such experiences can lead to poor mental health and wellbeing.

Cycle diagram showing how a focus group works: Determine the topic and goals of the focus group Identify potential participants, Prepare a guide (the moderator guide or discussion guide) that outlines the focus group questions, Choose a location for the focus group, Recruit 6-12 participants (who receive an incentive), Conduct a 90-120 minute session lead by a trained moderator, Analyze the session and present a thorough written and/or oral report.

Image source: (QuestionPro, 2022)

FGDs bring together participants from a specific target group whose opinions and ideas are crucial to the investigation. To facilitate conversation among them and capture their insights, focus groups can involve the following roles:

  • Moderator: the person who leads the focus group by prompting participants with questions on the topic of interest
  • Note taker: the person who assists the facilitator by recording the contributions of participants
  • Observer: the person who captures FGD group dynamics

Although FGDs are guided by a moderator, participants are encouraged to engage openly in a group discussion and engage with each other’s contributions. On the one hand, this might mean the researcher has less control over the data produced. On the other hand, the group dynamic allows them to capture the interaction between participants and the spectrum of attitudes and ideas towards the topic of interest. In other words, FGDs provide ‘a rich and detailed set of data about perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and impressions of people in their own words’ (Stewart et al. 2007, p 163).

(Authors: Hanna Kienzler & Bwalya Mulenga)

What is it?

Videos:

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How focus groups can help your research: Qualitative research methods by Mod•U: Powerful Concepts in Social Science (2016)

This short Youtube video offers an introduction to focus group discussions. The video describes what focus group discussions are, when it is most appropriate to use them and how to make sure your focus group discussions are successful.

(Academic reference: Mod.U: Powerful Concepts in Social Science. (2016, October 19). How focus groups can help your research: Qualitative research methods [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ng8SnDIre4)

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Using focus groups in research by University of Derby (2014)

This short Youtube video offers an overview of focus group discussions. The video touches on how researchers in different disciplines have used focus group discussions to explore their topic of interest and answer their research questions.

(Academic reference: University of Derby. (2014, November 4). Using focus groups in research [Video]. YouTube. : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLw0YXcseG0)

Reports:

Focus groups by Anita Gibbs (1997)

This article outlines important considerations you should be aware of before using focus group discussions. The article covers potential benefits and limitations to using focus group discussions in your research.

(Academic reference: Gibbs, A. (1997). Focus groups. Social Research Update, 1(19), pp 1-8. Department of Sociology, University of Surrey. https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/her-macdonaldsbs2000fall2015b/files/2011/06/Focus-Groups_Anita-Gibbs.pdf)

Articles:

Focus groups by Richard Powell and Helen Single (1996)

This article introduces focus group discussions and highlights why they can be useful. The article compares focus group discussions to other research methods to help you decide on the most appropriate methodology.

(Academic reference: Powell, R. & Single, H. (1996). Focus groups. International Journal for Quality in Health Care, 8(5), pp 499-504. https://doi.org/10.1093/intqhc/8.5.499)

Books:

Qualitative research methods (5th ed.) by Pranee Liamputtong (2013)

In Chapter 4 “Focus Groups”, the author provides an introduction to focus group discussions with a focus on planning, data collection and interpretation.

(Academic reference: Liamputtong, P. (2013). Qualitative research methods (5th ed, Chapter 4). Oxford University Press.)

How is it done?

Videos:

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Conducting virtual focus groups by Shine Lab (2021)

This YouTube video explains how to hold a successful focus group discussion virtually. The video gives a brief overview of focus groups, explains how to conduct them, and offers advice for holding these discussions in a virtual space.

(Academic reference: Shine Lab (2021, February 20). Conducting virtual focus groups [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_iyUAy0ZhQ)

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Preparing for focus groups: Qualitative research methods by Mod•U: Powerful Concepts in Social Science (2016)

This short Youtube video explores the planning involved in conducting a focus group discussion. The video touches on how to navigate the group dynamic, how to be a good moderator, and more generally, how to get the most out of your focus group discussion.

(Academic reference: Mod•U: Powerful Concepts in Social Science. (2016, October 19). Preparing for focus groups: Qualitative research methods [Video].YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSwTvkTsOvI)

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