Broadening the Focus: Intervention and Emancipatory Possibilities in Group Research

ABSTRACT - This paper attempts to broaden understanding of the potential of focus group research and to look beyond the strict confines of a market research approach. It suggests that consumer researchers need to re-examine this research technique and recognise more clearly the benefits that 'groupness’ can offer. In particular, the paper illustrates the interventionist and emancipatory possibilities of the focus group which are in keeping with the new macro perspectives being adopted by many consumer researchers.


Miriam Catterall, Pauline Maclaran, and Lorna Stevens (1999) ,"Broadening the Focus: Intervention and Emancipatory Possibilities in Group Research", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Bernard Dubois, Tina M. Lowrey, and L. J. Shrum, Marc Vanhuele, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 347-351.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1999      Pages 347-351


Miriam Catterall, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, U.K.

Pauline Maclaran, The Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland, U.K.

Lorna Stevens, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, U.K.


This paper attempts to broaden understanding of the potential of focus group research and to look beyond the strict confines of a market research approach. It suggests that consumer researchers need to re-examine this research technique and recognise more clearly the benefits that 'groupness’ can offer. In particular, the paper illustrates the interventionist and emancipatory possibilities of the focus group which are in keeping with the new macro perspectives being adopted by many consumer researchers.


The focus group is not widely used in academic consumer research and few consumer research studies employ the focus group as the sole data collection technique. Whilst the focus group has been the subject of many papers and special sessions at ACR conferences over the years, these hav focused on its use in commercial advertising and consumer market research. There is little academic research on the focus group technique, and where this is undertaken the target audience for the conclusions is the market and advertising research practitioner. Market research practitioners write most of the literature on the focus group in marketing. Thus our main, or only, model of focus group research approaches and practices is derived from applied commercial market research.

This focus group model is likely to be problematic for many consumer researchers, especially for those who are part of what Belk (1995) refers to as the 'new consumer research’ with its emphasis on macro, social and cultural contexts. Focus groups in market research invariably adopt a micro, managerial perspective. After all, they are designed to meet the needs of marketing and advertising clients; consumers or participants are objectified as a resource to be mined for nuggets of commercial data that facilitate the development of a firm’s marketing strategy. In addition to this the moderator is the key player in focus group research, exerting tight control over recruitment specifications and the generation of data. Needless to say this model does not fit well with the more collaborative and participative research process now favoured in much qualitative consumer research.

The main argument in this paper is that the focus group holds considerable potential for consumer researchers, a potential that is currently unrecognised and unrealised because our main referent on this data collection technique is the market research model. We argue that the 'groupness’ of the focus group is its main benefit and an under-utilised resource because we conceptualise groupness solely in terms of data generation. Basch (1987) and Graebner (1986) emphasise the importance of the small group in individual change and personal growth, in organisation change and in social change. The group as a forum for change draws from the work of Kurt Lewin on group dynamics (Lewin, 1947) and social scientists have long used the small group in projects where the aims are intervention and democratic social engineering (Graebner, 1986). The potential of the small group has also been recognised by those who seek to achieve more radical change and transformation. Examples include the consciousness raising groups associated with radical feminism (Farley, 1978) and radical pedagogy (Friere, 1972).

The aim of this paper is to consider some new possibilities for the focus group in consumer research. First we examine the focus group model that is presented in the market research literature, commenting on the assumptions underlying current focus group research approaches and practices. This is contrasted with the models of focus group research in the social science literature and we place particular emphasis on the challenges these present to the market research model. We follow this with a review of the theoretical frameworks that inform the use of the focus group for linking research and social change, illustrating the discussion with examples of our own projects.


The focus group is the most widely used technique in qualitative market research practice. Arguably, it is also the most controversial market research technique, attracting proponents and critics in equal measure. There is much more to this unease than the long running argument that the focus group, and qualitative market research generally, is subjective and unscientific (Achenbaum, 1995). Many focus group practitioners have deep-seated concerns about this technique (Reuter, 1995). Often their reservations stem from a paradox at the core of focus group research as it is currently conceptualised and practised in market research: the paradox of group dynamics.

Group dynamics are employed to stimulate interaction amongst focus group participants. This interactin, it is argued, results in the generation of data that is usually inaccessible when respondents are interviewed individually. For past and contemporary focus group researchers the individual consumer is the centre of theoretical and research attention, their aim being to better understand the consumer mind or psyche (Goodyear, 1996). However, when researchers seek to tap individual attitudes in a group setting, interaction will be perceived to have less positive effects. Specifically, participants may alter their opinions in groups, leaving the researcher in doubt as to which opinion to take as the 'real’ one (Bristol and Fern, 1993). The discussion in the group may be dominated by one or two forceful individuals who suppress or unduly influence the views of other participants (Greenbaum, 1998). Participants may engage in various games and role playing during the course of the discussion (Langmaid and Ross, 1984). As a result many researchers agree with Bristol and Fern’s (1993) position that individual attitudes and opinions may be 'contaminated’ by group interaction.

Under these assumptions the focus moderator is like a conductor, skilled in orchestrating the focus group to minimise the negative effects of interaction whilst, simultaneously, maximising the group’s positive data generation effects. The moderator is the centre of attention in the literature on focus group practice and is the key figure in focus group research, deciding who speaks, about what and when (Greenbaum, 1998). Recruitment practices ensure that focus group participants are uninformed about the subject matter of the research, have no previous experience of focus groups and are strangers, not acquaintances. Each of these practices has the effect of keeping the moderator firmly in control of the focus group. Moderator control might be eroded in a situation where respondents know each other, are given information in advance and have experience of this type of research. As a result, the market research model of focus group research is predicated on the control and manipulation of respondents to such an extent that it is clearly at odds with the more collaborative and participative research favoured by consumer researchers (Catterall et al., 1996).


The focus group, for so long the preserve of the market research practitioner, is used widely in academic and applied social science research, particularly in education and health contexts (Kitzinger, 1994). The resulting new literature in this area reveals that focus group research can be understood and implemented in ways that vary considerably from market research practice (Johnson, 1996). Indeed the current variety in focus group research in social science applications, has thrown into sharp relief the approaches and practices employed in market research, which now appear to be distinctly lacking in variety. There are three themes in this literature that are particularly relevant to our argument and we discuss them briefly below.

Group dynamics.

It is certainly true that many social science researchers find the paradox of group dynamics as problematic as market researchers (Carey, 1995). Others, however, are much less concerned about this. Researchers, working from quite different epistemological perspectives, point out the importance of social interaction in relation to attitude formation and change. Some argue that the personal or individual is inextricably linked to wider social systems and processes and that the individual interview isolates individuals from their social context. On this assumption the groupness or interaction that occurs in focus groups is a major advantage, permitting the identification of meanings as they emerge in context (Kitzinger, 1994). Others point out that attitudes are sociall constructed This means that the interaction in focus groups is not simply a medium through which ready-made attitudes are expressed. Rather, the interaction in focus groups is an inextricable part of the formation of attitudes (Waterton and Wynne, 1999).

Less emphasis on the need to control and manipulate group dynamics, for fear of polluting or contaminating individual attitudes, means that researchers do not need to adhere to market research recruitment practices. Groups can be composed of friends and colleagues; experienced respondents and reconvened groups may be valuable in evaluation research or projects where the aim is to investigate changes over time (Krueger and King, 1998). Groups can be convened in social settings other than market research viewing facilities such as the workplace, community centres, participants’ homes (Morgan and Scannell, 1998) or indeed any informal setting conducive to group discussion.

Sensitive issues.

Many consumer researchers tackle subjects that are sensitive. Market researchers consider that the individual depth interview is probably more appropriate when examining individual decision making processes, socially or personally sensitive topics, issues where strong social norms exist and private consumption behaviour (Sykes, 1990). By contrast, Kitzinger (1994) and Munodawafa et al. (1995) are amongst the many social science researchers who have examined sensitive issues including AIDS, drug taking, sexual behaviour and contraception in focus groups. Pickering (1988) compared the various techniques for collecting sensitive data on self-reported sexual behaviour and concluded that groups are just as useful as individual interviews and surveys.

The valorisation of the individual interview in market research is based on the assumption that group dynamics are problematic. By contrast, the dynamics in the individual interview are considered unproblematic, or that so long as the characteristics of interviewer and respondent are reasonably matched that problems are minimised (Morton-Williams, 1993). By contrast, researchers in other disciplines who have examined this issue reveal that individual interview dynamics are far more complex than is generally assumed. For example, feminist scholars have demonstrated how the power relations between the researcher and the researched can substantially alter the research outcomes (Opie, 1992; Riessman, 1987).

Studies by Fern (1982) and Bristol and Fern (1996) challenge the assumption that focus group research creates an open, relaxed and anonymous atmosphere that is conducive to generating data. However, these studies and most commercial market research studies draw their subjects from a narrowly defined population, namely relatively articulate and educated middle class respondents who might be expected to experience fewer difficulties in self-expression in one-to-one interviews. Other groups in the population including the less well educated or articulate and minority groups may find more comfort, confidence and security in the group interview (Madriz, 1988; Morgan, 1998). After all, focus groups do not discriminate against people who cannot read or write and they may encourage people who are reluctant to be interviewed on their own or who feel they have nothing to say (Kitzinger, 1994). 'Safety in numbers’ becomes a pertinent phrase for the security and confidence some participants feel in meeting others in a similar situation to their own.

Collaboration and participation.

A distinctive feature of much new consumer research is collaborative and participative research strategies. Since the mid-1980s the focus group has been widely used in the evaluation of health and education programmes and this use of the focus group reflects a change in the ways that evaluation research is now conceptualised. During the 1960s evaluation studies involved primarily quantitative research strategies, and external research expers undertook the research. From the 1980s qualitative research studies gained prominence. These were accompanied by a more inclusive and participative view of evaluation, involving those who were the subjects of the studies and thus increasing their commitment to the research outcomes (Krueger and King, 1998). Other evaluators take a more radical approach, for example Fetterman’s (1994) empowerment evaluation and CARE’s (Walker, 1983) projects involve handing over responsibility for classroom evaluation to teachers.

The point here is that the market research model of focus groups has remained static for five decades. Participants in market research focus groups continue to be constructed as passive subjects in the research process, have little or no control over the subject matter discussed or over the data they generate. They are assumed and expected to remain untouched by their participation in the research process, which is terminated when the focus group session ends.

Consumer researchers need to challenge the underlying assumptions in the market research literature which have shown the focus group to be a flawed and rather second rate technique, certainly when compared to the individual interview (Bristol and Fern, 1993). These assumptions have already been challenged by a number of social science academics (Morgan, 1998). The focus group, conceptualised in market research as a tool for mining data from respondents, is repositioned in much applied and academic social science research as a democratic, participative and potentially empowering research technique. In the discussion that follows we examine the theoretical frameworks that have influenced this re-conceptualisation of the focus group and describe two projects where we have used the technique.


Small groups have a long history of being employed to bring about increased knowledge and skills and in promoting planned change. Graebner (1986) provides the socio-historical context for these interventions when he reviewed the history of the small group in democratic social engineering. Democratic social engineering emerged as a response to the negative effects of modernisation, such as the declining influence of neighbourhood, community, and other traditional sources of social cohesion. Coyle (1930) argued that group discussion guided by a trained leader could help solve these problems and lead to more consensual ways of thinking and acting. Most researchers associate studies of the small group and group processes with Kurt Lewin (1947) and, in particular, his classic study on serving offal. Lewin found group discussion to be more effective than straight lecture in encouraging housewives to alter their views on serving 'unappetising’ cuts of meat such as brains and hearts. Groups of housewives were invited to discuss their objections to serving these cuts and an expert would then point out ways in which these objections might be overcome.

Basch (1987) pointed out that the collection of research data may be linked with intervention in health research and in the evaluation of health education and promotion programmes. There are a number of examples of focus groups as intervention in the social science literature including Plaut et al.’s (1993) use of focus group research to mobilise community action on health issues and services. Interestingly, Swenson et al. (1992) found that whilst the primary purpose of their focus group research study was to collect research data, follow-up interviews with group participants revealed changes in participants’ opinions and behaviour. This study brought rural news reporters together to discuss the challenges that faced them in the reporting of local issues. Through group interaction these reporters became more aware of their role and responsibility as part of the local community. This intervention occurred as an 'unanticipated’ outcome of the focus groups, and challenges the moel that people remain untouched by their participation.

We will now illustrate the more deliberate linking of research and intervention in focus groups with an example from our own work.

Example: Tourism Development in a Rural Community

This project employed focus groups in a key role in the development and implementation of a tourism marketing strategy in a rural community. The overall aim of the research was to obtain input and feedback on a proposed marketing strategy for the area from key local groups such as facilities operators, the accommodation sector, statutory organisations and community groups. The main reason for using focus groups rather than individual interviews, or a survey, was to encourage a sense of 'us’ and not just 'I’ amongst participants. It was hoped that this would be achieved as participants discussed their individual experiences of the tourism sector and potential benefits and drawbacks of the proposed marketing strategy. This is not to say that consensus or agreement was required; rather the opportunity to listen and interact with others permitted participants to identify and make explicit their views and feelings. It is also the case that views and feelings are often fluid and these can develop through discussion with others.

The focus groups also had an explicit intervention aim in that it was hoped that opportunities for networking amongst participants would emerge in what was a fragmented and haphazard tourism providers’ base. One of the outcomes of this programme of focus groups was the establishment of a networking forum to meet at regular intervals. In particular, this allowed local tourism suppliers to establish complementary links between their products and services and also to jointly market and promote their tourism offerings. In this way the tourism infrastructure of a small, inland, rural community was strengthened and enhanced. Whilst the focus groups facilitated a useful information gathering process, their key role was in intervention, assisting in the basic development of a range of inter-linked products, services and people.

Focus Groups as Emancipation

A number of consumer researchers subscribe to critical analyses of consumption and critical research strategies (Belk, 1995). The term critical is usually associated with Frankfurt School critical theory. However, academics in marketing who embrace critical perspectives draw inspiration from a number of sources including feminism, postmodernism, post-colonialism and radical ecology. In spite of their considerable theoretical differences, they have certain interests and approaches to research in common. Firstly, they argue that phenomena need to be studied within their wider socio-historical contexts. Secondly, they claim that all research is value-laden or value-committed and critical research(ers) will make these values explicit. Finally, critical research has emancipatory aims. In other words there is a commitment to praxis, the unification of theory and practice, and to counter oppression.

The potential of the small group has long been recognised by those with a radical agenda. It is hardly surprising then that critical researchers should have examined the focus group technique for its transformatory potential. Madriz (1988), Johnson (1996), Wilkinson (1999) and Padilla (1993) find focus groups an important technique where one of the aims of the research is to raise critical consciousness and promote critical reflection. Padilla’s (1993) dialogical research uses focus groups as a means to reveal the ways in which individuals experience and react to problematic aspects of everyday life. The concept of dialogical research is based largely on the work of Brazilian educator Friere (1972). Also known as education for democracy, it holds that education and the classroom have the potential to change society at large for the better. Itstarts with the learners who are encouraged to articulate their experiences, and then explores these experiences within and against the ideological frameworks of mass culture, institutional settings and discourses. Through critical reflection students can begin to understand the ideological sources of voicelessness, dehumanisation, alienation and disempowerment but, more importantly, will be able to identify possibilities for change.

Whilst Padilla (1993) draws on radical pedagogy for a conceptual framework, Johnson (1996) appeals directly to Habermas’ theory of communicative action in his attempts to fuse social research and social change using focus groups. Focus groups, he argues, can be practised as a form of communicative action and participatory democracy by linking participants’ tacit everyday expert knowledge secured in the groups with theoretical expert knowledge. This linkage, however, is not so easily achieved and focus groups can be employed to give the impression of placing value on lay knowledge (Cunningham-Burley et al, 1999).

We illustrate the potential of focus group research for emancipation by describing a project that drew inspiration from radical feminism’s consciousness raising groups.

Example: Is gender an issue for women marketing managers?

Mies (1983, p.128) stressed the importance of the 'collectivization of women’s experience’ in helping women overcome structural isolation and to understand that 'individual sufferings have social causes’. The employment of groups in preference to individual interviews is encouraged by a number of feminist researchers. Farley (1978) identified and named experiences of 'sexual harassment’ through group consciousness raising sessions. Orr (1992, p.32) used focus groups in her research to encourage women to identify that problems are not the result of personal inadequacy but are based in social structure.

The main aim of our research was to identify in what ways gender was an issue for women marketing managers. We employed focus groups because we were aware that if we interviewed women individually they might be reluctant to speak of their gender as an issue that concerned and affected them. It is well documented that many women in management roles consciously or unconsciously adapt to the 'malestream’ culture in which they find themselves in preference to the often more difficult road of challenging the status quo and developing alternative ways of working, ways which might open up the possibilities of change for other women. We adopted this research approach, therefore, on the assumption that women might be reluctant to talk about any unease they felt as women marketing managers in organisations. They might view any confession of having a gender-related problem as an admission of failure, as an admission of not being up to the challenge of working in a man’s world.

Sometimes women are reluctant to reveal what they consider to be individual problems on the assumption that, 'it’s just me’ or 'my problem’. Discussion with other women can reveal that it is not 'just me’; but other women too have similar experiences. In this way they can come to realise that problems are shared and in so doing they may 'develop a clearer sense of social and political processes through which experiences are constructed’ (Wilkinson, 1999). Being part of a group of other women, who worked in similar marketing manager roles, would, we believed, encourage women to articulate their concerns in an environment of support, of community, confidentiality, and above all, of solidarity.

We encouraged participants to articulate and reflect on their experiences as women working in marketing. A good example of this was the participant who, on arrival at the focus group, announced, 'gender is not an issue in my organisation’. As the discussion with other female marketing managers progressed she became more reflexive. Indeed, when the group discussion had officially finishedshe returned to explain how she now looked differently on certain aspects of her organisational life. New male recruits were immediately able to join a football team that enabled networking across hierarchical and departmental structures, a crucial advantage for anyone in a marketing role. Women who joined the organisation had no similar access. So what was initially a dismissive attitude to gender issues in her marketing role changed subtly to one of increasing awareness and finally to an acknowledgement that these issues impinged on her own role in the organisation. The group process was a vital element in her changing perceptions.


In summary, then, this article is a plea to broaden our understanding of the potential of focus group research and to look beyond the strict confines of the market research model. It seems to us that many consumer researchers have already moved beyond the assumption that attitudes are individually formed and intrinsic to the individual, yet we persist in favouring one to one interviews that isolate the consumer from social context. Focus group research, by its groupness, can encourage the subjects of our research to feel solidarity as a community of 'us’, and this enables a more balanced relationship to exist between researcher and researched. The focus group invites intimacy from all parties, including the researcher. For those of us who belong to the interpretivist school they offer us the opportunity to be reflexive, to involve ourselves in the research we are undertaking and to envisage our research as having a wider application and impact.

Most of us undertake research in the hope that it will have an impact on the community of scholars, on marketing practices or on the lives of the consumers that are the subjects of our studies. We have discussed the potential of the focus group technique for research where social change is explicitly on the researcher’s agenda, and this will only be achieved if we abandon the market research model of the focus group.

The adoption of a more democratic and participative focus group model will enable us to view the 'groupness’ or interaction in focus groups in terms of its possibilities rather than focusing on it as somehow having a dysfunctional impact on individual attitudes. After all, we none of us exist in a vacuum; our ideas, perceptions and value-systems are formed by our interactions with others and the wider social and cultural environment we find ourselves in. We believe that it is time for consumer researchers to reclaim the focus group as a valuable research technique and to embrace its democratic and emancipatory research potential.


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Miriam Catterall, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, U.K.
Pauline Maclaran, The Queen&#146 s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland, U.K.
Lorna Stevens, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, U.K.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 1999

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