Why We Need to Reassess Focus Group Research

ABSTRACT - This paper attempts to broaden our understanding of focus group research by examining the assumptions that underpin the literature on focus group approaches and practices in market research. These approaches and practices have altered little in the past 50 years even though there have been substantial changes in the ways we conceptualise consumers and qualitative research. It suggests that market and consumer researchers need to reassess this research technique and recognise more clearly the benefits that are offered by the interaction of focus group participants.


Miriam Catterall and William Clarke (2001) ,"Why We Need to Reassess Focus Group Research", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 128-132.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 128-132


Miriam Catterall, The Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK.

William Clarke, The University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, UK.


This paper attempts to broaden our understanding of focus group research by examining the assumptions that underpin the literature on focus group approaches and practices in market research. These approaches and practices have altered little in the past 50 years even though there have been substantial changes in the ways we conceptualise consumers and qualitative research. It suggests that market and consumer researchers need to reassess this research technique and recognise more clearly the benefits that are offered by the interaction of focus group participants.


The focus group is arguably the most controversial data collection technique employed by market research practitioners. Focus group research is simultaneously reviled for its misuse and methodological weaknesses and praised for the insights it can offer on clients’ problems. There is much disdain for the focus group within the market research industry (Achenbaum, 1995) and, perhaps more surprisingly, amongst focus group practitioners themselves (Reuter, 1995). This disdain crosses national boundaries. A recurring theme in the past and contemporary USA literature is that the focus group is a less methodologically robust technique than one to one qualitative interviews (Smith, 1954; Bristol and Fern, 1993). Many European market research practitioners regard the focus group as an inferior and predominantly North American variety of group discussion (Goodyear, 1996), whilst Asian-Pacific practitioners argue that focus group research has become stereotyped and lacks variety (List, 1998).

Few consumer researchers have contributed to the substantial literature that now exists on focus groups. There are notable exceptions, however, including Fern (1982), Bristol and Fern (1993), Durgee (1986/7) and McDonald (1993). Whilst they have acknowledged the potential benefits of focus group research, they have tended to focus on its weaknesses. Bristol and Fern (1993), for example, concluded that managerial prescriptions and theoretical descriptions based on focus groups may be problematic.

The main argument in this paper is that focus group research has changed little in the past 50 years. Approaches to focus group research lack diversity with practitioners operating primarily from an empirical-analytic epistemology and narrow psychological perspectives. Focus group practices involve the manipulation and control of participants, and the data they generate. These emphases on the individual consumer and the manipulation and control of participants mean that group interaction, the key methodological benefit of the focus group, is not fully realised or exploited.

In the discussion that follows we explore a number of the key themes in the literature in order to gain insight into the assumptions that underpin focus group research. We go on to suggest that even though many practitioners no longer fully support these assumptions, this has not resulted in a significant re-examination of focus group research. We argue that more critical examination of the theoretical and epistemological underpinnings of focus group research would go some way to address this situation and open up new possibilities for this valuable technique.


The current disenchantment with focus group research amongst market research practitioners is not a new phenomenon. The group interview came to prominence in market research during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Many early practitioners were sceptical of its benefits, usually preferring the individual qualitative interview. Smith (1954), in the USA, and Henry (1958), in Europe, argued that the group was no substitute for the individual interview and was simply a means of obtaining many consumer comments quickly and inexpensively. There is some evidence from this period that the focus group was in fact used as an alternative to large-scale surveys and individual qualitative interviews in order to save time and money for clients (Goldman and McDonald, 1987).

By the mid-1970s the focus group interview was the most widely used data collection technique in qualitative market research in the USA (Bellenger, Bernhardt and Goldstucker, 1976). By the mid-1980s, qualitative market research and focus group research were conflated (Advertising Research Foundation, 1985), a situation mirrored in Europe (Ruter, 1995) and Australia (List, 1998). However, even as the focus group was replacing the individual interview during the 1970s and 1980s, its practitioners were less than enthusiastic about its methodological properties. During this period comparisons of the focus group and the individual interview demonstrated that the former was perceived as the less methodologically robust technique, often selected for its cheapness and speed and in spite of its weaknesses (Bellenger, Bernhardt and Goldstucker, 1976; Advertising Research Foundation, 1985). Thus, a 'quick and dirty’ image has plagued the focus group from its inception.


Whilst it may appear to be stating the obvious, the one feature that distinguishes the focus group from most other types of market research interview is the group interaction that helps generate data and insights which may be inaccessible when respondents were interviewed individually (Morgan, 1998). Paradoxically, group interaction is also considered to be the main disadvantage of focus groups. 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 discussion (Langmaid and Ross, 1984). As a result, individual attitudes and opinions can be contaminated or polluted by group interaction (Advertising Research Foundation, 1985; Bristol and Fern, 1993).

The impact of group interaction on individual attitudes is a recurring theme in research on focus groups. There are two streams of research on the focus group; research that compares the data from focus groups with individual interviews and research on focus group practices. We discuss the key findings from each of these research streams as they relate to group interaction.


Comparisons of the data generated in groups with data from individual survey or qualitative interviews have been the subject of more research on focus groups than any other single issue. Research on this issue has spanned four decades (Chandler, 1954; Schlosser, 1997). The findings, however, have been somewhat inconclusive; some studies found few differences between individual interviews and focus groups (Stycos, 1981; Ward, Bertrand and Brown; 1991) whilst others found that focus groups overemphasised strongly held and negative views (Chandler, 1954; Banks, 1956; Day and Loewenthal; 1992). More significantly, when differences between focus group and individual interview data were found, researchers would cast doubt on the focus group rather than the individual interview. Hoijer (1990, p.34), for example, on finding differences between individual interview and focus group data in audience research commented that there are too many differences 'to permit taking the group discussion as a valid basis for audience interpretations and reactions.’

Market researchers have and continue to operate on the assumption that attitudes are intrinsic to the individual. Participants come to focus groups with ready-made attitudes and perceptions and the role of the moderator is to tap and reveal these. This begs the question why the 'doubtful’ focus group continues to be so predominant in qualitative market research when the individual interview would appear to be more appropriate. To address this question it is necessary to consider the theoretical underpinnings of focus group research.

The influence of psychodynamic theory on qualitative market research has been well-documented (Smih, 1956; Gordon, 1999) and has tended to overshadow the influence of group therapy (Rogers, 1951) and the theory of group dynamics (Lewin, 1947) on focus group research. Since the early 1960s client-centred group therapy has had a more enduring influence on focus group research than psychodynamic theory (Goldman, 1962). Stollznow (1998), for example, has emphasised the influence of client-centred therapy models on focus group research in Australia. Therapists have long recognised the benefits of group therapy for the individual whereby group processes permit the individual to access a level of personal understanding that is not usually available in the one to one therapeutic interview (Rogers, 1951). Similarly research on group dynamics (Lewin, 1947; Tuckman, 1965) has had a considerable influence on research practitioners’ conceptualisation of the trajectory of a focus group discussion, and on moderation practices. The role of the focus group moderator is to facilitate the group interaction that will encourage participants to share and reveal attitudes, perceptions and experiences. At the same time, the moderator needs to manage this interaction in order to reduce its potential contaminating effects on individual attitudes. Indeed the aim of many recruitment and moderation practices is to reduce the potential for contamination. For example, strangers rather than acquaintances are recruited since focus group participants may be reluctant to reveal their 'true feelings’ in the company of acquaintances.


There is a marked degree of consistency in focus group practices across national boundaries (List, 1998; Goodyear, 1996). These practices include group size, the duration of the discussion and the recruitment of strangers and fresh respondents who have not participated in a focus group in the previous six months. Additionally, participants receive little information in advance of the discussion on the subject matter or the client and are observed during the discussion by representatives from the client company. Although there are few research studies on these practices, the research has questioned their efficacy.

Two studies designed to test the effect of acquaintanceship found that that it did not have an adverse effect on the data generated (Fern, 1982; Nelson and Frontczak, 1988). There is no significant evidence to indicate that experienced respondents are any different from complete novices, either in the likelihood of their responding positively to an invitation to participate, or in the data they generate (Hayward and Rose, 1990; Tuckel, Leppo and Kaplan, 1992). The presence of observers behind the one-way mirror or in the discussion room was found to have a detrimental impact on participants and moderators (Robson and Wardle, 1988). One of the recurring themes in the practitioner literature is the importance of the focus group moderator. It is argued that the success of the focus group is largely due to the moderator’s experience and expertise. Yet studies that have compared moderated and unmoderated groups reveal that the latter were just as likely to generate ideas and insights as the former (Fern, 1982; Yelland and Varty, 1997).

When research has challenged the accepted wisdom on recruitment and moderation, it appears to have had little or no impact on altering practice, regardless of whether the research emanates from an academic source (Fern, 1982) or from practitioners themselves (Hayward and Rose, 1990). To illustrate, the observation of focus groups by clients increased rather than decreased in the UK after Robson and Wardle (1988) reported its detrimental effects on group participants. In the light of the available research evidence and the slowness of change, there is a need to re-examine the rationale for these focus group practices in more detail.

Themes of control and manipulation underpin these practices and they have the effect of keeping the moderaor firmly in control of focus group moderation (Catterall, Maclaran and Stevens, 1996). The moderator controls who speaks, when and about what in focus group discussions and this would be eroded in a situation where respondents knew each other or were given information in advance. For example, if participants were acquaintances rather than strangers they might be more confident in expressing objections to being observed by clients. It could be argued that this level of control is necessary to allow the moderator to maximise the positive aspects of group interaction that generate data whilst, simultaneously, minimising the all the negative aspects that pollute individual responses.

The origins of these practices and the ways they are sustained may also offer some explanation for their persistence. Recruitment and moderation practices emerged from the focus group experiences of moderators between the 1950s and 1970s. Whilst there was often disagreement as to exactly what constituted best practice, they reflected moderators’ ideas on the ideal focus group participant which, in turn, reflected views then current on consumer behaviour. The ideal focus group participant was constituted as compliant and lacking in the knowledge or ability to 'intellectualise’ about marketing and advertising (Bellenger, Bernhardt and Goldstucker, 1976). This model is at considerable odds with current representations of an active consumer who is advertising and marketing literate. A number of current market research practitioners subscribe to the notion of postmodern active consumers, yet the practices, which treat these consumers as a passive source of data, persist (Goodyear, 1996; Gordon, 1999).

The ways that focus group practices are sustained may help explain why this is the case. First, some practices are sustained for very pragmatic reasons. For example, the two-hour group discussion permits the moderator to undertake two group sessions per evening. A longer discussion would allow only one session per evening and significantly impact on project costs. Secondly, practitioners are trained on the job with knowledge passed down from one generation of practitioners to the next. This knowledge relates primarily to the implementation of focus group research, and focus group moderation in particular. By contrast, there is little discussion in the practitioner literature or in in-house training programmes on the interrelationships between the epistemological, theoretical and methodological assumptions that underpin focus group research (Valentine, 1999). Lack of open discussion on these issues means that practices are simply taken for granted. Thirdly, it can be difficult for practitioners to change accepted practices unless they can alter clients’ conceptualisations of what constitutes a focus group and best practice (Hayward and Rose, 1990; Robson and Hedges, 1993).


Bobby Calder (1977) developed the most widely cited classification of focus group research over two decades ago. His key contribution to the literature was to point out that different research philosophies underpin different approaches to focus group research. Additionally, Calder explained how different approaches would predicate differences in the ways that focus group research will be implemented, including group composition and moderation.

The focus group is a data collection technique that can be employed by researchers working within a variety of philosophical and theoretical traditions. Current approaches are located primarily within a single discipline, psychology. McDonald’s research (1993) and evidence from practitioners’ own accounts of their work (Flynn, 1991) suggest that many practitioners adopt an approach to focus group research that involves the moderator posing questions and group participants providing answers which are later summarised in a report for the client (Flynn, 1991). Goodyear (1996) refers to this as the cognitve approach to focus group research and argues that it is the dominant paradigm in the USA. In contrast, psychodynamic theory has dominated indigenous European focus group research. Under this model the interaction in the focus group facilitates access to deeper layers of the individual consumer psyche (Lannon and Cooper, 1983).

Both approaches, the pyschodynamic and the cognitive, focus on the individual consumer mind as the locus of research attention. That focus group practitioners should draw their theoretical insights largely from consumer psychology is not problematic per se. However, it could be argued that the field might benefit from a greater diversity in perspectives as is now the case in consumer research (Belk, 1995). Whilst there is some evidence that individual practitioners are now drawing from sociological and anthropological frameworks, these remain in the minority (Valentine, 1999).

Focus group practices are more problematic. It could be argued that focus group research practitioners subscribe primarily to an empirical-analytical epistemology. Field research is conceptualised in a similar way to experimental research; research subjects unaware of the 'real’ subject of the research, participants are strangers and thus more easily manipulated, and no experienced respondents who might 'infect’ the others. It is hardly surprising then that observers from outside the industry maintain that focus group research in marketing operates within an empiricist paradigm (Silverman, 1993; Waterton and Wynne, 1999).

There is evidence of some disenchantment with focus group research amongst its leading practitioners in the USA (Mariampolski, 1999), Australia (List, 1998) and Europe (Fuller and Adams, 1999). Mariampolski (1999) points out that many focus group practitioners and their clients fail to understand the nature of qualitative research and thus focus group research is largely behaviourist and mechanistic. Fuller and Adams (1999) argue that the conventions and structures of focus group research get in the way of consumer understanding. The small shift towards the use of ethnographic methods in commercial market research studies reflects this disenchantment (Mariampolski, 1999; Fuller and Adams, 1999).

Similarly, a small number of practitioners are questioning the practices that have defined focus group research for five decades and are adopting new ones. Some practitioners present the client’s assumptions or problems to the focus group and these are then discussed in a more open and collaborative forum (Burns, 1999). Developments in citizens’ juries, predominantly in the public sector, also suggest a quest for new ways of thinking about group research (White and Mountford, 1999).


We argue that the focus group still holds considerable potential as a research technique, a potential that is currently underdeveloped in market and consumer research. Interestingly just as some market researchers are abandoning the focus group, social science researchers are employing the technique in ever increasing numbers. These researchers are re-configuring focus group research in ways that are very different from market research approaches. Often working from quite different philosophical and epistemological perspectives than market researchers, they emphasise 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 interaction that occurs in focus groups is a major advantage, permitting the observation and identification of meanings as they emerge in context (Kitzinger, 1994). Others argue that attitudes are socially constructed. This means that the interaction in focus groups is not simply a medium through which ready-made attitudes areexpressed. 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 means that researchers do not need to adhere to market research practices. Groups can be convened in any social setting conducive to group discussion. They can be composed of friends and colleagues; experienced respondents and reconvened groups may be valuable where the aim is to investigate changes over time (Krueger and King, 1998). Furthermore, there is considerably less emphasis on moderating experience and skills and more emphasis on the researcher’s analytical and interpretive skills (Barbour and Kitzniger, 1999).

It would be an over-exaggeration to represent market research focus group approaches and practices as dull, dated and unreflexive and social science approaches and practice as interesting, new and path breaking. Social science and market researchers share similar experiences and problems, such as the over-dominant focus group participant. The point here is that the market research model of focus groups has not altered significantly for five decades. Participants in market research focus groups continue to be constructed largely 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. Turning this model on its head and constructing focus group participants as active participants in the research process may open up new possibilities for focus group research. This might involve the adoption of more collaborative and participative models of the focus group research process.

The small group has a long history of being employed as a vehicle for individual change and personal growth, organisation change and social change (Graebner, 1986). Carl Rogers and Kurt Lewin’s work, from which so many market research practitioners have drawn over the years, contain explicit interventionist and emancipatory themes. These aspects of their work are largely overlooked in market research because focus group participants tend to be conceptualised mainly or solely as a data source; providing nuggets of useful information for marketing clients. The employment of focus groups in interventionist research strategies, such as action research, remains to be explored.


ACR conference proceedings regularly include papers on focus group research. Most of the contributions (Flynn, 1991), including this one, examine the focus group in market research practice. Since market research practitioners write most of the literature on focus group research, they provide our main referent for focus group approaches and practices. However, the market research model is likely to be problematic for consumer researchers, just as it is increasingly problematic for a number of market research practitioners.

We pointed out that these approaches and practices have altered little in the past 50 years even though there have been substantial developments in the ways we conceptualise consumers and qualitative research. Approaches to focus group research lack diversity and are founded largely on an empirical-analytic epistemology and narrow psychological perspectives. Focus group practices involve the manipulation and control of participants such that the social interaction that occurs in the focus group, and its key methodological benefit, is not fully realised or exploited.

For these reasons market and consumer researchers need to re-examine this research technique and identify more clearly the benefits that are offered by the interaction of focus group participants. Specifically:

1. Given the number of consumer researchers who now employ anthropological and sociological perspectives to inform their work, it seems strange that more attention has not been given to the social interaction that occurs in focus group discussions as a means of exploring the social, cultural and linguistic dimensions of consumption. By contrast, anthropologists have long recognised the benefits of group discussions in field research (Wilson and Wilson, 1945).

2. The group discussion has a long history of use in social change. However, consumer researchers who advocate critical research have yet to examine the potential of the focus group in implementing emancipatory research strategies. By contrast, feminists (Wilkinson, 1999) and Frankfurt School critical theorists (Johnson, 1996) in the social sciences are currently exploring how focus groups can be employed to achieve radical social change and transformation.

Market and consumer researchers need to subject the theoretical and epistemological assumptions underpinning focus groups in market research to more scrutiny than has been the case to date. In so doing, they may well devise and apply greater variety in focus group approaches and practices both in market research and consumer research, and therefore unlock the possibilities for accessing much richer insights on consumers.


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Miriam Catterall, The Queen&#146 s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK.
William Clarke, The University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, UK.


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