A Focused Conversation Model in Consumer Research: the Incorporation of Group Facilitation Paradigm in In-Depth Interviews

ABSTRACT - Toward a trend of multidisciplinary approach in consumer research, this article attempts to extend the current conduct of individual in-depth interviews with the integration of group facilitation techniques. Based on one of the major modules of professional group facilitation, the Focused Conversation Method adopts a holistic approach to the natural flow of human thinking processes. The researcher proposes that it enhances not only the interviewing skills through the iterative and sequential use of this procedure, but also the elicitation of thoughts, reflections and emotions among research informants. For research topics whose corpus of study are still obscured from the current literature, the author further posits that the Focus Conversation method can significantly benefit the discovery and interpretation of their underlying dimensions and issues.



Citation:

Peisan Yu (2005) ,"A Focused Conversation Model in Consumer Research: the Incorporation of Group Facilitation Paradigm in In-Depth Interviews", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Yong-Uon Ha and Youjae Yi, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 337-344.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2005      Pages 337-344

A FOCUSED CONVERSATION MODEL IN CONSUMER RESEARCH: THE INCORPORATION OF GROUP FACILITATION PARADIGM IN IN-DEPTH INTERVIEWS

Peisan Yu, Tung-Hai University, Taiwan

ABSTRACT -

Toward a trend of multidisciplinary approach in consumer research, this article attempts to extend the current conduct of individual in-depth interviews with the integration of group facilitation techniques. Based on one of the major modules of professional group facilitation, the Focused Conversation Method adopts a holistic approach to the natural flow of human thinking processes. The researcher proposes that it enhances not only the interviewing skills through the iterative and sequential use of this procedure, but also the elicitation of thoughts, reflections and emotions among research informants. For research topics whose corpus of study are still obscured from the current literature, the author further posits that the Focus Conversation method can significantly benefit the discovery and interpretation of their underlying dimensions and issues.

Starting from the late 1970s, the field of consumer research has been undergoing a major movement toward paradimatic pluralism where positivist perspectives, as well as an interpretivist representation of consumer behavior, are both rendered a feasible path of consumption epistemology (Calder et al. 1981; Denzin and Lincoln 2000). However, with respect to this new genealogy of qualitative inquiry, criticisms still exist to its philosophical integrity and methodological adequacy. To various degrees, ambiguity is found in the planning and implementation of the data collection process per se, even though ample endeavor has already been provided to improve its conduct (McCracken 1988; Thompson 1990, 1991, 1993).

Specifically, in doing personal in-depth interviews, the field data collector, in most cases played by the researcher himself/herself, is generally referred to as the "interviewer", "moderator", "leader" (in group settings) and/or sometimes the "facilitator" (Greenbaum 2000; Kitzinger and Barbour 1999; Mariampolski 2001). Apart from their nominal distinctions, the terms are oftentimes used interchangeably and loosely, implying a blurry line in the demarcation of these roles. Moreover, although a number of sources is present to address the fundamental issues of qualitative data collection (e.g., Briggs 1986; McCracken 1988), uncertainty still exists regarding the systematic approach, as well as the guidelines and principles that can be used to aid the actual execution of an interview session (Fontana and Frey 2000; Frey and Fontana 1993; Greenbaum 2000; Janesick 2000; Michell 1999).

On the other hand, until more recently, the informants, participants, or interviewees from the researched party have been treated as no more than the living instrument from which data are collected (Chrzanowska 2002). In contrast, in the scenario of group facilitation whereby participation is the principal objective of a successful conduct, a group facilitator always juxtaposes in his/her design both the welfare of the researching and the researched party (Philbrook and West 2002a, 2002b, 2002c; Stanfield 2000).

In pursuit of a procedurally sound approach in qualitative inquiry, the present article intends to serve as the first in a series of efforts to apply the practices of group facilitation techniques to augment the paradigmatic perspective of in-depth interviews in consumer research (Spencer 1989, Stanfield 2000). In particular, a core module called the "Focused Conversation Method" is introduced and empirically adapted in an exploratory study in the topic of "My home, My Comfort: A Consumption Interpretivism of Its Fantasies and Reflections." Preliminary results are later reported to examine its feasibility in qualitative inquiry and the scenario of consumer research. On the whole, this demonstration shows the added value of building interpretive knowledge of consumer behavior using a focused conversation model.

I. METHODOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES IN IN-DEPTH INTERVIEWS

Two types of qualitative data collection techniques are generally recognized as the most preferred methods by the researchers, namely, focus group interviews and individual in-depth interviews (Denzin and Lincoln 1998; Mariampolski 2001; Patton 1999). While focus groups are a feasible way of obtaining data in group settings, individual interviews are more common when disclosure of introspective data is desired from individual sources (Baker and Hinton 2000; Crabtree et al 1993; Fontana and Frey 1998; Greenbaum 2000; Krueger 1993; Mariampolski 2001). Despite their growing popularity among both academics and practitioners, depth interview methods frequently encounter application problems that are presumably either inherent in the original protocol of the design or are caused by a "formulaic approach" that fails to apply the technique to its fullest potential (Gilchrist 1999; Kitzinger and Barbour 1999; Morgan and Krueger 1993). Various attempts have therefore been made to patch up these methodological limitations. Paget (1999), for instance, has described depth interviewing as ".a science of subjective experience" through which "the use of a systematic method of constructing knowledge and reporting the phenomena studied" elicits a subject’s lived experiences which are recorded for later interpretation. This differs from the conventional view treating the subjects being interviewed as merely "well-guarded vessels of feelings." In order to achieve active interviews, it is proposed that the interviewer must establish a climate for mutual disclosure. [See Holstein and Gubrium (1999), pp. 111-113.] Likewise in their 2000 article, Fontana and Frey construct the task of in-depth interviewing as a "negotiated accomplishment".

In short, the research paradigm for working researchers to construct a sound and emergent design based on their best understanding of the issues being observed (McCracken 1988; Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989) has gradually shifted from the once prevailing view of a researcher-dominant practice to a more balanced mutual-sharing from which both parties involved are expected to provide input in order to achieve a mutually beneficial collaboration. Thus, the role of interviewee/informant should no longer be treated as the mere carrier of stories, fantasies, and experiences when the right of serendipity is reserved exclusively to the researcher/interviewer in the iterative process of analysis. Nor, on the other hand, should it be still held a universal truth to place the accountability solely on the side of the researching party for the emergence of meaningful themes and constructs out of the data collected. Interviewees/informants are now being invited to join the alliance of their ethnographic performance by partaking in the identification and definition of the issues under study. Nevertheless, researchers still preserve a panoramic view and a broader interpretive perspective from cross-interview analysis and other forms of observation. A comparison of the different approaches in in-depth interview is illustrated in Exhibit 1.

EXHIBIT 1

A PARADIGMATIC COMPARISON OF THE DIFFERENT APPROACHES OF IN-DEPTH INTERVIEWS IN CONSUMER RESEARCH

II. INCORPORATING GROUP FACILITATION TECHNIQUES INTO THE IMPLEMENTATION OF DEPTH INTERVIEWS

Originally derived from a proactive response to the broad-based, fast-paced and changing world of workplace and the community, the Technology of Participation was invented by the Institute of Cultural Affairs with the purpose of building a common ground of communication in community building. This technique was later expanded its service to team building work in corporate settings (Philbrook and West 2002a, 2002b; Spencer 1989; Stanfield 2000). Among these methods, the Focused Conversation module is worthy of special attention by qualitative researchers in the context of consumer ethnography (Stanfield 2000). [Initiated ironically by the traumatic experiences of surviving soldiers of WWII, the method was first introduced by Joseph Mathews, a former army chaplain and a resumed university professor, through the help of an art professor who showed him the use of a trialogue in art appreciation. Following the same line of thinking, Mathews decided to experiment this approach in conversations on various art forms with his university community. The method started to spread from classroom into a Chicago urban slum on community building works in the 1960s and gradually permeated into other public and private sectors to suit the need to organizational needs.] A four-stage process is embedded into the design. The facilitator/leader takes a holistic systematic approach by asking a series of questions to elicit responses that take the other party or parties from the surface of a topic to its depth, and derive implications for their life and work (p. 17, Stanfield 2000). Reflecting a natural unconscious process of perception, responses, judgment, and decisions in the human mind, the four levels provide an excellent foundation for in-depth probing. They are listed sequentially in Exhibit 2. [Ibid, p.21. The advantages of the approach can be summarized as follows: 1. Above all, the method contributes to the thinking process, which prevents a conversation from drifting aimlessly along; 2. It is versatile and works with people of mixed backgrounds, ages, and varying levels of acquaintance, from total strangers to long-term colleagues; 3. It provides an excellent way to focus people on a topic long enough to determine what direction is needed. This kind of focus is a time saver, and often a saver of psychological energy; 4. The process has a way of sidetracking politicking and power plays; 5. It provides the room for genuine listening while avoids negative thinking; and, last but not least, 6. It allows honesty.]

As illustrated, the more objective and impressionistic questions often come first, followed by reflective questions that call for instinctual personal reactions and associations. Next, interpretive questions prompt digging deeper for insights and patterns. Finally, the decisional stage calls forth the "so-what" question(s).

Moreover, there are five preparatory steps in this approach. A brief depiction is provided in the following paragraph.

1. Focus the conversation: The establishment of a focal direction of the conversation;

2. Formulate the objectives and aims of the conversation: The formulation of the practical results and experiential aims;

3. Brainstorm the questions: The elicitation of plausible questions to be asked;

4. Order and sequence the questions: The organization of the questions according to the four levels of flow; and

5. Rehearse the questions.

EXHIBIT 2

LEVELS OF PROBING IN THE FOCUS CONVERSATION METHOD

A. Applying the Method to Depth Interviews

In applying the focused conversation technique, twelve in-depth personal interviews were conducted on the topic of "My Home, My Comfort: An Consumption Interpretivism of its Fantasies and Reflections" between the months of July to October, 2002. The key informants were 5 men and 7 women, aged from 32 to 68, with a wide variety of occupational choices, [One choreographer, two university professors, one full-time university teaching assistant, three professional facilitators, one designer, one free-lance corporate consultant, one middle-level manager of an insurance company, one housewife and finally, a middle-school teacher.] residential. The major screening criteria for the informants were that they all had an abode that they considered their home and in which they had been dwelling on a regular basis. The length of each interview ranged from 2.5 hours to 3.5 hours. Each interview was audio-recorded and later transcribed verbatim. With the exception of two informants, all the interviews were conducted in the informants’ current home and still photos of their home were taken toward the end of each interview. The flow of the interview proceeded as follows, with quotes indicating an example of the actual words spoken by the facilitator/interviewer:

The opening remarks: "The subject of our interview is "home and comfort". First of all, I would like to thank you for agreeing to be interviewed and I would like now to have your permission to disclose your thoughts and feelings about the focal issue [the informant agreed]. As you may have known already, this is an academic research project, and therefore all of the data you release in our conversation will be kept strictly confidential. Now, if you are ready, I would like to begin the interview."

The interview questions were then delivered following the ORID order. See Exhibit 4 for a description of the questions.

The graphic drawings of the informant’s current home and their ideal home respectively. After the ORID session, the informant was asked to draw on a piece of blank paper, from a bird eye’s view, their existing home, highlighting any spots, corners, rooms and/or objects that best represent their idea of a comfortable home with a caption and a brief line of written description, then provide a verbal explanation of their thoughts and feelings to the interviewer. Afterwards the informants was further requested to do another drawing of their ideal home, again from a bird eye’s view and highlighting the relevant spots, corners, rooms and/or objects that best represent their idea of a home of comfort. During the time in which the informant spent on drawing, the interviewer went around the house and took still photos with a digital camera of the objects, corners, spots or rooms specified by the informants in the interview.

Next the interview requested the informants to do two monologues with their home: first from the owner/dweller to his/her house, and secondly from the home/house (impersonated by the informant) back to its owner/dweller (Marcus 1995).

In the closing comments, the interviewer asked the informant to add anything that was left unsaid in the conversation and then announced t the informant that the interview was now completed.

EXHIBIT 3

PREPARATION OF THE FOCUSED CONVERSATION

EXHIBIT 4

THE FOUR LEVELS OF QUESTIONS IN FOCUS CONVERSATIONS AND ITS OPERATIONALIZATION IN THE IN-DEPTH PERSONAL INTERVIEWS OF "MY HOME, MY COMFORT: A CONSUMPTION INTERPRETIVISM OF ITS FANTASIES AND REFLECTIONS."

B. Preliminary Findings and Discussions

Since the major purpose of this article is to examine the potential value of a new methodological tool in doing depth interviews, the discussion in this section is thus focused mainly on the feedback and observations gained from the execution of the technique per se, rather than a presentation of the data content gathered from the field.

Accomplishment of the rational objectives and the experiential aims. It should be noted that all of the interview sessions were conducted smoothly, with all of the informants successfully completing the requested tasks. Except for two informants, all the rest underwent a profound self-introspective journey in the interview about the intertwined relationships of their ideal state of home comfort and their real state of being in life, as is also evidenced in the current literature. Some even felt that the impact of the interview reached the level of a transformative encounter such that the journey had led them to go beyond the subject matter under discussion into a contemplation of the more central issues in their lives. While no substantial research has been done on informant/respondents’ experiences of the depth interview (Chrzanowska 2002; Gordon and Robson 1982),5 the current study serves as one among the few to demonstrate the salience of therapeutic effects that often results from an in-depth interview (Marcus 1995).

    General flow of the process

On the whole, the informants did not have any problem in comprehending the questions raised, nor did they find any incongruence in the order of questions. However, several of them did show digressions in responding to the questions at the reflective level as most people tended to use judgmental phrases like "I think", "It is in my opinion", or the interpretation-laden statements like "because...and" to explicate and justify their feelings. On such occasions, the interviewer would reiterate the question and gently request the informant to shift his/her attention back to the reflective-feeling state by simply asking: "What does it make you feel?" or "What were your feelings then?"

    The quality and quantity of the information gathered

The depth and richness of information drawn out by the application of the focused conversation method is worthy of attention by consumer researchers. In the traditional conduct of depth interviews, there are generally very few guidelines to guard against rambling and unconscious hopping back and forth across the four levels of the human mind. In contrast, the ORID method holds a focused, yet open enough, space for the informants to traverse through their own realm of self-reflections, thoughts and fantasies at a natural pace. Some informants even indicated their surprised feelings about the profoundness of the focal topic to their overall personal lives at a more symbolic level. For example, one informant, a forty-four-year old male professor of cinematography at a local university, attributed the current muddled state of his apartment to his inner sense of being spiritually unsettled in his life. Toward the completion of the interviewing session, this informant could not help but start to confide a traumatic incident of breaking his engagement with his former fiance. To his self-retrospection, his grief over the loss had subsequently kept him from clearing up the physical environment of his apartment, mirroring his procrastination in self- healing.

    The benefit of a multimethod approach

Albeit a common practice in consumer research, the combination of verbal narrative, textual writing and graphic drawing proves to aid extensively the collection of qualitative data and lead to a greater variety and depth in interpretation. The shifting of the response mode also complemented the different forms of reflections generated by the informants, thus rendering a more holistic understanding of the informants’ subconscious, even unconscious, perceptions of the issues under study. Judging from the holistic perspective of Gestalt psychology, the task of graphic drawing undoubtedly facilitated the disclosure of more subtle, inner personal thoughts that are often beyond verbal narration in a purely oral or textual form (Marcus 1995). For instance, one informant, a 43-year-old university professor, after her constant laments about her lack of satisfactory physical space in her present home, practically spread the circumference of her sketches to the very edges of the paper in her subsequent drawing of her ideal home. Another informant, a well-known choreographer in her early forties, had recently moved into a 40-year-old apartment loft. After a six-month project of thorough refurbishing, it was transformed into a wooden-floored studio with an open kitchen at one end and a window wall at the other. Its main purposes were for dance rehearsals, small group presentations, and social entertainment. Later in her drawing, only the scene of her sitting room facing toward the end where the kitchen was located was included, with all the other partitioning reserved exclusively for her private use, such as the bedroom, the toilet and the guestroom, missing from the illustration.

    Comments from the informants about the interviewing process

Several informants felt that some of the questions raised following the set of questions at the objective level, were a bit redundant, implying that the imagery and thoughts being induced were interrelated and intertwined from one level of questions to the next. As argued by Stanfield (p. 26, 2000), of the four levels of questioning in ORID, the objective level should never be downplayed or omitted simply because of its face simplicity in the opening of an interview session. The rationale behind it is for the engaging parties to evoke an overall sense of the different facets being tackled and recollected so as to build a common ground for subsequent sharing. By the same token, at the onset of each interviewing session, the facilitator paid special attention to thoroughly cover all of the preset questions at the objective level so as to ensure the emergence of the informant’s idiosyncratic understanding of the subject matter.

On the other hand, since a majority of the informants were deeply absorbed in the introspections and reflections about their current home life, which reflected their current state of being in their lives, they often strayed into telling side stories of their lives that were not directly related to home and comfort. In three instances the informants fell into a deeply contemplative state after the session ended and started to associate events in their emotional lives with the idea of a comfortable home life.

Equally intriguing was the fact that the informants were generally delighted, although bashful at first, about the task of picture drawing and the finale of their home-owner monologues. Although most of them had indicated before the interviewing session that they fell significantly short in graphic drawing skills, nearly all of them completed the task within 20 minutes.

C. Implications for future research

Several points are worth noting here: First, as already discussed in Section I, based on the traditional paradigm of depth interviewing, the success of fieldwork sessions is largely unilaterally assessed based on accomplishing the research objectives and goals pertaining to each individual research project. The experiential journey on behalf of the research informants/respondents is seldom, if ever, incorporated into the grand framework of the design in research methodology. In contrast, with the empirical demonstration of the present study, the module of ORID weighs the identification of experiential aims to be of equal importance to the formulation of rational objectives; together they stand as the two indispensable pillars in the planning and designing of group facilitation activities where the welfare of the participants is just as important as the outcome of the session itself. In other words, mutual benefits are achieved through such a process as opposed to the common guidelines of depth interviewing where informants are interviewed only for the sake of their capability to offer researchers information of substance.

Secondly, through the application of the Focused Conversation method, the present study demonstrates the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach in which the practices of group facilitation can be employed to join the existing techniques of qualitative inquiry at the level of individual in-depth interviews as well as group interviews. Last but not least, taken exclusively as a planning tool for the generation of sequentially sound questions, the technique of ORID can also be used as a guide for researchers to better channel their thoughts from the conceptual level of preparation down to the operational level of fieldwork execution, while still empowering informants with enough space to explore the underlying dimensions of sharing that are worth revealing. Preliminarily, I contend that the utilization of such a technique can indeed further the basic tenants of naturalistic inquiry and its premise of an emergent design. While the iterative process of fieldwork, construct derivation, and interpretation remains undeniably the holy mission of researchers, the use of the ORID technique opens the door of invitation for informants to join in the hermeneutical course of genesis of meanings and interpretative knowledge.

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Authors

Peisan Yu, Tung-Hai University, Taiwan



Volume

AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2005



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