Involving Community Members in Focus Groups


Richard A. Krueger & Jean A. King

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    This book would not have been possible without the support of scores ofcommunities, neighborhoods, schools, councils, boards, and groups who have tried these ideas, suggested improvements, and given us feedback. Over the past ten years we have “given away” focus groups to many others. As we've shared, we've learned. We use the word share because the word taught just doesn't seem appropriate—more often we were the students.

    A number of dedicated people helped along the way. Among our teachers were Bonnie Bray, Carol Bryant, Carol Burtness, Leonard Covello, Sue Damme, Wayne Erickson, Sue Gehrz, Gretchen Griffin, Mike Huerdh, Barb Kalina, Karen Lawson, Pam McCarthy, Mary Montagne, Ed Nelson, Mark Nunberg, Linda Prevorrow, Ray Rist, and Rhonda Wiley-Jones.

    David Morgan, friend and valued colleague, invited us to assist in the preparation of this collection of books and has been invaluable in offering suggestions and strategies that clarify the writing and presentation of ideas.

    The production quality was improved by Susan Wladaver-Morgan, who offered editing suggestions. The staff at Sage Publications continually were most helpful. Their editors were encouraging, creative, and willing to take risks. Special thanks to Diana Axelsen, Ravi Balasuriya, Marquita Flemming, and C. Deborah Laughton, for eagerly contributing their talents.

    A good book is one that touches us in several ways. It should be serious, yet funny. It should be challenging, yet comfortable. It should raise the level of thought. But most of all, it should be fun to read. The best test is if you read more than what you intended. Our hope that this book does that for you. May you find the insight, the seriousness, the guiding principles and the humor in this volume.

    Introduction to the Focus Group Kit

    We welcome you to this series of books on focus group interviewing. We hope that you find this series helpful. In this section we would like to tell you a bit about our past work with focus groups, the factors that led to the creation of this series, and an overview of how the book is organized.

    We began our studies of focus group interviewing about the same time. Our academic backgrounds were different (David in sociology and Richard in program evaluation), and yet we were both drawn to focus group interviewing in the 1980s. We both had books published in 1988 on focus group interviewing that resulted from our research and practice with the methodology. At that time, we were unaware of one another's work and were pleased to begin a collegial relationship. Over the years, we've continued our studies independently, and occasionally our paths crossed and we had an opportunity to work together. In the last decade, we've worked together in writing articles, sharing advice on research studies, and teaching classes. We have generally found that we shared many common thoughts and concerns about focus group interviewing.

    During the 1990s, we found that interest in focus groups continued, and we both prepared second editions for our 1988 books. In 1995, the staff at Sage Publications asked us to consider developing a more in-depth treatment of focus group interviewing that would allow for more detail and guide researchers beyond the basic issues. We pondered the request and thought about how the materials might be presented. We weighed a variety of options and finally developed the kit in its present form. We developed this kit in an effort to help guide both novices and experts.

    In these books, the authors have occasionally chosen to use the word we. Although the authors share many common experiences with focus groups, our approaches can and do vary, as we hope is the case with other researchers as well. When you see the word we in the books of this series, it typically refers to a judgment decision by the specific author(s) of that particular volume. Much of what the authors have learned about focus groups has been acquired, absorbed, and assimilated from the experiences of others. We use we in circumstances where one of us personally has experienced a situation that has been verified by another researcher or when a practice or behavior has become standard accepted practice by a body of focus group moderators. The use of/, on the other hand, tends to refer to situations and experiences that one of us has witnessed that may not have been verified by other researchers.

    In terms of content, we decided on six volumes, each representing a separate theme. The volumes include the following:

    • Volume 1:The Focus Group Guidebook

      This volume provides a general introduction to focus group research. The central topics are the appropriate reasons for using focus groups and what you can expect to accomplish with them. This book is intended to help those who are new to focus groups.

    • Volume 2:Planning Focus Groups

      This volume covers the wide range of practical tasks that need to get done in the course of a research project using focus groups. A major topic is making the basic decisions about the group's format, such as the size of the groups, their composition, and the total number of groups.

    • Volume 3:Developing Questions for Focus Groups

      This book describes a practical process for identifying powerful themes and then offers an easy-to-understand strategy for translating those themes into questions. This book helps make the process of developing good questions doable by outlining a process and offering lots of examples.

    • Volume 4:Moderating Focus Groups

      The book is an overview of critical skills needed by moderators, the various approaches that successful moderators use, and strategies for handling difficult situations. Rookie moderators will find this book to be an invaluable guide, and veteran moderators will discover tips and strategies for honing their skills.

    • Volume 5:Involving Community Members in Focus Groups

      This book is intended for those who want to teach others to conduct focus group interviews, particularly nonresearchers in communities. Volunteers can often gather and present results more effectively than professionals. A critical element is how the volunteers are trained and the manner in which they work together.

    • Volume 6:Analyzing and Reporting Focus Group Results

      Analysis of focus group data is different from analysis of data collected through other qualitative methodologies, and this presents new challenges to researchers. This book offers an overview of important principles guiding focus group research and then suggests a systematic and verifiable analysis strategy.

    Early on we struggled with how these materials might be presented. In order to help you find your way around the series, we developed several strategies. First, we are providing an expanded table of contents and an overview of topics at the beginning of each chapter. These elements help the reader quickly grasp the overall picture and understand the relationship between specific sections. Second, we've attempted to make the indexes as useful as possible. Volumes 2–6 contain two indexes: an index for that volume and a series index to help you find your way around the entire kit of six books. Finally, we are using icons to identify materials of interest. These icons serve several purposes. Some icons help you locate other materials within the series that amplify a particular topic. Other icons expand on a particular point, share a story or tip, or provide background material not included in the text. We like the icons because they have allowed us to expand on certain points without interrupting the flow of the discussion. The icons have also allowed us to incorporate the wisdom of other focus group experts. We hope you find them beneficial. We've also included icons in the book to help you discover points of interest.

    The BACKGROUND icon identifies the bigger picture and places the current discussion into a broader context.
    The CAUTION icon highlights an area where you should be careful. These are especially intended to help beginners spot potholes or potential roadblocks.
    The CHECKLIST icon identifies a list of items that are good to think about; they may or may not be in a sequence.
    The EXAMPLE icon highlights stories and illustrations of general principles.
    The EXERCISE icon suggests something you could do to practice and improve your skills, or something you could suggest to others to help them improve their skills.
    The GO TO icon is a reference to a specific place in this book or one of the other volumes where you will find additional discussion of the topic.
    The KEY POINT icon identifies the most important things in each section. Readers should pay attention to these when skimming a section for the first time or reviewing it later.
    The TIP icon highlights a good practice to follow or something that has worked successfully for us.

    We hope you find this series helpful and interesting.

    RichardA.KruegerSt. Paul, Minnesota
    DavidL.MorganPortland, Oregon

    About this Book

    The intent of this book is to help researchers work with a team of volunteers in carrying out a focus group study. We're assuming that the volunteers have limited or no knowledge or experience with qualitative research. However, they do have other knowledge and skills that are essential to conducting the research. These volunteers have insights about the topic, experience working with people connected to the study, and an understanding of how the program, activity, or experience affects the lives of people. Furthermore, these volunteers are typically trusted and found to be credible to the target audience.

    This book can also be used by instructors who wish to teach focus group interviewing skills to students. To us, the difference between students and a team of volunteers is subtle but significant. The difference lies in the goal of the instructor. In the teaching mode, the goal of the instructor is to build the skills and knowledge of the students. In the volunteer mode, the instructor's goal includes not only building skills and knowledge but also sharing decisions, giving away responsibilities, trusting decisions of volunteers, and respecting volunteers’ experience.

    We're concerned about the misuse of the term focus group. Over the past two decades, this term has attracted lots of attention and has been badly abused. Indeed, some criticism of “focus groups” is justified, because what have been called “focus groups” are often no such thing. Many of these bogus focus groups are conducted in community environments and, unfortunately, often with organizations that have precious few resources. These bogus groups regularly have one or more of the following characteristics:

    • Moderators with no training or understanding of their role
    • Groups with erratic attendance—too many or too few people attend
    • Too few focus groups
    • Groups with open invitations for the general public
    • Groups that are perceived as threatening by participants
    • Groups that have conflicting purposes (e.g., to convey the impression of openness or listening, when there is no intention on using results)
    • Various group strategies mixed with no understanding of what each does (nominal groups, brainstorming, delphi technique, hearings, etc.)

    For additional discussion of the characteristics of focus groups, look over the first volume of this series, The Focus Group Guidebook.

    This book is divided into three sections. Chapter 1 provides background and grounding for working with others in research efforts. Chapter 2 offers a set of strategies that we've found helpful in team-based focus group studies. Chapter 3 includes examples of exercises to prepare a team of volunteers.

    Caution: Read this First

    Throughout this book, we assume that you have had experience conducting focus group interviews. You must have conducted focus groups yourself before you can involve community members.

    Based on our experience, there are three levels in teaching focus group interviewing. The first level is teaching about focus groups. This is the level often found in academic environments, such as in university research or methods courses. In these courses, the instructor has a general knowledge of focus groups and conveys the essential facts to students.

    The second level is preparing individuals to conduct focus groups. This level requires the teacher to have experience in planning, conducting, and analyzing focus groups in order to demonstrate needed skills and to answer questions.

    The third level is guiding a research team of nonresearchers in using focus groups. We feel that this level of instruction demands experience both in conducting focus group interviews and in working with groups. This book is intended for these second and third levels, and throughout this book, we assume that you've had this experience. At the third level, you find yourself leading a team in conducting focus groups. In this environment, you take on roles beyond that of the instructor. You become an adviser, planner, logistics coordinator, counselor, cheerleader, and more. Your challenge is to guide a team that has little or no background in focus groups in a research effort. The skills and background you need for this are different from merely telling about focus groups.

    The differences among these levels are similar to the differences between teaching music appreciation, teaching individuals to play instruments, and conducting an orchestra. This is a book about conducting the orchestra.

    If you lack skills in focus groups, consider putting yourself through a crash course. Begin by reading about focus groups. This kit is a sound beginning, but look over other sources as well. Participate in focus groups, or observe others conducting focus groups. Consider attending a class on conducting focus groups. Finally, conduct several focus groups yourself. Do the entire process yourself—designing the study, developing questions, recruiting participants, moderating the group, conducting the analysis, and, finally, reporting the results.

    Get experience by volunteering to conduct a study for a community, social, athletic, or religious organization. Pick an organization where you've had some experience as a member, observer, or participant. Offer to conduct several focus groups to determine needs, develop strategies for improvement, or evaluate programs or services. Limit each group to about five or six participants, and plan for a one-hour discussion.

    Once you've conducted several focus groups in an informal environment, plan and conduct several more groups in a more formal style. These next groups could include more participants (six to eight) and more questions (about a dozen), and could last longer (about two hours). Use the same focus group questions that you are asking others to use. This gives you an opportunity to pilot test the questions.

    Get yourself a coach. Ask someone to help you conduct your focus group interviews. It is helpful to ask someone you trust, but even more desirable is to ask someone who is knowledgeable and familiar with moderating focus groups. A veteran moderator is ideal—but often hard to locate. Ask your coach to critique you. The coach might use the criteria for rating moderators in ICON F5. If a coach is not available, videotape yourself moderating the focus group. Note the description of this exercise in Chapter 3, Section F.

    Prepare a summary report when you've finished conducting each group. This report can be used later as an example of what you want volunteers to prepare. Reflect on what you did particularly well and what you would do differently. Force yourself to write these observations down.

    OK, now that you are grounded in the fundamentals of focus group interviewing, consider your grounding in people skills. For the team effort to be successful, the researcher will be expected to behave in a way that is unusual in the field of research, involving such activities as coaching, cheerleading, and mentoring. As researchers, we are taught to exercise control over a situation to enable precise measurement and ensure consistent conditions. Lack of control in research is seen by some as right up there with chaos, contamination, and disaster. In fact, when working with a team of volunteers, ambiguity, confusion, and perhaps even chaos will become the sine qua non. So, get ready to take on a role in which you no longer have complete control. If you aren't comfortable with your people skills, lead jointly with a person who exudes them. Look over Figure 1.1 in Chapter 1, where we illustrate differing levels of control for professionals and participants. As you move to the right (toward increased participant control), you also increase the probability of ambiguity.

    At times, this lack of control will be vexing to you, the researcher. Team members will agonize over critical parts of the study, such as question development and audience selection. Sometimes you will think, “This would go so much faster if I just did it myself!” You will occasionally feel that you know a better way to frame the questions or structure the study. If so, you must put forth your positions clearly and coherently for the team to consider. The black box of research procedures no longer exists. It is essential that you are able to articulate research principles in commonsense, lay language. At the same time, you must be open to and respectful of the field wisdom of team members. Focus group studies are not precise formulas that are followed rigidly but rather human, social experiences. As a result, all factors that serve as incentives or barriers to that social communication are pertinent to the study, and this, then, is the territory where lay team members have unique expertise.

    Attitude is a critical component. Each volunteer must be approached in an honoring, respectful manner. Each volunteer brings something to the study. Every person on the team has talents or insights that are so important that the team will suffer if that person does not fully contribute. Each difference is valuable. Every point of view or conflicting value is a strength. The team is diverse, but on one critical point the members are in complete agreement—the need for information derived from focus group interviews. This view must not only be believed but be articulated to the team by you, the researcher.

    Finally, there is an additional researcher skill that is often overlooked: patience. Many times, you will feel that the process is going too slowly, and you may become frustrated with the lack of closure, the reopening of old arguments, and the lack of consensus—all of which are characteristics of team efforts. You are guiding a convoy that moves at the speed of the slowest vehicle. Some volunteers will be like snappy sports cars, able to turn on a dime, and others will be like lumbering semi-trailer trucks, with enormous inertia and great difficulty in changing directions. Your performance indicator is not the speed of the convoy but, rather, of the participation of all the individual vehicles.

    Directory of Icons in Chapter 3

    This is a directory of the icons used in Chapter 3. We hope that instructors will use these exercises, tips, and examples. To increase usefulness, we've developed a coding system to identify and catalog the icons that appear in this chapter.

  • Final Thoughts

    When the study is completed, give thought to how you will bring closure to the experience. A team of volunteers has worked with you on a journey of discovery. A lot of their lives was invested. Consider doing the following:

    Acknowledge the volunteers’ contributions, express your appreciation, and celebrate their accomplishments. You can do this in the form of a letter, a special event, a dinner, a certificate, and so on. Often, the most meaningful acknowledgment is the sincere and heartfelt thanks of the researcher, the study leader, and the leaders of the organization.

    Review what has been learned. Reflect on what you as a researcher have learned. Consider what others have learned as well. If possible, discuss this (maybe even in a focus group) with the volunteers. Ask what went well, what needed improvement, and what was learned.

    Evaluate the experience. The discussion described in the point above includes evaluative information, but you may wish to seek out and document additional factors. How much time was really needed by volunteers? What was the cost per focus group, and how would that have compared with alternatives? What are the lasting effects of the experiences in terms of the program or issue studied, the volunteers, the organization, and the community?

    * * *

    There is profound sense of satisfaction for the researcher when the study makes a difference. When the study is “given away” to volunteers, you greatly increase the likelihood that the study will be used. Without doubt, involving volunteers in a study and working with them can be frustrating, time-consuming, and sometimes even agonizing. However, the results are often impressive, and efforts to involve volunteers speak to a form of participatory research appropriate to a democracy. We've enjoyed opportunities to teach others and work with them in conducting focus group studies. These exercises and experiences have worked for us, and we hope they will be helpful to you. Along the way, you will probably find even better ways to teach volunteers. When you do, we'd appreciate it if you would share those insights and strategies with us.


    Baylor, B. (1993). Yes is better than no. Tucson, AZ: Treasure Chest.
    Cousins, J.B., & Earl, L.M., Eds. (1995). Participatory evaluation in education: Studies in evaluation use and organizational learning. London: Falmer.
    Fetterman, D.M. (1994). Empowerment evaluation (American Evaluation Association presidential address). Evaluation Practice, 15 (1), 1–15.
    Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation (James R. Sanders, chair). (1994). The program evaluation standards.
    2nd edition
    . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
    King, J.A., & Lonnquist, M.P. (1992). Learning from the literature: Fifty years of action research. Unpublished manuscript, University of Minnesota, Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, Minneapolis, MN.
    Patton, M.Q. (1978). Utilization-focused evaluation. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
    Scholtes, E.R., Joiner, B.L., & Streibel, B.J. (1993). The team handbook. Madison, WI: Joiner.
    Stake, R.E. (1995). Evaluating the arts in education: A responsive approach. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.

    Index to the Focus Group Kit

    The letter preceding the page number refers to the volume, according to the following key:

    G Volume 1: The Focus Group Guidebook

    P Volume 2: Planning Focus Groups

    Q Volume 3: Developing Questions for Focus Groups

    M Volume 4: Moderating Focus Groups

    I Volume 5: Involving Community Members in Focus Groups

    A Volume 6: Analyzing and Reporting Focus Group Results

    About the Authors

    Richard A. Krueger is a professor and evaluation leader at the University of Minnesota. He teaches in the College of Education and Human Development and serves as an evaluation specialist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. Over the past decade, he has taught hundreds of people to plan, conduct, and analyze focus group interviews. He's done lots of focus groups, but he prefers teaching focus group skills to others. He has had the portunity to teach these skills to a wide variety of individuals throughout the United States as well as internationally. He loves stories. Perhaps that is what drew him to focus group interviews. Where else can one hear so many stories in such a short period of time? In addition, focus groups have enabled him to tap into the wisdom of many people. Anyone who has listened to so many focus groups is bound to absorb and benefit from the wisdom of others.

    Jean A. King's biographical sketch from the University of Minnesota describes her degrees (three from Cornell, including a Ph.D.), her academic experiences (currently associate professor of educational policy and administration), and her coordination of a research and program evaluation collaborative with 40 school districts. All of this background is true and impressive, but for this book, it is of lesser importance. What's not told is that she has a deep and abiding commitment to empowering people with information. Many academics merely talk about working in the community, but Jean goes into schools and shares skills with teachers and community leaders. She has amply demonstrated her willingness to become involved in community concerns and problems.

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