Focus groups aren't an obvious first choice for research into sensitive topics, but Pat Branigan says there are advantages
Traditionally, when researching sensitive topics, focus groups wouldn’t be the method of choice.
Personal information may be disclosed with assurances of privacy, confidentiality and a non-discriminatory attitude: a focus group format guarantees none of these.
There’s a fear that, within group settings, people are less likely to be honest, reluctant to disclose sensitive information and unlikely to discuss behaviour that a group might condemn or challenge.
Researchers also worry that group tensions might distract from the aim of research work.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve used focus groups to research topics as challenging as drug abuse, HIV transmission and deviant sexual behaviour.
I’ve found this method helpful in understanding why things happen and why certain aspects of a person’s behaviour are hard for them to understand themselves. Analysis also suggests that group dynamics can provide data not generated by other research methods.
Focus groups don’t always work, and the dynamics need careful attention, but - in my experience - they can add real value to a research study into sensitive areas.