Tips for using focus groups to research sensitive topics

Focus groups aren't an obvious first choice for research into sensitive topics, but Pat Branigan says there are advantages

staff talkTraditionally, 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.

5 tips for working with focus groups

Tip 1

The dynamics of the group is data. Pay careful attention to interaction. 

Tip 2

A second researcher is essential to record non-verbal exchanges and supplements textual recordings.

Tip 3

Pay close attention to participant strategies, such as projection and humour.

Tip 4

Unless it seriously threatens group dynamics, tension should be viewed as a resource.

Tip 5

Interpretation of data must take the attitudes and beliefs of the individual, and their expectations of the attitudes and beliefs of the group, into account.

Running successful focus groups

To run a successful focus group you need to:

    • be transparent about the purpose of the session. Make sure participants know exactly what's going to happen and why they've been invited
    • choose the venue and timing carefully
    • when ordering topics, gauge how far, and how fast, progression should be made to more sensitive topics
    • interaction between members is the essence of a focus group. Enable participants to focus on each other, not you
    • facilitate a "natural discussion". But if the discussion wanders, use your skill as a moderator to draw back the focus.

Being a good facilitator

To be a successful focus group facilitator, a neutral position is best: you’re not there to play the “Jeremy Kyle” role.

Regardless of attempts to adopt a disinterested stance, the moderator can be viewed as a source of authority: group members may want you to validate their behaviour, or reflect back to the group on their behalf. You need to remain independent.

Prepare to hear some graphic, moving and disturbing stuff. When I was researching sexual risk-taking behaviour and attitudes towards HIV infection, I heard many exotic theories about where people claimed the virus came from and how it spread. Understanding what people think, and where those beliefs come from, is invaluable when developing messages they can understand and that resonate with their view of the world.

Sometimes, you’ll need to challenge the group. The trick is knowing when it’s safe to do that. Constantly read the group and assess the situation, challenging when appropriate or necessary.

You might encounter a particularly challenging group member, but it’s usually better to debrief an individual directly at the end of the session, so it doesn’t affect group dynamics. In moderating over 200 groups I’ve only ever had to ask one respondent to leave a session.

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