Focus Groups

From Sustainability Methods
Method categorization for Focus Groups

Method categorization
Quantitative Qualitative
Inductive Deductive
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In short: Focus Groups are a specific type of group discussion with which qualitative data on the participants’ viewpoints concerning a topic of focus is gathered by making use of the group interaction and dynamics. For more Interview forms, and more on Interview methodology in general, please refer to the |Interview overview page.


SCOPUS hits per year for Focus Group until 2020. Search terms: 'Focus Group' in Title, Abstract, Keywords. Source: own.

The first use of Focus Groups can be dated back to market research the 1920s and later to the 1950s when scientists of the Columbia University studied the effect that the governments’ war propaganda on the radio had on citizens (1, 7). In the latter, the scientists had initially started out with a quantified approach where the participants pressed red and green buttons depending on how they felt about the radio reports they heard, until one researcher of the team, Robert Merton, proposed to instead follow a qualitative technique that he had developed for this project. More precisely, the participants would be interviewed as a group to discover their “subjective reactions” (Bloor et al. 2001, p. 2) to the radio clips. Together with a team of scientists, Merton devised “a fairly standardized set of procedures for these interviews” (Bloor et al. 2001, p. 2) and published them together with Patricia Kendall in the American Journal of Sociology under the title “The focused interview” in 1946 (1).

While the Focus Group methodology as such did not find much further use in sociology at first, its “commercial potential” for marketing and advertising continued to be apparent, so that Focus Groups started to be used increasingly in commercial market research from the 1960s onwards (1).

Seeing the successful application of Focus Groups by private marketing companies, organizations of the public sector started to adopt the method to e.g. examine the impact of state-run campaigns. However, the use of Focus Groups differs between the public and the private sector. This divergence is mostly a consequence of costs being kept low in the private sector and relates to a less rigorous analysis of the data then in the public sector as well as academia (1).

Already by 2001, Focus Groups were considered a “mainstream method” (Bloor et al. 2001, p. 17) which enable access to norms and meanings of “increasingly privatised societies which are less open to observational methods” (Bloor et al. 2001, p. 17). Even though Focus Groups can be used as a stand-alone method, they are usually applied “to complement, prepare for, or extend” other methods (Bloor et al. 2001, p. 18). Further, Focus Groups can be used as a means to “democratize the research process by functioning as a forum for public participation” (Bloor et al. 2001, p. 18).

What the method does

Focus Groups are a specific type of group discussion held in a rather informal setting (3, 5). The focus in Focus Groups refers to a specific topic or a set of topics being discussed, or an activity being undertaken by the participants during the focus group session (3, 4)

Focus Groups clearly differ from group interviews, as the moderator does not just aim to gather answers from the participants but to achieve group interaction (5, 7). It is not just of interest what participants say, but also how they say it, and how they react to what others say. The objective lies also in understanding “the meanings and norms which underlie those group answers” (Bloor et al., p. 43) and to “draw out the cognitive structures which previously have been unarticulated” (Kitzinger, p. 106).

Exemplary Focusing Exercise in order to stimulate attention and discussion among the Focus Group participants on the topic of interest. Source: Bloor et al. 2001, p. 44

The types of data gathered during a Focus Group concern individual, group as well as group interaction data (5, 4). More precisely, the interest lays “not solely in what people thought but in how they thought and why they thought as they did” (Kitzinger, p. 104).

Concerning the composition of Focus Groups, one can choose to recruit either pre-existing groups “who already [know] each other through living, working or socialising together“ (Kitzinger, p. 105), or to organize people into newly formed groups “that the researcher constructs by selecting members either randomly or, much more commonly, via [other] […] sampling techniques” (Onwuegbuzie, p. 4). The benefits of choosing pre-existing groups are that one might “tap into fragments of interactions which approximated to 'naturally occurring' data” (Kitzinger, p. 105) as people are used to converse with one another on a regular basis and that the participants can “relate each other's comments to actual incidents in their shared daily lives” (Kitzinger, p. 105).

Further, one distinguishes between complementary and argumentative interaction, which refers to the similarities and differences between the Focus Group participants. A group composed of people with similar experiences might make participants feel comfortable voicing and explaining their viewpoints and perceptions, which “may be particularly useful when one wishes to gain access to critical comments from groups” (Kitzinger, p. 112). A diverse group composition on the other hand “ensures that people are forced to explain the reasoning behind their thinking” (Kitzinger, p. 113) to the other participants and allows the facilitator to study the differences of opinion as well as their roots together with the group (3). However, a group can never be fully homogeneous, and both the complementary as well as the argumentative interaction are important for the data collection process (3).

The data gathered during Focus Groups – i.e. audiotapes, notes on non-verbal data, and items recalled – can be analyzed with a Content Analysis (4, 5). However, several aspects unique to Focus Group data should be additionally considered, e.g. regarding the relative contribution of single participants to the discussion, social factors affecting the degree of participation, the group and temporal context of statements and opinions as well as their potential alteration throughout the discussion as well as measures of dominance (e.g. the number of interventions and words spoken by different participants and their impact on the course of the discussion) (5).


The Focus Group size, i.e. the number of participants per Focus Group, should allow for enough information and viewpoints on the given topic while at the same time ensuring a comfortable atmosphere and enough opportunities for everyone to express themselves (4, 6). Around four to twelve participants can serve as a guide for the Focus Group size (4, 6). Over-recruiting the Focus Groups to factor in participants who do not show up is recommended (4). As opposed to the Focus Group size, the sample size is the number of Focus Groups conducted to answer the research question (2). The number of Focus Groups should ideally be based on the point of data or theoretical saturation (4, 2). However, financial and time constraints often become the cornerstone of decision-making in this regard (2).

During recruitment, a short questionnaire may be handed out to the potential participants of the Focus Group. The filled-out questionnaires can help in composing the Focus Groups along criteria such as gender, age, and other factors important to the research (5).

As group interaction in Focus Groups is crucial, the role of the researcher is rather peripheral and consists of the moderation and facilitation of the group discussion. What counts are the group dynamics and the interpersonal relationships between the participants (5). The facilitator should thus “encourage people to engage with one another” (Kitzinger, p. 106) and to animate the discussion (5). This is usually achieved by asking open-ended questions (5). Further, group exercises can be included into the Focus Group session. Besides encouraging interaction among the participants, those exercises are meant to draw the participants' attention away from the facilitator and towards the other participants and topic of interest, and to make them feel comfortable in the group. Further, such exercises can evoke physical reactions (such as twitching when a card is put into the ‘wrong’ category) which may hint towards approval or disagreement within the group and can then be explored further (3). The figure above shows an exemplary focusing exercise (Bloor et al. 2001, p. 44).

In addition to the moderator, an assistant moderator is suggested who is responsible for “recording the session (i.e., whether by audio- or videotape), taking notes, creating an environment that is conducive for group discussion (e.g., dealing with latecomers, being sure everyone has a seat, arranging for refreshments), providing verification of data, and helping the researcher/moderator to analyze and/or interpret the focus group data” (Onwuegbuzie, p. 4). The duration of Focus Groups commonly ranges between one to two hours (4). One and the same Focus Group can be invited a single or multiple times depending on the research objective (4).

Strengths & Challenges


  • Focus Groups allow to explore people’s views in a social context: “We learn about the 'meaning' of AIDS, (or sex, or health or food or cigarettes) through talking with and observing other people, through conversations at home or at work; and we act (or fail to act) on that knowledge in a social context. When researchers want to explore people's understandings, or to influence them, it makes sense to employ methods which actively encourage the examination of these social processes in action.” (Kitzinger, p. 117). As Säynäjoki et al. (2014, p.6625) highlight: "Focus groups are particularly useful in studies where the researcher seeks to uncover attitudes, perceptions and beliefs."
  • Furthermore, the group atmosphere makes many participants feel more at ease and encourages them to share their thoughts and perceptions.
  • Finally, Focus Groups are a way to gather data from several people at a time and are thus considered to be cost-effective and timesaving (4).


  • A challenge one needs to be aware of when conducting and analyzing Focus Groups is the censorship of certain – e.g. minority or marginalized – viewpoints, which can arise from the group composition (3). As Parker and Tritter (2006, p. 31) note: “At the collective level, what often emerges from a focus group discussion is a number of positions or views that capture the majority of the participants’ standpoints. Focus group discussions rarely generate consensus but they do tend to create a number of views which different proportions of the group support."
  • Further, considering the effect group dynamics have on the viewpoints expressed by the participants is important, as the same people might answer differently in an individual interview. Depending on the focus of the study, either a Focus Group, an individual interview or a combination of both might be appropriate (3).
  • Last but not least - and as with other qualitative research methods - Focus Groups do not necessarily aim for representativeness but for an in-depth understanding of the perspectives studied (3). However, “as the number of focus groups in the overall sample increases and their composition broadens, there is an extent to which the representativeness of their findings might be viewed as more acceptable and valid.” (Parker, pp. 30).


With regards to future research, Bloor et al. (2001) see the necessity to employ more resources and effort regarding “group composition, recruitment, planning, conduct, transcription and analysis” (p. 89) for Focus Groups to fulfill the requirements on methods used in the field of academic social research (in comparison to pure market research for example).

Additionally, future publications of studies which applied Focus Groups should place more focus on the impact the recruitment and the sampling process had on the collection, analysis, and interpretation of the data. Thus, more information on how Focus Group participants were sampled or on which basis a certain sample size (i.e. number of groups) was chosen should be provided, and their implications on the interaction among the participants as well as the data analysis and interpretation should be discussed (5, 2).

Given the complexity of Focus Group data, also the development of further methodologies for data analysis should be continued (5, 4).

An exemplary study

The title of the exemplary Focus Group study (Säynäjoki et al. 2014).

Säynäjoki et al (2014) used Focus Groups to investigate how Finnish urban planners perceive the potential positive impact of their field on environmental sustainability. Focus Groups were chosen since "the focus of the study was not solely on what people think but on how they articulate, rationalise, challenge each other's views" (p.6625). The researchers invited 32 urban planning specialists to a workshop, including individuals "from fourteen Finnish cities, the Finnish environment ministry, two architectural firms, four consulting companies, one of Finland’s largest energy companies, a market leading construction company, the Green Building Council Finland and the Finnish Association of Building Owners and Construction Clients (RAKLI)" (p.6626).

The researchers asked this group three questions as a prompt to the subsequent focus group sessions:

  • "Why is environmental sustainability assessed in urban planning?"
  • "How does environmental assessment steer decision-making in urban planning?"
  • "What is the role of urban planning in environmental sustainability?"

Then, the 32 participants were divided into three groups of 11, 11 and 10 participants, respectively, with one moderating researcher each. All moderators were provided with the same guideline, and their role was "to enhance interaction and to ensure that all participants had an equal chance to contribute." However, "[w]ithin these limits, much of the discussion was left to the participants in order to learn what they found interesting and important. Nevertheless, occasionally the moderators attempted to develop the discourses by encouraging the participants to explain their views, or even through discreet provocation. The group discussions, each approximately an hour in length, were audio-recorded and manually transcribed and also video-recorded. In parallel with the recordings, the moderators made notes concerning mainly the atmosphere, the interaction and the participants’ reactions." (p.6627). Importantly, in addition to the three questions that were posed prior to the focus groups, two further questions guided the moderators' actions:

  • "How is the power of urban planners to promote environmental sustainability limited?"
  • "How is urban density considered in terms of environmentally sustainable land use?"

The analysis of the data, i.e. the transcribed recordings and notes, was done thematically in accordance with Guest et al. (2012). This means that not every statement was assessed, but that the researchers focused on "on identifying and describing themes" in the data (p.6626). For this, all parts of the transcripts were marked with codes representing the five guiding questions. All data for each code was grouped, and each group of data was then categorized more specifically until "conclusions could be drawn" (p.6628). The researchers' notes as well as the recording were used to contextualize the data.

Further, all transcript data was separated into articulated data, which is found in participants' direct responses to the moderator's questions, and attributional data, which is derived from the questions that were brought into the conversations indirectly by the researchers. A last type of data according to Guest et al. (2012) would have been data that emerged from the group interactions, but none was identified in this study. The distinction between the data types was also done in the results.

Regarding their findings, the researchers provide exemplary quotes and highlight which focus groups mentioned which thematic answer to a given question. They further present a range of thematically grouped answers to each question, both in articulated and attributional data.

Excerpts from the analysis of the Focus Group transcripts. Individual statements are highlighted to support the identified themes for each guiding question. Source: Säynäjoki et al. 2014, p.6629.

The results to guiding question 1: Why is environmental sustainability assessed in urban planning? Source: Säynäjoki et al. 2014, p.6630.

The researchers conclude that "land use planners are not by themselves able to deploy the full potential power of urban planning to impact environmental sustainability" (p.6640), and depict a range of suggestions to better support land use planners in doing so. Overall, the focus group approach allowed for the researchers not only to gather diverse perspectives on the topic of interest, but also to perceive the underlying motivations and frustrations of the stakeholders and contextualize their statements accordingly.

Key Publications

  • Bloor, M., Frankland, J., Thomas, M., & Robson, K (Eds.) 2001. Focus Groups in Social Research. SAGE Publications.

This book provides a thorough insight into the Focus Group methodology – ranging from an account of the method’s development and current use in academia, guiding information on how to plan and conduct Focus Groups and on how to analyze the data as well as quality criteria for the effective use of Focus Groups.

In this paper, the process of preparing and conducting Focus Groups is outlined in much detail. The author provides many examples from her own research and explains the reasoning behind certain choices, e.g. regarding group composition, on the way. The importance of interaction in Focus Groups and its implications for data analysis are displayed extensively.

  • Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Dickinson, W. B., Leech, N. L., & Zoran, A. G. 2009. A Qualitative Framework for Collecting and Analyzing Data in Focus Group Research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods 8(3). 1–21.

This article presents different techniques for analyzing Focus Group data and describes how the particularities of the different types of Focus Group data can be adequately considered in their analysis. Further, the authors provide a good overview of the past research on Focus Groups and give guidance in how to recruit participants and in what to consider when conducting Focus Groups from a practical perspective.


(1) Bloor, M., Frankland, J., Thomas, M., & Robson, K (Eds.). 2001. Focus Groups in Social Research. SAGE Publications.

(2) Carlsen, B., & Glenton, C. 2011. What about N? A methodological study of sample-size reporting in focus group studies. BMC Medical Research Methodology 11. 26.

(3) Kitzinger, J. 1994. The methodology of Focus Groups: the importance of interaction between research participants. Sociology of Health and Illness 16(1). 103–121.

(4) Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Dickinson, W. B., Leech, N. L., & Zoran, A. G. 2009. A Qualitative Framework for Collecting and Analyzing Data in Focus Group Research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods 8(3). 1–21.

(5) Parker, A., & Tritter, J. 2006. Focus group method and methodology: current practice and recent debate. International Journal of Research & Method in Education 29(1). 23–37.

(6) Tang, K. C., & Davis, A. 1995. Critical factors in the determination of focus group size. Family Practice 12(4). 474–475.

(7) Säynäjoki, E.-S. Heinonen, J. Junnila, S. 2014. The Power of Urban Planning on Environmental Sustainability: A Focus Group Study in Finland. Sustainability 6. 6622-6643.

The author of this entry is Fine Böttner.