2.3.2 Group Interviews

Group interviews are sometimes called 'focus group discussions'. They are different to in-depth interviews - they always involve more than one interviewee and are designed to generate discussion among the interviewees around a certain topic. It may be useful to think about having 6-10 people in each group who are of similar social status, gender, marital status and education to get the best discussion. Occasionally, it can be interesting to mix the groups to see what differences emerge. When choosing different people to take part in the group interview you need to consider issues such as gender, class, caste or religion. In some mixed groups, some people might feel more confident to talk than others. This will change the dynamics of the group and therefore influence the type of data that you gain through conducting the group interview. The idea of a group interview is to encourage discussions; therefore it is good to have groups made up of people who are likely to talk easily amongst one another.

The aim is to facilitate a meeting in such a way that the group develops its own conversation, raising issues through group interactions that might not emerge in a discussion with individuals. Another way to think about group interviews is as a mechanism to reflect on some of the findings that your research has already highlighted. Here we are looking to see how people discuss things as a group, exploring where there is consensus, and where there is disagreement.

The interviewer's role in a group interview is often described as being a 'facilitator'.

You will come to a group with a carefully defined topic to explore, and with 'stimuli' to get the discussion going (e.g. audio visual materials). During the group interview, the researcher's role is to stimulate and guide discussion. The skill is in keeping the discussion on course without stifling unexpected and interesting developments.

There are several ways to stimulate discussion around the topics you wish to explore:

  • A brief presentation of some issues
  • Photographs, radio or video clips
  • Print-outs from websites might be used, if that is appropriate to your topic
  • Wall charts and posters
  • A list of topics and questions for discussion can be written on a large piece of paper.

Once the interview has got going:

  • Note down key points on a white board or large sheet of paper and ask the group if they agree with these points
  • Ask participants to draw diagrams to illustrate their points
  • Include every participant in the discussion, asking each participant to comment on the topic, and on each others' comments
  • Deal sensitively with participants
  • Prevent the more confident participants from taking over the discussion
  • Coax less confident participants to take part with questions like 'What do you think?', 'Do you agree or disagree with what has been said?' 'Do you have something similar to share with us'
  • Make sure participants understand that their point of view is of equal value to all others.

As with in-depth interviews it is useful to record group interviews and later to transcribe them. Because there are several participants it is useful to take notes that indicate who is saying what as this may be difficult to discern from the recording later.

Where it is not possible to tape record group interviews, it is important to take extensive notes at the time. This will allow you to remember who said what, as issues could arise which you would like to return to or explore further at a later date. Group discussions should be run by at least two people - one to facilitate the discussion, a second to take notes.

It is important to recognise that each method will have its particular strengths and weaknesses. Some people may feel hesitant to speak about some things in a group. Alternatively, if a discussion or debate gets going it may provoke some people to talk about things that might otherwise have not been seen by them as relevant. Using a range of methods to investigate an issue is the only way to ensure that you are really coming to understand the issue and its relevance to the people you are working with.