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FOCUS GROUPS: Theorising from a Critique SOCRMx Edinburgh Ex.

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Your task is to review the following case study and reflect on the use of the focus group method.

McKenzie, L & Baldassar, L 2017. 'Studying internationalization on campus: lessons from an undergraduate qualitative research project' [online]. SAGE Research Methods Cases. 

Read the case study carefully and write a reflective blog post, addressing the following questions in turn:

1.      How have focus groups been integrated with other methods in this research?

1.1.   The research, although it used authentic participants was also (and perhaps primarily) intended as a means of practicing data collection and analysis using interviews and Focus groups as a qualitative method. Hence the logic of combining the two was prescribed for this purpose and this is, I feel, a weakness in the data collection strategy which was not tied primarily to each research team’s conceptualisation of the main focus of their study nor to characteristics of participants selected.

1.2.   This is particularly evident in the issue of timing: The reason one might choose any research method is related to the ways in which participants are conceptualised – because to a large extent that conceptualisation is a co-creation of the methods of selection and orientation of the group on which we are focusing.

1.3.   The largely novitiate learner research teams then were it appeared guided to view the construction of data collection tools as primarily a technical matter in relation to the time available. They were not asked to understand how those technical matters and how they were implemented might construct (at least in part) the group on which they were focusing.

1.4.   This is revealed in the treatment of questionnaire construction for the focus groups. The teachers in this case note that: “Some students included too many “ice-breaker” questions … designed to put the participants at their ease, but that could easily take-up the bulk of the time” (7). It is clear from this this that it was considered that questions of skill in technical design relative to resources (here time) was the primary concern of feedback to learner researchers. What is not said to be explored is how the inclusion of ‘enquires designed to put the participants at their ease’ might constitute the groups perceived identity internally or externally. The methods are seen as neutral in relation to the participants studied rather than constitutive. This kind of thinking (in the development of tools) is highly salient in quantitative questionnaire design and seems here to miss raising the meta-methodological (or reflexive) awareness required in qualitative work to ensure the integrity and rigour of the findings.

1.5.   The research teachers make a similar point about their learners: the latter were thought to be blinded to the acceptability of methods, such as opportunity samples, created by ‘snowballing’, because in quantitative methods such non-random sampling would be a cause of significant bias. The teacher-authors indicate 9correctly that, reflexively understood, such methods may not compromise the rigour of selection and analysis.

1.6.   However, this is more than a comparison of the differences in assessment of methods used in quantitative and qualitative methodology, which is as far as this paper takes it (p. 11). It is in fact another recognition of the fact that participant selection is always a means of constructing the group definition of a sample (random sampling has its own assumptions – particularly given the fact that it is only conceived as effective in redressing participant selection bias in theory not in practice). Those learners who wanted more ‘ice-breakers’ may have implicitly felt this – but are corrected as impractical researchers. My own feeling is that the students were required to some extent by the framework of this project (using real participants – but mainly as an object in meeting their needs as students within this course as framed by its teachers) to not understand (because of the resource costs involved including time) that a research method in part constitutes its subjects (often as objects to be manipulated).

1.7.   This is also clear in the revelation that snowballing produced very good focus groups. These kinds of group already had a basis of trust on which to constitute a ‘community’ and a pre-mediated relationship to the learner-researcher. Where though is the learner encouraged to reflect on this.

1.8.   Another weakness, as I see it, in the understanding of how focus group methodologies are learned is that the framework of this research prescribes seeing the participant groups as, in part (but I think a big part), tools to a pedagogical end, that is not focused on the participants’ but the learner-researchers’  interests. International students become tools in a learning process to the cost of any interest in their self-articulation, in my view at least. It is interesting, for instance, that this paper does not define ‘discourses’ and ‘folk models’ and hence ask the method to be related to those theoretical tools for understanding how group identity and intersubjectivity might be structured, prior to and within the process. For instance the 3rd finding of this study (p.6) identifies a ‘bubble effect’; but fails to see this effect as a possible effect of methodological assumptions.

2.      What difficulties did students encounter in the design of focus group questions?

2.1.   I have referred to this in 1.4 above. It is important to notice that these difficulties are in large identified by mentor / teachers and used correctively to teach appropriate method in questionnaire building (as understood by teaching staff). I would argue that the learners’ would learn more about issues vital to qualitative methods had they been empowered to test the differences that emerge between groups that are made comfortable by such enquiries and those whom are not. That introductory conversation could indeed form matter for analysis rather than being seen as introductory to results produced by the ‘proper’ questions. An important word on p. 7 is ‘coded’. Coding is an aspect of hybrid methods (between qualitative and quantitative). Coding is preferred to analysis because it yields results that can be quantified.

2.2.   This emerges in a contradiction (p. 6) wherein the teachers lament lack of prior training in ‘qualitative interviews or focus training rather than in ‘participant observation’. Indeed I would argue that the latter (and other ethnographic epistemologies) are constructed as a contaminant to good interview and focus group preparation.

2.3.   This need not be the case but has been pre-constructed as a paradigm of the focus group work that learners are herein inducted. I find that problematic.

2.4.   Another aspect of this is the paradigmatic schedule of research (pp4f), in which ‘feedback’ opportunities appear always to refer to feedback from tutors to learners, rather than the reverse, or (in my view) essential ethical and methodological process in line with ethnographic methodologies, feedback to and from participants to assist in the interpretative analysis of the results. Participants’ ‘speech acts’ remain objects for coding analysis.

3.      What kind of insights did the focus group generate, and how were these different from those derived from other methods used?

3.1.   This is not as clearly indicated as it might be. However, it is made clear that the kind of questions (see 2 above of which this is a continuation in part) can be used to pre-construct participant answers in a focus group as either encouraging ‘individual responses, rather than collective discussion’? I find this obviously open to asserting that students are taught to see how processes in methodology (such as question-building) can constitute the subject they address. However, it is not thus used. It is instead used to see the difference between the question0-based tools used in either focus groups or interviews. Again the focus is predominantly technical rather than on how methodologies enabled knowledge creation that is aware that the participants are necessarily responsive and constructed by the whole tenor of a research method.

3.2.   The answers from focus groups are related however to the theory of ‘folk models’ (p. 8) as devised by Agar and Macdonald (1995 cited p.8). Defined here solely as ‘shared perceptions of a particular topic’, this fails to see that the kind of ‘folk’ typologies that a group might represent, dependent on selection and socialisation, could be multiple rather than single. The idea of ‘folk’ is hence reified. I believe that this is an effect of the teaching agenda in this project.

4.      What are identified as some of the key findings from focus group questions?

4.1.   These are on pp 5f. They are rather mixed and that, in part because they are, in my view, under-theorised. We need to know the balance of focus group, as compared to interview, results that were coded as these themes, for one thing.


4.1.2.Awareness of conflict between institutional constructions of the potentials for international learners and the real ones

4.1.3.The ‘bubble effect’ in which, from the point of view of the ‘domestic students’’, international student experience is separated from domestic student experience

4.2.   These themes are presented in sequence as if their production as knowledge was based on similar epistemological and methodological assumptions – but in fact they are not. Some a product of transactional analysis between researcher and participant experience (4.1.3). Even the presence in coding of primarily student identity issues (4.1.2) may be an effect of the researchers and participants co-constructing themselves as primarily learners in one institution, rather than any other subject position. They find difference then, only within that subject position.

5.      What kind of issues did the students face with recruiting focus group participants?

5.1.   These are touched upon in 1.7 above. The learners are said (p. 9) to make assumptions on recruitment inherited from their experience of research methods controlled by the issues motivating hegemonic quantitative methodologies.

5.2.   Those who succeeded in forming a usable sample (by snowballing) were those with longer experience and greater networks within the institution. Most however (p. 10) ‘underestimated the challenges of recruitment’. This is explained (I may stretch the description somewhat) as an interaction of being unaware that social approaches are mediated by awareness of how these approaches are motivated by one’s own needs (as a community member) and concomitant disregard that their needs – to recruit suitable people – was not matched by the needs that would motivate those in the ideal ‘sample’ Indeed the ‘bubble effect’ is more a factor in the constitution of the researchers rather than participants, yet the learners are never facilitated towards this necessary perception in qualitative work.

5.3.   I find it funny (when I don’t find it ‘self-serving’ that the writer-teachers conclude that student difficulties are in fact a reflex of under-resources of teaching staff (p.10)). How easily does the needs of that community of interest find its way into these reports?

5.4.   In fact this interpretation rather confounds the error in teaching qualitative method, which should stress rather a reflexive attitude in fully qualitative analysis. The base perception required is that analysis must not pretend that the ‘object of study’, including conception of the participant group that articulate that ‘object’, is co-created and that a force in that creation is the political, institutional and ‘practical’ research paradigm that from the first identified. Reflexivity is a political act. It must over-ride the ‘economism’ (Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy) of the approach that leads this paper but by self-respectfully recognising it for what it is.


Steve Bamlett

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