Inclusive Focus Groups

Inclusive focus groups are a designer’s best friend for many reasons. Through accommodation, focus groups reflect a society that values inclusivity and diversity, as they are mirrors to our own communities.

Crowd of people on a subway platform
Rush hour in Montreal. Photo by Nell Chitty.

When conducting inclusive research, it is important to include the subject demographic in the research process. Traditionally in the research of minority groups, such as persons with disabilities, the subject’s experience and knowledge are unrepresented. This is because the persons conducting the research are from outside of the community, with no first hand experience of what it is like to be a member of the group that they are studying (Kitchin 1).  One ways of actively engaging subjects in the research being done on their own community is through focus groups (Morgan 133).

Focus groups help to reflect the ideas of a society through gathering a group of individuals with a common ground together (Bauer, Gaskell 47-48). Focus groups are a flexible form of research, allowing the methodology to be adapted to the needs of the researcher and individual subject.  Inclusive aspects of focus groups include the interview process, facilitation, and location, all of which are malleable to the individual and group’s needs.

One cannot talk about focus groups without discussing interviews, as there are many similarities between individual interviews and group interviews (Bauer, Gaskell, 44). Both can be viewed as inclusive methodologies as they each allow for a free flow of conversation where a facilitator asks questions and an interviewee answers them. Unlike questions written on a survey, a facilitator can adapt and change questioning to suit the interviewee’s answers, body language, and needs (Hancock 9-10).

A differentiating characteristic between one-on-one interviews and group interviews is that focus groups enable a researcher to interview multiple people at once. This is especially valuable when research requires a group’s perspective on a subject (Rothe 99). The more voices heard is often thought as better as it allows for a greater understanding of individuals’ experience and universal truths (Jackson, Mazzei, 1-3). A focus group echoes a society or community, allowing for a collective view that may be different than a series of individual views (Rothe 99). When a group of individuals are brought together, group dynamics and hierarchy emerge, often with an adaptation of the individual’s opinion to that of the consensus of the group (Bauer, Gaskell, 47).

A shortcoming of interviewing is that verbal words are the “main medium of exchange” between participants and researcher (Bauer, Gaskell, 45). This can create exclusivity if a participant or researcher is non-verbal or has difficulty communicating. However, due to the malleability of focus groups, accommodations can be made.  For example, if a person does not speak the primary form of language used, a translator can be brought in. If a person has difficulty expressing them self verbally, but has assistive technology to aid in expression, then accommodations should be made to bring that technology into the interview setting. These are two of the many ways that accommodations can be made.

Due to the malleability of focus groups, the success of the research is dependent on how participants interact with each other and the facilitator. When choosing a facilitator for the focus group, it is important to take into consideration their perceived role by the subject community (Kitchin 4). Are they a member of the community themselves, an outsider to the community, or in-between these two categories? All three categories have positive and negative attributes associated with them that affect the direction of the research and its perceived inclusivity (Corbin Dwyer, Buckler 56-62).

When a researcher is an insider, they will have first hand experience, knowledge, and are credible about the subject at hand (Kitchen 4) (Corbin Dwyer, Buckler 56). The participants may also open up more when they have an identifiable common ground and a sense of trust with the researcher because of shared experience. However, this emotional connection may jeopardize the study as an emotional response may limit the research (Corbin Dwyer, Buckler 56). Outsiders who have specialized skills and knowledge will have the ability to question the experience of the participant (Kitchen 4) (Corbin Dwyer, Buckler 57). However, they can also misinterpret and misuse the information coming from a community they do not wholly understand (Kitchen 1-2). When a researcher can hold both perspectives of insider and outsider by remaining in-between these two polar opposites, they can utilize both benefits and hold the greatest malleability. This identity does create vulnerability however, as an in-between researcher cannot fully occupy one space or another (Corbin Dwyer, Buckler 61-63).

Focus groups are not restricted to holding sessions in a particular environment. An area can be chosen to suit the combined needs of the participants. The location should be decided upon by looking at the associations and location of the residences of the research participants. To avoid a bias in the opinions shared, neutral spaces need to be established to avoid a strong service or education ambiance. A physical space that is outside of an institutional context and in use by the community itself can be felt as empowering to the participants as institutions are not value-neutral (Doyle 7).

Location can be a difficult decision to make when organizing focus groups. The person choosing and organizing a location for a focus group needs to be conscious of the needs of the participants and how potential spaces can be adapted to their needs. For example, do any participants have problems with small or enclosed spaces, or is navigating the building difficult with a cognitive disorder or vision impairment? Are the entrances to the building, washrooms, and the space utilized by the focus group, wheelchair accessible? Can obstructions in the building be moved out of the way? The space must be malleable to the needs of the participants (Doyle 4).

When conducting inclusive research, it is important to include the subject demographic in the research process (Kitchin 4). Focus groups are an excellent way to complete inclusive research because of their malleability. Through their structure, focus groups evolve with the answers of its participants. This fluidity transfers into how focus groups allow for adaptation and customization for individual needs in a group setting through the interview process, the facilitation, and location. All three categories have benefits and areas of improvement to address in the context of an inclusive focus group, but can be changed to meet the unique needs of an individual within a group setting. Through accommodation, focus groups reflect a society that values inclusivity and diversity, as they are mirrors to our own communities.

Reference List

Bauer, M, and Gaskell, G. Qualitative Researching with Text, Image and Sound: A Practical Handbook. (2000). London: SAGE.

Corbin Dwyer, S. and Buckle, J.L. “The space between: on being an insider-outsider in qualitative research.” International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 2009. 8 (1) pp.54-63. 2009. Web. 22 Nov. 2011.

Doyle, J. “Using Focus Groups as a Research Method in Intellectual Disability Research.” National Federation of Voluntary Bodies, 2009. (n.d). Web. 22 Dec. 2011.

Hancock, B. (1998). An Introduction to Qualitative Research. University of Nottingham. Web. 22 Dec. 2011. PDF document.

Kitchin, R. “Towards. Emancipatory and Empowering Disability Research:

Reflections on Three Participatory Action Research Projects.” National Disability Authority. (n.d.). Web. 22 Dec. 2011. PDF document.

Jackson, A.Y. and Mazzei, L.A. Voice in Qualitative Inquiry: Challenging Conventional, Interpretive, and Critical Conceptions in Qualitative Research. (2009). New York: Routledge.

Morgan, D. L. (1996). “Focus Groups”. Annual Review of Sociology, 22, 129-152. Web. 12 Jan. 2012. PDF document.

Rothe, J. P. (1993). Qualitative Research: A Practical Guide. Heidelberg, Ont: RCI Publications.


Author: nchitty

Inclusive designer based out of Toronto.

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