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Research Methods in Anthropology: Focus Group Composition

Different colored silhouettes of people in 2 groups

In the last blog post, you learned about some examples of the uses of focus groups in Anthropology. In this post, I will discuss focus group composition, meaning how to form groups with the people you have chosen to be in the study. I’ll talk about how big focus groups should be, how long a focus group should be, and how many focus groups you need to do. I’ll also talk about the types of participants in each group, and if people should know each other or be strangers. And finally, I’ll talk about issues of power and authority, socioeconomic status, and demographics.

How big should the focus group be?

Well, focus groups vary in size, from about 5 people to about 12. If you make the group too big, then there isn’t as much chance for everyone to participate. But if you make the group too small, then there isn’t enough diversity of opinions. Some researchers say that 6 to 8 people is best. Also, make sure that there are no observers allowed in the focus groups, only the participants.

Another thing to consider with focus group composition is that some people will not show up on the day of the focus group. So, you need to recruit more people than you need, in case some people are no-shows. But there is a chance that everyone will show up. How do you handle this? Well, if more than 12 people show up to the focus group, you can thank them for coming, but explain that the group is full. Then give them some of the refreshments you are providing and the full incentive. (The incentive is something you give to the participants to reimburse them for their expenses, such as travel costs. Many times researchers give participants gift cards for their participation.) If someone is very upset about not being able to take part, then add them to a future focus group, or schedule an individual interview.

Focus group composition. Image of 5 people around a small circular table.

How long should a focus group be?

A focus group usually lasts for an hour or two. Sometimes, if children are the participants, the focus group is shorter. But in general, plan on 1 to 2 hours long.

How many focus groups do you need to do?

Many researchers say that you should keep holding focus groups until you reach what’s called data saturation. At some point, you won’t get any new information from your focus groups–it will just be the same information repeated over and over. That’s the point of saturation. Some researchers plan for 3 or 4 focus groups with each type of participant. Then, they figure out if more groups are needed. If they are hearing the same things over and over, they have reached the point of data saturation and would stop. But if they kept getting new ideas, then they would continue holding focus groups until they reached saturation.

Image of an open hand with silhouettes of people above it.

Should the participants be similar to each other, or different?

There are two main types of focus group composition. Groups that have participants who are similar to each other are called homogenous groups. In a homogenous group, the people all have a similar view of the research topic or similar experiences. For example, a group of 8 women who all have breast cancer is a homogenous group.

Groups that have participants who are different from each other are called heterogeneous groups. For example, a group of 8 women with breast cancer and their husbands would be a heterogeneous group, because not everyone has breast cancer.

Homogenous groups are used more often since people feel more comfortable with others who are like them. But, heterogeneous groups can provide more of a range of different ideas and opinions.

Should people know each other, or be strangers?

If people know each other, then they may not want to talk about personal things that others don’t know about. They might be afraid their friendships would be affected. But if everyone is a stranger, then people are more anonymous and may be more willing to discuss their ideas and experiences.

Focus groups typically only use strangers, but in some small village communities, it may be difficult to form a group of people who don’t know each other. So, what do you do in this situation? Well, don’t put people who are neighbors, or close relatives, or in the same household, into the same focus group.

Focus Group Composition. Image of 6 people sitting in a circle in white chairs.

What about issues of power and authority?

Another factor to consider is if some participants have power or authority over others. You usually want to avoid that situation, so that everyone feels comfortable expressing their ideas. So, for example, you wouldn’t want to put a supervisor in the same focus group as their employees. Or, you wouldn’t want to put a teacher in the same group as their students.

Also, in some areas of the world, the community leader will want to take part in the focus groups. But, holding a group with the leader and their community members would not be appropriate because of the power and authority the leader has over the rest of the group. So, arrange to interview the leader later, and discuss the results with them as well to show respect.

What about socioeconomic status?

Socioeconomic status matters, too. For example, in some countries, people belong to different social levels, called castes. You wouldn’t want to put people who are in a higher caste with those in a lower caste, because those in the lower class may not speak up in front of those in the higher class.

Focus Group composition. Image of an open hand with blue silhouettes of men and women.

What about demographics, like age and gender?

Usually, focus group composition involves something called segmentation. This is when participants are divided into focus groups based on demographics, meaning certain characteristics like age and gender. This way, people feel more comfortable talking to each other.

So, for example, if you are studying people with cancer, all of your participants will have cancer. But you probably have a bunch of different ages and both men and women. So, put women in one group and men in another. And put young people in one group and older people in another. Then you probably have a group of young women, a group of older women, a group of young men, and a group of older men, so a total of 4 focus groups. So, you will need to conduct a minimum of 4 focus groups. You’ll want to conduct each of these types of groups over and over (with new people) until you reach the point of data saturation.

Segmenting by age

So, in the last example, I mentioned segmenting by age and putting young people with cancer in one group and older people with cancer in another group. But it’s not always this easy. Segmenting by age may be difficult in some areas of the world, because people in some cultures may not know their age. So what do you do? Try to estimate their age by things like how long ago they got married and what the usual age of marriage is, or by how many children they have.

Also, in some areas of the world, older people are very respected in their communities. So, in these areas, you will need to conduct special focus groups just with elders. The community will feel upset if respected elders are left out of the research study.

Image of a group of people sitting in chairs in a circle and talking.

Segmenting by location

You can also segment by location, like rural and urban. So, you could have a group of women who live in a rural area, and a group of women who live in an urban area. There are other characteristics that you could use in segmentation–these are just a few examples.

Summary

In summary, there are many things to consider with focus group composition, which means placing the people you selected into groups. The size of the group should be between 5 and 12 people, but you need to over-recruit in case some people don’t show up. The length of the focus group should be an hour or two. You need to keep holding focus groups until you reach the point of data saturation. Groups are usually homogenous, meaning similar to each other in relation to the study topic, but they may be heterogeneous (or different) as well. Typically people in a focus group don’t know each other, and no one should have power or authority over others. And, focus groups are usually segmented, meaning divided into groups based on demographic characteristics like age and gender.

Learn More

If you want to learn more about focus groups, take Anthropology 4U’s online Udemy course, “Exploring Focus Groups in Anthropology Research.”

Thanks for reading!