Populating a Focus Group by Beverly Peters

by Beverly Peters, Assistant Professor

Greetings! I am Beverly Peters, assistant professor of Measurement and Evaluation at American University. This is the third article in a 6-part series on Using Focus Groups for Monitoring and Evaluation. The second article discussed planning the focus group. This article will go more in depth into a very important part of focus group planning: populating your focus group.

One of the biggest challenges of conducing a focus group is figuring out who to invite. Your focus group needs to be a reasonable size, but it also needs to fit your topic. You want enough people to have a conversation, but not so many people so that there is not time for everyone to talk. Generally, I think that a focus group should have from 3 or 4 to no more than 12 participants. If people have a lot to say, or if they have strong attachments to the topic, or if the topic is controversial—then fewer participants is probably better. In this way, you will have a richer conversation as people talk more in depth.

When we use focus groups for monitoring and evaluation, we generally do not use a statistically representative sample. We usually use theoretical sampling or purposeful sampling that reflects the diversity within the group or population. Your participants need to have something in common, and that commonality is the topic of conversation. Perhaps everyone in your focus group is a project beneficiary, or farmer or a teacher, and they all approach the topic differently given their differences in opinion.

However, local level politics or societal, cultural, or economic cleavages can be challenging when deciding who to invite to a focus group. Certain focus group members might sway the discussion one way or another, depending on the circumstances and environment in which you conduct research. In such cases, you are likely to conduct several focus groups and then compare, or triangulate, or data from each. This helps to ensure that you are able to draw out as many opinions and experiences as possible with your focus group research.

Taking an example from my work, while conducting focus groups on a microcredit project in South Africa, I separated focus group participants by sex, age, home language, and income levels, as mixing these demographics would have meant that some participants would not feel comfortable discussing sensitive income issues. I conducted several focus groups and learned different opinions from these populations.

Knowing your topic, project, and the environment will help you to pinpoint how you might need to populate your focus groups to avoid micropolitics concerns that could threaten the accuracy of the data you collect. Look for Part 4 tomorrow, and Parts 5-6 in the coming months!