Focus Groups: The Right Tool for Me? By Beverly Peters

Greetings! I am Beverly Peters, assistant professor of Measurement and Evaluation at American University. I have over 25 years of experience teaching, researching, and designing, implementing, and evaluating community development and governance projects, mainly in southern Africa. I have spent the bulk of my career using qualitative methods to evaluate projects; and write a blog for American University on Qualitative Research Methods for Monitoring and Evaluation.

In this 6-part series, I will discuss Using Focus Groups for Monitoring and Evaluation. The series will walk the evaluator through the use of focus groups, from deciding if it is the right tool to use for your data collection needs, to conceptualizing, planning, and moderating focus groups. Let’s get started!

I oftentimes find myself in situations where colleagues are keen to incorporate qualitative methods into their evaluations, and usually their data collection tool of choice is the focus group. Why is this the case? The use of focus groups is widespread, known even to those unfamiliar with qualitative methods in general. We recognize the power of the focus group to collect data, from its genesis and continued use in marketing research. Focus groups are relatively less expensive and time consuming than interviews or other qualitative data collection methods, and yet still generate the insider perspectives and understanding needed for evaluations. We all know colleagues that have used focus groups successfully for needs assessment, program design, and monitoring and evaluation. We may even have heard of evaluators using focus groups to shed light on findings from other data collection methods, such as quantitative surveys. But is the focus group really a panacea for accurate, inexpensive, and quick data collection? I think not.

I would argue that focus groups are a powerful qualitative data collection tool, only when the research or evaluation question warrants their use. The purpose of a focus group is to facilitate group dialogue and interaction through moderation. This interaction can produce insights as participants interact with each other. As Sarah Tracy tells us, focus groups allow for a cascading effect of conversation, as comments from participants link into each other. Evaluators see how people articulate their ideas, which can provide insight into the topic under discussion. The group interaction also helps with recall and gives the evaluator rich descriptions of shared experiences. Usually, focus group participants show less inhibition than individuals in interviews, as participants interact with each other.

Remember that focus groups help evaluators to understand how people think or feel about something, including community needs or project performance. When weighing up the use of focus groups, consider both the method and the environment in which you would hold the focus group. Consult your Evaluation SOW. Consider your evaluation questions and research topics. Figure out what data you need, and if it would benefit from group interaction and the cascading of conversation. If you need statistical, sensitive, or individual data from participants, or if people are polarized by a topic, then a focus group is not the best way to collect the data you need. In these cases, surveys or individual interviews will be a better way to collect valid, reliable data for your monitoring and evaluation activities.

Look for Part 2 tomorrow, and Parts 3-6 in the coming months!


Assistant Professor Beverly Peters, Ph.D., is a specialist in human security in Africa and has written extensively on economic development, democratization, and HIV/AIDS. She has more than 20 years of experience teaching, conducting research, and managing projects in southern and West Africa.

An expert on political and economic development in Zimbabwe, she has provided political analyses to the government of South Africa and the private sector, and she is regularly featured in local and international media, including the South African Broadcasting Corporation news, The New York Times, Voice of America, and Radio France International.

To learn more about American University's online MS in Measurement & Evaluation or Graduate Certificate in Project Monitoring & Evaluation, you can request more information or call us toll-free at 855-725-7614.