Group discussions

A group discussion usually consists of about eight respondents and an interviewer, usually called a 'group moderator'. The role of the moderator is to introduce the topics for discussion, and then only to intervene in the conversation to guide the discussion on to other topics or to curtail discussion that moves too far away from the subject. The aim is for the group members to discuss the topic among themselves, unlike the individual interview situation when the dialogue consists of questions from the interviewer and answers from the respondent. Here, the members of the group stimulate, encourage and spark ideas off each other. It is this process of group interaction that makes group discussion so rich in content. In addition to the spontaneity and frankness generated in group comments, it is also interesting to observe the process by which a group consensus is arrived at when there is an initial wide diversity of opinion within the group. To maximize contribution from each of the group members, it is important to ensure that members of the group are sufficiently similar in 'status' to feel free to make their points without inhibition. This usually implies that working-class and middle-class respondents should not be mixed in the same group, and that doctors and hospital consultants should be interviewed in separate groups, and so on. Whenever any members of a group are unduly influenced by the views of other members of the group, the process of free discussion is inhibited and the point of the exercise lost. Another role of the moderator is therefore to ensure that individuals with a powerful personality do not dominate the group to the exclusion of points of view that do not match their own.

Group discussions are commonly held at the outset of the research process since they give such a good 'feel' for the topic being discussed, and can generate possibilities for more structured investigation later in the research process. Often, only four to eight groups may be held, and each group normally lasts for one or two hours. Such small-scale research means that care must be taken not to generalize too much from so few respondents, even though they will have been selected for their representativeness of the wider group being studied. Care is also necessary in the interpretation, organization and reporting of data generated in group discussions. This is normally carried out by the group moderator personally. Group discussions are usually tape-recorded and often videotaped, to enable post-discussion analysis. Specialist research companies will also provide rooms with one-way mirrors which allow the discussion to be monitored and to be steered by an 'independent' moderator, and sometimes the client, via a private voice link to the 'in-room' moderator.

The quality of data from group discussions is largely in the hands of the group moderator, who conducts, interprets and reports on the whole exercise. Group moderation is a skilled task, for which psychological training is useful and experience essential. An advantage of the small-scale nature of group discussion is that it is a fairly speedy form of research. The whole process from briefing the moderator to final report may take only a matter of three to six weeks. It is also a relatively inexpensive form of research, particularly considering the richness of its output. The cost in 2003 was around £2500-3000 per group, including recruiting and paying group members, organizing an appropriate venue (usually a house in the neighbourhood from which respondents are recruited, or a hotel for professional people), providing refreshments to put group members at ease, taping content, analysis and reporting. A typical four-group survey of housewives would therefore cost around £10,000-12,000. Industrial, professional or other specialist groups are likely to be more expensive. The additional costs come from using a hotel venue, more substantial refreshments, higher payments to group attendees and the generally longer duration of group sessions, which may extend to three or even four hours.

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