They may not qualify as ‘proper focus groups’, as when it comes to that horrible word ‘methodology’, I am largely self-taught, but for
decades, I have been sitting down under trees, in people’s houses or in NGO offices and talking to groups of men and women about their lives. It’s one of the most fulfilling aspects of working in development.
The conversations feed into my writing and analysis, but also prompt new ideas and takes on different development issues- a good group discussion sends your thoughts racing off in numerous different directions. I greatly prefer them to the kind of one-to-one interview you sometimes need to conduct for a report or article, but which the interviewee can often experience as an intimidating interrogation by an unknown whitey. With groups, the balance of power is less skewed, especially when discussions get going. Maybe as you spend longer in a place and get to know people, the one-to-ones become more useful – my colleague Martin Walsh sees ‘group interviews as a kind of collective brainstorm and first cut at issues; individual interviews to tease out details and differences of opinion.’ Sadly, I don’t normally stay long enough to get to that stage.
Here are a few tips on getting the most out of them.
The Basics: Know how long you’ve got for the meeting. Introduce yourself and why you’re here. Sit in a circle, and begin by going round and collecting names. If people are literate, ask them to write down their names, ages etc themselves. Then you can quickly refer back to the list and put names to comments as you take notes.
Be prepared: Have a list of questions on a separate sheet of paper to refer to while waiting for translations etc. There’s nothing worse than drying up (e.g. if you’re jetlagged or ill) or forgetting to ask about something and remembering just as you leave the meeting. But you’re not filling in a questionnaire – if it goes well, you should abandon the list and follow conversational threads, use your instinct, be a bit random.
Ethics and Courtesy: explain at the beginning what you intend to do with the material; end by asking people if they have any questions for you (their questions are often really interesting). Be prepared to talk about yourself (age, kids etc) and the real politics or other issues in your country. If people ask your advice, give it your best shot, however inadequate you feel (but explain if you are not an expert on the topic). They can always ignore it if it isn’t useful.
Working through translators: This can be frustrating as hell, especially if the translator is struggling and/or has their own agenda – the five minute animated response that is then translated as ‘they don’t think so’ drives me crazy. Keep your questions singular, simple and avoid complex plays on words. Explain to the translator how you would like to work with them, (eg translating short or long) but in the end, you have no choice but to accept a level of uncertainty over what people really said. Remember, you’re privileged to be there at all and have people give up their time to talk to you.
Handling intermediaries: Often, there will be people in the group such as health promoters, or technical assistance people, who sometimes feel they should speak on behalf of the group. Even though they are often very knowledgeable, they do not represent the group as a whole, so you need to listen for a bit then use questions and body language to politely move on to the other members of the group.
Men v Women: A classic challenge, especially if you’re a male interviewer, is to avoid men doing all the talking in mixed groups (all-women ones are usually much easier). You need to prompt the translator, and when a woman starts talking, encourage her, but you can’t be too blatant. If you just blurt out ‘I want to hear from the women’, it can cause offense or bafflement.
Have fun: If you can, get people talking, laughing and disagreeing. As an ice breaker, you can try saying hello in the local language in a suitably awful accent. Asking ‘who works harder, men or women?’ usually provokes a good argument. Banter a bit. Enjoy yourself.
Keep a foot in each camp: It’s easy to obsess on details (e.g. the prices of different kinds of food) that subsequently prove of little use. The hardest thing is to remember your eventual readership and what will be meaningful to them, at the same time as genuinely trying to enter into the lives of the people in the room.
Remember to ask the big questions: What future do you want for your kids? What’s the biggest change in your life since they built the road? What’s so good about mobile phones? They’re often the hardest to ask, and the most revealing.
Be on the ball: you are likely to only have one chance to speak to these people. If there are long answers that must await a translation, skip back over your notes, and look for the gaps – what have you missed? What needs a follow up question? Concentration has to be total – you can always sleep in the car afterwards.
OK, that’s a few of my tips, what others have people got?