Qualitative research methods: difficulties in managing focus groups and in-depth interviews

Qualitative Research Methods
Qualitative Research Methods


This paper aims to present difficulties encountered by researches in working with the most used qualitative research methods, focus groups and in-depth interviews, to highlight personal experiences  the  authors  gained  in  managing  qualitative  research  and  to  provide  some solutions identified by the authors in solving these problems. The data used for this paper have been collected from the researches the authors were involved in and which cover the field of social science. This work adds to the literature devoted to practical experiences in doing qualitative research. Whatever prepared you are for interviewing individuals or groups, you may face some reactions or situations less anticipated. The conclusions of the paper underline  the  fact  that  practical  evidences  are  verhelpful  in  strengthening  qualitative research methods and in developing research strategies in order to collect useful and truthful qualitative date.


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Bariers to focus groups and in-depth interviews and startegies used to overcome these challenges

2.1 Language differences

2.2 Sensitive topics

3. Conclusions


1. Introduction

Qualitative research methods are considered very useful ways in collecting qualitative data and in exploring new filed of studies. Studies reveals the increasing importance of qualitative research methods like focus groups, due to the fact that they are less time-consuming and less expensive way of collecting data than other traditional methods [1, 2, 3]. Also, information is more profound, stronger sustained and more reliable on a longer period of time.

The paper is structured as following. After the introduction, where a short literature review is presented, the paper presents the most important difficulties encountered by the authors in the research projects that involved focus groups and in-depth interviews in the last three years. These difficulties are presented in the context of the evidences mentioned by the literature. For each problem, the paper presents the implication these challenges can affect the consistency of the study and the approaches identified by the authors on the spot” in order to overcome these deficiencies. The paper ends with concluding remarks and recommendations for the researchers involved in collecting qualitative data that may identify similar barriers in their work.

Focus groups and in-depth interviews are largely used in social sciences, where the deepness  of  the  research  involves  an  immersion  into  believes,  thoughts  and  certain behaviours. Although they provide information in a controlled environment [4], qualitative research methods are largely used when the research imply a detailed answer to question why.

Qualitative research looks at settings and people holistically, not at selected variable that defines them [5]. Both focus group and in-depth interviews are valued for the capacity to be a double source of information. On one hand, there is the richness and the complexity of information provided by the participants; on the other hand, there is the interaction between participants which represents a valued source of data [4].

Interaction between participants in a focus group can generate new insight on the topic investigates, that the researcher didn’t think about it, or may reveal the necessity to complement the research with other methods [2].

Difficulties in conducting qualitative research are mentioned mostly in the area of health or psychological studies. Also, political and sociological studies raise challenges for the researcher about conducting focus groups or in-depth interviews. Difficulties encountered by the researchers in conducting qualitative research have been reported in business and economics, also, mostly for those studies that have to be carried on in international environment.

There are brought into attention aspects related to the relationship between researcher and the interviewed [6], the communication capacities when disable people are the researched group, [7], the empathy the researcher manifests towards specific attitudes or believes that are at the core of the investigation and how this empathy influence the attitude the researcher has towards different groups [8, p. 5], or how culture may challenge cross- cultural business research related to gaining access, balancing power, and attaining openness” [9, p. 141].

Recruiting participants for the interviews is another challenging activity. Personal contacts, good knowledge about the customs and the participantsfears coming from these customs are essential in building trust with the interviewed [10].

Among all these difficulties, the most challenging aspects the authors confronted with throughout their experiences in conducting qualitative research are languages barriers and investigating sensitive topics.


2. Bariers to focus groups and in-depth interviews and startegies used to overcome these challenges

2.1 Language differences

One source of difficulties in conducting focus group or in-depth interviews appears when the interviewees speak other language than the researcher and focus group method is applied in cross-cultural settings [1, 11]. Cross-language research” describes those studies that use a translator or interpreter during the research process and a language barrier intervenes between researchers and participants [12, 13]. Usually, a native speaker is involved to moderate the group or to conduct face to face discussions.

Collecting data from groups or individuals, in a different language, by a different person, implies some challenges [13]. Data collected may be affected if the moderator is not fully aware about the research objectives and about the type of information is looking for. As the dynamic of  the groups is an important  source  of information, a moderator who is not familiar with what the research aims, may ignore the significance of this dynamic.

The translation of the interviews is another challenge that occurs in cross-language research. The translator has to be fluent in both languages to capture the real significance of the words and expressions participants used, and the context they used those words and expressions. Mostly in the cultures full of symbolistic, the ability of the translator to capture the real meaning of the discourse is essential.

Studies [13, 14] recommend a rigorous selection of the moderator, a training process in order to familiarize him/her with the research purpose, a certified translator. Also, the final study has to offer a full a description of the collecting data process and the limits the research may have because of these methodological aspects. The success of focus groups in this context is dependent upon the cultural competence of the research team and the research questions, a careful planning related to methodological and pragmatic issues [14].

In the era of globalization, more and more studies are conducted directly in English, as English became one of the most used languages at the international level. Mostly when urban, educating, young population is searching, conducting qualitative research directly in English started to be more and more used.

Despite the spread of English across the globe, conducting qualitative research raises several challenges, mostly in the case of focus groups. Those the authors of this paper faced during their experience in conducting focus groups with Romanians participants are related to the fluency in English and how this fluency influences the information provided by the participants and, also, how the group dynamic is altered. Differences in English fluency can lead to a sort of “competition” or an inhibition” among participants. In a research the authors have been involved as moderators of the focus groups, a race to the top” between the participants with a high fluency in English occurred.

These participants started to engage into elaborated discussions, showing preoccupation rather to the richness and grammar correctness of the discourse than to the essence of the questions. Similar, among the participants less concerned about the language accuracy or with a moderate fluency in English, a sort of indifference occurred. A big pressure was on the moderator to temperate the “elitist” group and to engage more those indifferent. The strategy adopted by the moderator was to invite one by one those from the indifferent group to express their opinions and to limit the individual discourse of the “elitist”.

On the second focus group, at the beginning of the discussion, the researcher underlined that she is aware that the English is not the native language for anybody, therefore the accuracy of English is not important for the research purpose and nobody has to think to the language fluency, but to express the opinion regarding the topic of the research, as it was announced. Also, the researcher stressed that everyone will be invited to speak, and each of the participant will have the opportunity to share his/her own opinions. Using a joke, the researcher mentioned that it is not content for English speakers, rather a forum for opened and sincere thoughts exchange.

Another situation related to language barriers the researchers faced was when the focus group was guided by a couple of moderators, both of them fluent in English, but only one of them a native speaker of the language of the participants. The language announced for the interview was the native language. For the first two focus groups everything was according to the plans, but the third one brought an unexpected situation.

The discussion started in the native language, but, at one moment, one of the participants wanted to point out for the non- native moderator, in English, which is his opinion about the topic, just to be sure that you understand what I said, because I don’t know how this will be translated. From that moment, everyone started to talk in English, and differences in the English fluency affected the time allocated for the discussions. At one point, because some of the participants started to watch their watches, the moderators have invoked time constraints and invited the participants to restart to talk in their native language, for a more fluid discussion, ensuring them that the translation of the discussions will be very rigours.

The moderators thought that may be a problem of trust for some participants, related to the process of information processing.

Therefore, the non-native speaker moderator offers to send the translation to all the participants to check the accuracy of their speech, by request. The audience returned to the native language and the focus group has continued smoothly. Interesting, nobody sent a request for the translated transcript!


2.2 Sensitive topics

Investing sensitive topics is specific to qualitative research. When it comes to sensitive topics, whatever these are in the area of health or politics, the researchers have to be prepared for a lot of emotions and a lot of change in the mood. For sensitive topics that involve going deeper into the emotional state of a person, in-depth interviews are usually recommended. A face to face interview offers the frame for a more intimate atmosphere, were trust can grow and thoughts are expressed freely.

However, there are situations when in-depth interviews don’t follow this rule. In a research conducted by the authors on immigration issues [2], the participants in in-depth interviews were rather concerned by their politically correct attitude than by presenting their real believes and the reasons behind those believes. To change the unproductive discussion, the moderator asks the interviewed to comment a remark made by the moderator’s mother.

That remark was not a socially expectedattitude. Instantly, the interviewed  felt  more  confidents  and  started  to  say that,  sometimes,  she feels  the same because there are many reasons behind this negative attitude. Then, the interviewed started to elaborate on those reasons. The conclusion of the researcher was that the person was afraid not to be considered as free of compassion, less human, and less sensible.

Political aspects are always very delicate issues, whatever the reasons discussions involve. Usually,  when  politic  interfere  with  your  research  objectives,  the  most  recommended strategies are to go for in-depth interviews or, if the research method is focus-group, to be careful, when selecting the participants, to share same political views in one group.

However, political controversies can erupt even when the politics seems to have no connection to the research objectives and to the themes discussed into the focus group. In a research focused on the business diaspora contribution to the development of the home country, in the first focus group two of the participants started to argue about a recent political event in the home country. The event occurred after the focus group was established and the interview was planned.

The event had no direct connection to the research objectives and the researcher mentioned at the beginning that the discussion will be focused on the relationship between  the  performance  of  the  business  diaspora  and  how  this  performance  mabe translated into development strategies in the home country. At one point, one of the participants mentioned that when events like this happen in your home country, you feel that it is a blurred future for your country. Starting with this remark, the risk to have a split in the focus group between supporters and detractors of the home country government was obvious.

The researcher interrupted the conversation and pointed out that the discussion should avoid introducing that specific event into discussion because separate interviews will carry on that topic. And if anybody is interested to discuss about this topic is welcome to appoint for an in-depth interview. It was not the intention at the beginning of the research to schedule interviews on political aspects. The idea proved to be a very good one. The focus groups worked perfectly and most of the participants in the focus group wanted to participate to face to face interviews. Data collected through focus groups were very well accompanied with those form the in-depth interviews.

A challenging situation in focus groups is when some participants consider that it is their duty to educate the rest of the participants for the sake of the general good. In a research related to health policies designated to prevention, one of the participants started to preach how advisable is to perform periodically different medical controls, because prevention is the best weapon you have to keep your health.

When other participants recognized that they are aware about these recommendations and about consequences on medium and long term for not performing periodically medical examinations, but, for different reasons, they ignore those advices, the preacher” started to persuade them, offering examples, explaining the consequences, devoting a large part of its discourse to convince those to change their habits.

This attitude was not received very well by the target persons, who started to fight back and to reject advices. First, the risk was to induce animosity between participants and to alter the group dynamic. Secondly, the discussion was threatened to distant from the research objectives.

The researcher interrupted the preacher, asking her what incentives authorities should use in order to increases the number of people screened. In this way, the researcher moved the attention of the preacher from specific participants to an invisible” responsible, without offending her well intentions. For the next focus group on the same topic, at the beginning of the discussion, the researcher emphasized even stronger than at the beginning of the previous focus group that the discussion doesn’t have the mission to judge or to educate, but to find out believes, reasons, causes.


3. Conclusions

This paper aimed to present some examples from the authors’ research experience to reveal the difficulties that anybody involved in collecting data through in-depth interviews and focus groups  maencounter. A further aim was to explore the approaches the authors have identified and used to overcome these difficulties.

Two aspects mostly occurred from the researcher experiences as being source for possible disruptions of valuable conversations: languages barriers and approaching sensitive topics.

Examples from the research conducted by the authors have been provided and approaches identified by the researchers have been revealed.

It is almost impossible to imagine all delicate situations you may come across in-depth interviews and mostly in focus groups. Therefore, the preparation for qualitative research, in general, is essential for a successful interview and for collecting useful, valuable, truthful data. Knowing as much as possible about your participants, about the cultural context the interviewed come from is a must for a good preparation of the meetings.

Of course, a psychological training for moderators is an asset; however, many researchers do not have this training and, therefore, the experiences shared by others are very helpful in imagine as many barriers as possible when you prepare your own research.

Nevertheless, nothing can replace your personal experience. As more as you can participate in moderating focus groups or in conducting in-depth interviews, as more prepared you will be to overcome unexpected barriers you will have.


Contributo selezionato da Filodiritto tra quelli pubblicati nei Proceedings “International E-Conference Enterprises in the Global Economy - 2018”

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Contribution selected by Filodiritto among those published in the Proceedings “International E-Conference Enterprises in the Global Economy - 2018”

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