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Focus group (FG)

Focus group (FG)

Table of Contents

Focus group

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1 Introduction

 

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2 Methodology

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2.1 Group design and dynamics

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2.2 Moderating focus groups

 

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2.3 Data input

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2.4 Data output

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3 Process

 

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4 Review

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4.1 Evaluation results

 

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4.2 Operational aspects

 

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4.3 Experiences

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4.4 Combinations

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4.5 Strengths and weaknesses

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4.6 Further work

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4.7 References

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Focus group

Åsa Gerger Swartling (asa.swartling@sei.se)

1 Introduction

The focus group technique has become an important applied approach to integrate stakeholders' perspectives and knowledge into Integrated Assessments (IA) and more recently and generally Sustainability Assessments (SA). Powell and Single (1996:499) define a focus group as: 'a group of individuals selected and assembled by researchers to discuss and comment on, from personal experience, the topic that is the subject of the research.' There are many variations of the basic method, but generally, a focus group is a method for collecting qualitative research data through carefully planned group discussions with the purpose of obtaining perceptions of participants in a permissive and non−threatening environment (Morgan 1988). The discussions are guided by a skilled moderator, who works from a predetermined set of questions. The group members influence each other by responding to comments made in the discussions. The results are analysed with quantitative and qualitative social science methods. If conducted and analysed properly, focus groups are likely to stimulate learning, to increase awareness among participants and promote more democratic and effective decision−making. In SA contexts, the technique is used to explore stakeholders' views and perceptions of sustainable development related matters with the purpose of reviewing existing policies and supporting agenda setting and policy development (cf Kasemir et al 2003).

The focus group method is not a new phenomenon. Already in the 1940's, focus groups were used to explore people's reactions to wartime propaganda (Merton et al 1956). Subsequently, in the 1950s, focus groups began to emerge as a method employed for market research (Goldman and McDonald 1987), and nowadays are still an important tool for the systematic development of product marketing strategies. More recently, it has become a technique of political campaigning and public policymaking (Morgan 1988). Thus in comparison with many other participatory techniques, focus groups are associated with a wider field of applications and a longer history. Common for these variants of conventional focus groups are typically that they require a single (two−hour long or so) session, among a reasonably homogeneous group of people who are unfamiliar with each other. No preparations are made by participants, nor are they expected to develop consensus, solve problems or take decisions on any matters. The method may be applied as stand−alone techniques, or combined with e.g. questionnaires and various quantitative research methods. Also typical for the conventional focus group is that not much (scientific) information is put in the focus group. The aim of the focus group is to get insight into the perceptions of the participants in the group, and the input of scientific knowledge may influence this perception.

In the 1990s, new focus group approaches were designed and applied in the emerging field of IA and more recently in SA efforts. In this context, the technique is usually applied to explore stakeholder perspectives of sustainable development related issues with the aim of reviewing existing polices and supporting policy development. As a common approach to participatory IA, focus groups may be viewed of as a way to democratise science matters and to empower ordinary citizens (van Asselt and Rotmans 2003) as well as a means to improve the quality of IAs. (Jaeger et al 1999).

While conventional focus groups have been used as a means for assessing policy interventions, this has happened without the provision of scientific knowledge to participants involved and without making the results of the groups accessible to public and scientific dialogue (ibid). However, IA/SA related focus group approaches are informed stakeholder discussions, since scientific information is provided as stimulus to the discussions (e.g. through computer models, graphic illustrations, scenarios etc.) to enable participants to react to expert knowledge and, based on their own knowledge and views, develop their own opinions and preferences of the topic under consideration. Thus the input from the tools trigger conversations among participants that may have clearer science−policy relevance than conventional group discussions. With regard to non−expert involvement in IA/SA efforts, by combining focus groups with the use of e.g. novel scenario techniques and models in a carefully designed procedure, focus groups with lay people are well equipped to

Focus group (FG)

make assessments with regard to local or regional environmental policy options, environmental risks arising as a consequence of modernization (ibid) and future images (Kasemir et al 1999b). In general, stakeholder participation helps clarifying (albeit not reducing) uncertainty and conflicting issues and hence it can support negotiation processes on environmental policy better than any single 'optimal' account or scenario could. (Jaeger et al 1999). Moreover, focus groups possibly yield a wealth of empirical data, including minutes, audio and videotapes, texts produced by the groups and collages and questionnaire answers on the topic (Jaeger et al 1998).

If designed properly, SA related focus groups are likely to provide relevant information and support to stakeholders engaged in sustainability−related assessment processes. Moreover, they can also provide useful feedback to the scientific process by elucidating participants' expectations from, and perceptions of, the (potential) usefulness/user friendliness from notably models (cf. Dahinden et al 1999). Thus the focus group process can contribute to a mutual learning process through the articulation and integration of a multiplicity of perspectives, skills and competences.' (Rotmans and van Asselt 2002). Depending on the aim of the study, this information may feed into model and scenario development exercises.

Compared to focus groups in the traditional sense, focus groups in participatory SA efforts require a more ambitious and policy−oriented agenda and several successive meetings to allow participants to cover a wide range of aspects and the multi−dimensional scope that characterises theses types of assessment processes. This means that much more time and resources are required by organisers to plan and conduct focus groups in SA settings than in less complex types of investigations.

Eventually, the focus group analysis in SA studies aim at supporting agenda setting and policy−making and occasionally this involves participants' own statements of policy options and recommendations for future policy−making, e.g. in the form of 'Citizens Reports (Duerrenberger et al 1997, Kasemir et al 2003, Querol et al 1999).

2 Methodology

2.1 Group design and dynamics

Focus groups come in numerous shapes and sizes (see e.g the application of In−Depth Groups in the ULYSSES and Visions projects under 4.3). However, this variety is often considered to be a strength, because it provides researchers with many options and the technique can be applied in many different contexts. Focus groups may involve different groups of stakeholders, e.g. representatives from interest groups, NGOs, policy−making bodies, or the general public. The stakeholders are addressed in their specific roles and relative to their stakes in a particular environmental issue.

In the literature, homogeneity and heterogeneity among focus group participants is an issue for consideration. In the SA context, focus groups are typically heterogeneous and sampled, aiming at socio−demographic and ideological diversity among respondents, and thereby enhancing the probability of multiple perspectives and experiences being represented in the assessment. However, the focus group method is neither bent on involving all relevant actors nor on getting a representative sample of the population, although SA focus group approaches put much more emphasis on the latter than the conventional ones. The method is aimed at detecting patterns and trends in perspectives among social groups, which implies that it is entirely possible for the organisers to involve certain social groups while leaving out others. If the focus group is run well and in a 'fair' way (cf. Webler 1995), all participants have the opportunity to express themselves ('to contribute'), to ask each other questions ('to discuss') and thereby influence the collective outcomes ('to decide').

As the result of a single focus group may be biased due to specific people involved, moderation style etc., even in small research studies a series of focus groups is appropriate to get reliable data for the analysis. This is particularly important in assessments on complex sustainability policy related matters, as a wide range of perspectives is sought from a rather diverse sample of respondents. The issue under scrutiny may also determine the selection criteria for recruitment of focus group participants and hence the group composition.

Focus group (FG)

The number of participants involved may vary between half dozen and one dozen, but the typical group size is seven to ten participants. Too large groups may be more challenging to moderate, as they tend to require stricter discussion rules to ensure that the participants speak one at a time and listen to each other, and consequently, more rigorously structured discussions may inhibit the group members to speak freely and spontaneously with each other. On the other hand, too small groups are less likely to generate rich discussions where a wide range of perceptions and experiences are raised and reflected upon. As a basic rule of thumb, more structured focus groups emphasize the research team's focus, whereas less structured focus groups emphasize the group's interests (Morgan 1998).

Group compatibility does not always ensure the open and comfortable environment necessary for a smooth and fruitful focus group. Responses may be greatly affected by differences in background or opinions. Levels of articulation and confidence may vary among the group, resulting in certain members being more vocal and less inhibited than others. This in turn may heighten the insecurities of shy or intimidated participants. Thus 'Individuals may be stifled rather than stimulated by the group' (Frey and Fontana in Morgan 1993) although the moderator should aim to prevent this problem.

2.2 Moderating focus groups

The invited participants meet for approximately 1.5 to 2.5 hours once or several times to discuss a theme that is subject of the research. The role of the moderator is to guide the focus group discussion by asking predetermined questions and to ensure there will be a good quality of focus group results that address the research objectives. The moderator is a well−trained professional who works from a predetermined set of discussion topics. If necessary, (s)he intervenes in the process in order to stimulate the discussion. Even though the participants may wander off, the starting point remains determined by the organizers. In this context, the moderator has an important task to ensure that the relevant topics remain the focus of attention in the discussion without hindering participants from articulating their views and concerns. It is generally regarded important that the participants are at ease with each other and speak freely, which may be more difficult when the participants meet each other for the first time. On the other hand, it may be problematic when the participants already know each other as people may be more concerned about saying the 'right' things and about controlling their behaviour in front of acquaintances than in a group of strangers. In addition, some participants may dominate the conversation and hamper other group members to express their own views on the topic. Also in this context, the moderator has an important role to stimulate a friendly and permissive atmosphere and a fruitful group interaction.

Effective moderating requires a complex array of skills. It is difficult to provide exact prescriptions for the style and strategy of moderators and there is a myriad of plausible ways to conduct a successful focus group. However, in order for the focus group discussion to become successful, some general personal qualities are required (Krueger 1998):

The moderator should be comfortable and familiar with group processes and dynamics, which includes a mild, unobtrusive control over the group;

(S)he should possess a curiosity about the theme as well as the participants. Indifference, cynicism and apathy are quickly spotted by participants and inhibit the conservation.

(S)he ought to possess communication skills, both in writing and orally. Clear and precise communication avoids confusion among participants.

(S)he should have a friendly manner as well as a sense of humor as these are helpful bonding agents.

(S)he should have a true interest in people, which grows out of a respect for each person.

A good moderator is committed to multiple realities. Thus (s)he should be open to other methods, suggestions and approaches without bringing closure to the conversation.

The moderator should also possess listening skills and hence a slight dose of introversion is often helpful. The participants should be at the centre of the stage and not the moderator.

Focus group (FG)

2.3 Data input

Conventional focus groups usually rely on the information that is provided by participants, whereas SA focus groups typically rely on some kind of scientific input that is presented during the meeting to support a process of social learning among participants. The scientific nature of the data input typically gives rise to arguments about their validity and are open to challenge and questioning by the participants. In brief terms, IA/SA focus groups can be seen as discussions about arguments, not just statements of preferences (although these are also important ingredients in the focus group discussions).

The most commonly applied tool in an IA/SA focus group is a computer model, or scenarios generated from models, and this is often complemented with written hand−outs, oral presentations by invited experts and the like. Apart from modeling and scenario tools, so far there appears to be few attempts to explore the combination of various tools e.g. monetary (e.g. Cost benefit Analysis) and physical assessments and Multi−Criteria Analysis (MCA) tools in focus group settings.

2.4 Data output

The focus group discussion is recorded in several ways: by field notes (from assistant moderator), by a tape recorder and sometimes also a video camera. Together with the notes and transcripts, flip charts, collages and, more rarely, written reports are outputs for analysis. The data may be analysed manually or with existing computer techniques and usually this is done by coding exercises.

3 Process

Each focus group session generates a rich amount of qualitative data in a few hours. However, to provide valid data, the focus group process requires very careful planning and timeline. In IA / SA projects, the planning involves the preparation of the scientific input to ensure that it is presented to the stakeholders in a permissive, timely and user−friendly manner. This is particularly important with regard to focus groups with lay people. The steps taken by the organisers involve: Planning, recruiting, moderating, transcribing, analysing and writing up of the results (cf Morgan 1998, Krueger 1998, Duerrenberger et al 1997).

1. Planning includes developing a schedule for the various steps as well as an investigation of what resources are necessary in each step; potentially involving outside experts, identifying participants on the basis of case−specific selection criteria, inviting participants, developing interview questions, arranging meeting venue and associated logistics.

2. Recruitment, undertaken by research assistants or a recruitment agency. This is usually done by telephone. Recruiting can be a difficult and time−consuming task. Thus an approach is needed that is both effective (the right people accepts the invitation) and efficient (a sizable number say 'yes' quickly). (Krueger and King 1998). In this context, a respectful attitude of the recruiter, reflected in words over the phone, in case of telephone recruitments, and in written words in (following up) invitation letters, will be helpful. Participants may be recruited by the researchers, volunteers or an outside group or professional agency.

3. Moderation, undertaken by a moderator and backed up by an assistant moderator, who does the recording/note−taking.

4. Analysis, undertaken by the researchers. The procedure for the analysis is contingent on the aims of the research. Generally, larger projects require more detailed analysis (based on detailed or semi−detailed transcripts) while smaller (conventional) short−term projects need less time (typically based on transcripts but sometimes only field notes).

5. Reporting, usually done in writing and sometimes complemented with oral presentations. The quickest types of analysis rely primarily on debriefing sessions and field notes after each focus group. IA/SA projects often require much more time also for the reporting procedure.

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It should be noted that in many IA/SA focus group projects, transcriptions of audio tapes recorded during the discussions serve as an important output for analysis. In such contexts, 'transcription' come as a fourth step in the research process. Such transcription is typically carried out by research assistants. For experts it may take 2.5 hours per recorded hour and for less experienced transcribers, it may take some 5 or so hours per recorded hour. Good transcription equipment is required for this. However, in some settings, or in early project phases, field notes (if validated by multiple members of the research team) may be sufficient. Given the relatively high costs of transcribing and full coding, it may be more effective to use carefully selected parts of the discussions for partial transcription rather than make a full transcript as a standard procedure.

The entire process of smaller conventional focus group projects (about four meetings) in this vein may require some six weeks or so, but this only includes a few weeks of reporting. However, in IA / SA projects, several meetings per group, more groups in total, more complex forms of transcription based analysis and reporting are required (cf Duerrenberger et al 1997), at least three months in small IA projects and up to three years or so in larger (cross−regional) projects in which FG research is embedded in a larger research context including other aims and activities. Apart from the general scope of the project, as noted above the form of the report has substantial impact on the timelines and hence the focus group session itself (and the moderation of it) is only the tip of the iceberg.

4 Review

4.1 Evaluation results

Focus groups are appropriate for providing insights into stakeholders' perceptions of what the problem areas are and why they are considered to be problems in relation to other issues. The tool can elicit respondents' views on how problems and issues can be addressed and in which contexts it is appropriate to do so. Comments made by the participants can tell us about how stakeholders perceive the characteristics of certain issues, and the relative importance and weight of problems and conflicting assumptions in comparison to other issues. Furthermore, it generates good insights into stakeholders' validations of policy proposals. From a rational or strategic point of view, focus group participants do not necessarily arrive at the most adequate selection of a policy option. However, the results help guide the researchers and policymakers to determine which alternatives are preferred by stakeholder groups and the focus group project may have a considerable impact on the selection of policy options. The focus group participants can advantageously be tasked with comparing different proposals and assessing their applicability/suitability in given situations. However, this process does not typically promote implementation of the selected policy option. The tool is useful for investigating stakeholders' views on how plans and programs being implemented work out in reality, and how to close gaps between expectations and actual performance of such policies.

4.2 Operational aspects

It is hard to give estimates about the time required to organise a focus group. Generalizations are difficult to make, since the geographical scope and the complexity of the research topic require very diverse focus group approaches and different levels of extensiveness and detail of the analysis and reports. While small projects in the traditional sense require at a minimum 6 weeks altogether, SA related focus group research typically needs much longer time, many more organisers, and more focus groups in various geographical locations. If investigators intend to carry out focus group research for assessments involving a smaller geographical and topical scope and limited preparations/use of assessment tools, a set of six to eight focus groups can be organised and analysed within four months. In contrast, focus groups in assessment projects that are large in scope (several case study regions in a comparative context), that focus on complex issues (e.g. multidimensional and interdisciplinary aspects of global environmental risks and policy options) and that involve assessment tools that need to be tailored to/configured for the focus group context (notably computer models) usually require 24−48 person−months. It should be noted that, while most EU wide IA / SA initiatives using focus groups span over a three−year period (FIRMA, ULYSSES, HarmoniCop, Visions) these projects typically run other research activities in parallel with the focus group process, e.g.

Focus group (FG)

modelling/configuration of models, scenario development, development of methodological approaches, theoretical studies and policy dialogues.

The costs of the organisation of focus group research typically involve staffing (the work time of researchers, the moderator/s and assistants), focus group sessions (possibly room rental, honorarium and refreshments) equipment and supplies (telephone, mailing, printing/copying, miscellaneous). Based on the calculations made in the US context in 1997 (Morgan 1998), the out−of−pocket expenses associated with smaller in−house focus group projects (about four focus groups and project duration of six weeks) are roughly $ 1,000 (about 770 Euro). Factoring in the staff time (excluding the hiring of professional moderators) the cost is closer to $ 5,000 (approx. 3,850 Euro). The equivalent cost of larger projects conducting eight focus groups (excluding travel costs, including staffing of professional moderator, recruitment agency/support staff as well as transcription of tapes) is roughly $ 40,000. However as noted above, these cost estimates are in the lower range of larger IA/SA projects, and can easily add up to well over 150,000 Euro per case study region. With regard to equipment a high quality tape recorder with microphone, transcriber, and possibly video camera are required.

In SA contexts, scientific input is required to enable focus group participants to assess these complex issues, potential policy options and actual policy measures. The high level of uncertainty of sustainability issues (no perfect technical tools available, lack of knowledge about global environmental risks and methodological approaches) poses challenges to the availability of data applied as scientific input to stakeholder assessments in IA / SA settings, which need be taken into account during the planning phase.

The output of a focus group consists of qualitative data elicited through statements made by the participants. The discussion is usually taped and transformed into transcripts that are analysed through different analytical techniques.

The focus group technique is fairly straightforward and comprehensible and suits multiple cases. Nonetheless, the focus group approach requires case−specific and careful planning and execution. The unclear definition and flexibility of this participatory method may complicate the study further. There are numerous possible approaches to the tool possible in SA settings and this may blur the transparency (for an illustrative example of a focus group approach, see 'Experiences').

It is important to keep in mind that the focus group discussions are always context and moment−dependent, and it is the opinion of that particular group, at that particular moment. The time before the results become inappropriate for further analysis depends on the context. Usually the data results can be used for several years (at least three), but as the social life and environment changes and as people change opinions and perceptions in relation to new developments, the focus group results sooner or later become out of date. The time scale of the tool is not possible to quantify. While the present is normally the focus of the discussions in conventional focus group contexts, SA related focus groups are particularly appropriate for exploring long−term policy options with regard to potential future policies, risks, conflicts etc, although the exactness of 'future' or 'long−term' is usually difficult to specify.

Focus group results are limited to the social segments of the population they are extracted from. Generalisation strongly depends on the number of focus groups and the number of sessions per group performed. The larger the number, the more one can say about the general trends and patterns of certain social groups.

4.3 Experiences

As this tool is a commonly applied qualitative participatory method, world−wide and over time, there are simply too numerous focus group projects for anybody to keep track on. However, since the majority of these focus on other topics than sustainable development, and thus require much simpler approaches, they are also rather inapplicable to the tool evaluation in the Sustainability A−Test project. Consequently, the following exemplified initiatives are limited to the use of focus groups in the context of IA/SA only. In many of these previous or currently ongoing projects, focus groups have been only one out of several participatory

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techniques, such as the FIRMA, ULYSSES, VISIONS, Georgia Basin Futures and Geocognito projects. Most IA / SA projects involving focus group research have been carried out in Europe.

EU wide

The Urban Lifestyles, Sustainability and Integrated Environmental Assessment (ULYSSES) project (EU DG XII, 1996−1999) was the first large−scale, systematic attempt to explore focus groups in IA in a cross−regional setting. On the basis of experiences with focus group research involving 600 citizens in seven urban regions of Europe, the project designed the IA−Focus Group methodology that allows lay participants to interact with expert inputs (e.g. information on environmental change) on the themes climate change and energy use. There were also some regional variations of focus group design, such as the In−Depth Groups (the Venice region) and Citizen Panels (the Manchester region) (de Marchi et al 1998, Darier et al 1999a, 1999b). The particular IA−Focus Group consisted of six to eight participants, which were recruited on the basis of criteria involving a mix of people with regard to place of residence, age, gender, occupation/education, income and attitudes towards the environment. Following the same agenda across regions and focus groups, the participants met five times for 2.5 hours. The first phase centred on participants' concerns about environmental problems and their spontaneous expressions of feelings about climate change and energy use (in part involving the production of collages). In the second phase, the groups were exposed to and interacted with expert opinion (in particular some IA models) in discussions on the global context of climate change and regional options for energy use. The scientific input, particularly computer models, was normally presented and discussed with the support of a second, model moderator. The third phase involved participants' making a synthesis of their views after completing the exercise, e.g. in the form of a written Citizens' Report. This report included the group participants' assessments of global and regional climate change, proposals for measures and who should take action to solve them; as well as foreseeable difficulties in achieving the proposed policy options (for further information, cf. Kasemir et al 2003, chapter 1). The project has often been considered successful in terms of its methodological advancement of the focus group technique in the context of IA, with sustainability policy−oriented findings and lessons learnt for participation in sustainability science (cf Kasemir et al 2003, part two). The method has been applied in e.g. the NOVAQUATIS and FIRMA projects (see below).

The integrated water assessment project Freshwater Integrated Resources Management with Agents (FIRMA, 1999−2003) aimed at improving water resource planning by combining agent−based modelling and integrated assessment to describe physical, hydrological, social and economic aspects of water resource management in an integrated manner. This involved development of a generic model to be applied in five contrasting regions in Europe. The outputs include the prototype models in the form of tools usable by managers, a methodology for developing and applying agent−based models, and educational materials for water resource managers and modellers. The project involved focus group research with NGO representatives in the Thames region (UK), various stakeholder groups in the Orb Valley (France) and citizens in the Zurich region (Switzerland) focusing on regional water assessment issues in conjunction with models. The project developed a model−building−as−learning participatory process. The entire participatory study as reported by stakeholders has increased their understanding of the complexity of the system and their willingness to interact with each other in the future. The downside of this process is the cost, in term of time, money, resources and social interaction.

The IA project VISIONS (1998−2001) created a set of alternative scenarios for future sustainable development paths up to 2020 and 2050. Scenarios were used to test and apply state−of−the−art software tools in combination with focus group research along with In−depth Groups in the Venice region. In this region, four In−Depth Groups were conducted to allow citizens to debate issues concerning sustainable visions for Venice and Europe, exploring not only the governance issues but also possible action and alternatives. The participants were citizens of Venice representing two different generations. Hence, participants were recruited on the basis of age, but also based on gender, education and occupation. No material was provided in advance. In all groups, scenarios were presented using multi−media materials, slightly different according to age group; yet, more 'classical' versions of the scenarios were available if any of the participants would request it. During the sessions, scenarios for Venice in 2050 were proposed by the citizens. The participatory process was not

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framed in a policy context; therefore it was not required from the participants to assess policy matters. (For more information about In−Depth Groups, see e.g. de Marchi et al 1998 and Burgess et al 1988).

The HarmoniCop project (2002−2005) included the use of focus groups in two case studies (Spain and Scotland) to generate practical information about participatory processes in river basin management in Europe, and to support the implementation of the public participation provisions of the European WFD. The groups were composed by a selected number of 5−7 people intended to represent maximum diversity of interests, values and knowledges. Most of the participants were considered experts or else had a direct stake in the management of the Muga resources, but also some few lay people participated. The focus groups had mainly an explorative character and therefore, their purpose was not to create binding commitments between participants. It has been noted that the social learning aspect is one that is dependent on the possibility and ability of relevant social actors and users to modify their own day−to−day working assumptions with regard to the value and functions of water both in nature and in society. The project found that it is undoubtedly a difficult task to assert to which extent such a social learning process has taken place.

The main objective of the ADVISOR project (2001−2004) was to provide an integrated project evaluation framework and methodology for the sustainable governance of Europe's river basins. This was achieved in part by promoting public and stakeholder participation in integrated river basin governance in five European case study regions. The project applied focus groups among a number of other participatory approaches to assess stakeholder perspectives of environmental policy options for the regions. The focus groups were employed in a context of research in two different cases: Case One involved two focus groups with citizens from two small villages affected by the Alqueva dam in Portugal. The local people were recruited by a local collaborator upon criteria given by the research team (gender, age, education, any specific function in the villages). The discussion was guided by a guiding questionnaire. Case Two involved one focus group with stakeholders in a multi−criteria based discussion in the Malaga region (in Spain) on water options. The focus group approach was framed within multi−criteria evaluation requirements. The group was used to debate issues concerning river basin governance, exploring not only the governance issues but also possible action and alternatives. The focus group in Malaga gathered stakeholders from the tourism, agriculture and water sectors; local authorities and other relevant stakeholders a priori identified through an institutional analysis. In terms of scientific input provided to the participants, in the two groups in the Alqueva dam region, only a tape from a TV programme was shown to trigger the discussion. In the latter case, multi−criteria material was prepared in advance on the basis of other forms of social research enquiry and then presented in the session to the participants. The participants were involved in the preparation of the discussion through the social research process (in−depth interviews, mainly). The multi−criteria tool used is a computer tool, its usage being prepared before application. The participatory process in the project was not framed in a policy context; therefore it was not required from the participants that they gave input into policy assessments. In this context, the project team had a so−called contract with participants, which was set from the beginning.

The River Dialogue project (2003−2004) aimed at identifying the best approaches to increasing public participation and public empowerment in the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). Seven to eleven focus groups were conducted (along with Citizens' Juries) respectively in three European river basins: the Motala Ström in Sweden, IJsselmeer in the Netherlands and the Emajõgi River in Estonia to facilitate the preparations and implementation of river basin management plans. The focus group approach was designed in a more traditional way than in the case of most IA/SA studies, with less stringent and ambitious discussion agenda, limited outside information, fewer meeting per group etc. The results indicated inter alia that focus groups can, in different respects, contribute to involving the public to a higher degree in water management, by increasing awareness and as a forum for participants to voice and refine their opinions. In addition, it appeared that focus groups should perhaps be regarded as a starting point, to help to find out how people perceive a certain problem (‘problem finding’), which can be combined with other methods that can facilitate the exploration of solution strategies to this problem (‘solution finding’). In the case of the River Dialogue project, the focus group approach was followed by the use of the citizens’ jury method. The advantage of the focus group method, as indicated in the questionnaire participants filled out, was the open character of the discussions but some considered the unclear connection to the policy process a disadvantage.

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The UK

The UK (ESRC)−funded Developing Public Involvement in Predictive Computer Modelling Project (2000−2002) (Yearley et al 2003) aimed at exploring how focus groups could be used to promote citizen participation in the environmental assessment of local air pollution in three UK cities: Sheffield, Bristol and York. The focus groups, totalling about 27, were self−selecting (except for one 'control group' in York) so the focus was their shared interest in the subject matter. A particular innovation introduced by the research team related to the method of obtaining 'citizen maps'. The method allowed local citizens and stakeholders to discuss problems and potential policy responses in an explicitly spatial manner, and to locate their observations and assertions physically on a map of their local area. The mapping exercises produced spatial representations of local knowledge about air pollution which took into account local authority definitions of air pollution, but which often stretched beyond these definitions towards a more holistic overview of the problems of noise, odour and dust. The result is, in effect, a 'lay model' of local air quality. Initially the invited group members drew and wrote on pre−printed maps using coloured pens, using any categories or conventions they wished. During the exercise, the groups typically worked out their own approaches to colouring and coding. At the end of the session, the researchers had a map to which the group had added visual and textual comments; these were subsequently digitised and then presented back either to the group or to individuals within the group to ensure that the digitisation was not unfair to the group's own representation. The key consequence of this procedure was that the focus group sessions gave rise to maps which were directly comparable to the outputs of the City Councils' of Sheffield, Bristol and York own computer simulations. This had two distinct advantages over earlier approaches. First, it meant that there was a form of spatial feedback, which could be used as a form of citizens' quality assurance check on the officials' modelled outputs. Second, it was possible to overlay the official and citizens' maps to see points of agreement and disagreement. According to the research team, the focus group approach was largely successful because it brought together lay perspectives involving the location, detail and specificity of community mapping (usually focusing on issues of transport related air pollution in urban areas) into the regional air quality policy context.

Spain /Portugal

The IBERAQUA project (2002) aimed at developing a cooperative regime for the management of shared water basins in the Iberian Peninsula as well as providing knowledge and support for the implementation of the WFD and the Luso−Spanish Convention (LSC). The study involved focus groups in three locations with a total of 35−50 citizens (5−10 in each focus group) with the aim of promoting and interactive process of co−learning, and generating debates and social change through a public participation procedure. Two follow−up plenary meetings were arranged with the same citizens in which relevant information about the legal instruments WFD and LSC was provided. Prior to the workshop the participants received and completed a questionnaire, which aimed at better framing the group discussions and obtaining secondary information from actors unable to attend. The method was successful in terms of increasing communication among stakeholders and bringing in a diversity of enriching knowledge and information into the water management process. A drawback was that the participatory process was considered to be time consuming and resource intensive.

Switzerland

The 'Integrated Climate Risk Assessment' (ICRA) sub−project (1996−2000) of the Swiss Climate and Environment in Alpine Region II (CLEAR II) project (ongoing) aimed at developing an IA procedure for addressing climate options for the Alpine Region. Seven focus groups using computer (TARGETS, IMAGE etc) models were run. The project co−developed the IA−focus group methodology together with the ULYSSES project.

The interdisciplinary NOVAQUATIS Project (http://www.novaquatis.eawag.ch) investigated consumer attitudes towards so−called NoMix toilets and the idea of anthropogenic nutrients using the IA−focus group method (adopted from the ULYSSES project). It was explored how informed citizens judge risks and benefits

Focus group (FG)

of the technology of urine separation and the anthropogenic nutrient reuse in ecological farming. The main issues that were addressed in this study included:Elicitation of consumer preferences regarding product attributes such as use, maintenance or design of the NoMix toilets in comparison to current technology; Assessment of citizens' perception of risks (chronic and failures) arising from pharmaceuticals in urine for the environment today and potential risks in agricultural products in the new system; and Assessment of citizens' perception of nutrient recycling and its contribution to sustainable development. They also discussed arguments in favour or against closed nutrient circles and linking urban and rural areas of Switzerland.

Canada

In the five−year integrated project Georgia Basin Futures Project (1999−2004) focus groups have been run using the integrated GB−QUEST model in the form of an interactive game, to assess economic, social and environmental options for future development in the Canadian side of the Georgia basin.

4.4 Combinations

Conventional focus groups are often combined with other participatory methods, e.g. questionnaires, telephone surveys, face−to−face interviews, and sometimes other group dialogues e.g. citizen panels. In order to provide meaningful stakeholder assessments of sustainability policy issues, combinations of stakeholder techniques as well as other analytical tools have proven vital in many IA / SA−related projects:

Focus groups in this context are typically combined with Integrated assessment models (e.g. the application of TARGETS, IMAGE, PoleStar, CO2−Lifestyle Calculator, GB−QUEST and ICAM in the ULYSSES, ICRA, Georgia Basin Futures, and VISIONS projects).

Focus groups have been combined with multi−criteria tools in ADVISOR.

Focus groups have been combined with Geographical Information System (GIS) in participatory modelling (GIS−P) and community mapping exercises on air quality assessment in the 'Developing Public Involvement in Predictive Computer Modelling' project.

Focus groups complemented the wider use of the Citizens’ jury approach in the River Dialogue project.

The scenario technique Interactive backcasting, generated from the PoleStar model, have been used in ULYSSES.

Focus groups have been combined with Sustainability Indicator based Assessment Tools (Indicator sets for assessments) in the Swedish case study of ULYSSES.

Depending on the case−specific design and approach adopted, some other participatory methods can yield similar qualitative data (citizens' panels, stakeholder dialogues). When deciding on which method to apply in SA contexts, one should carefully consider the relevance as well as the pros and cons of focus groups in comparison with other stakeholder analytical tools.

4.5 Strengths and weaknesses

Strengths

The focus group technique is a qualitative method that generates a rich understanding of stakeholder perceptions, experiences and beliefs.

It is an adaptable research method that suits a myriad of research topics and can be applied through a great variety of approaches.

It can generate a diversity of perspectives and experiences that are shared and reflected upon.

It is useful for exploring consumers' and users' attitudes toward products and marketing strategies.

It is useful for discovering and identifying local problems, especially when the researchers have little or minimal knowledge about the topic. Lay people possess local knowledge that outside experts may be unaware of.

Focus group (FG)

The method is suitable for exploring stakeholder perspectives and assessments of complex issues, such as risk and uncertainty, water, air quality, climate change etc.

It

is useful for identifying stakeholders' perspectives of goals, which in turn helps out in planning and

designing projects that are likely to produce the desired outcome.

It

is applicable during project implementation, as focus groups generate in−depth and context specific

qualitative information on e.g. how plans are working out, and how to close gaps between

expectations and actual performance.

The tool is good at generating assessments of successes and failures of projects and policies.

It

is useful in identifying and assessing community needs at local level in local plans and programs.

More recent SA initiatives using focus groups have provided policy relevant insights into stakeholder assessments of sustainability policy issues.

In contrast with what is sometimes claimed, focus groups appear to be rather useful for investigating sensitive topics.

The technique can serve an important role during the first stage in project development (e.g. prior to survey questionnaires), but is not limited to such a role.

It

can easily and effectively be combined with other participatory research methods to strengthen the

quality of results.

Weaknesses

To generate good and relevant results, the focus group process requires careful planning. Otherwise it may result in useless data and thus a waste of time and resources.

It

generates qualitative data that are rich and quite challenging to analyse. As in all qualitative

research methods, the robustness of the results depends on careful validation by multiple members of the research team, and ideally (in larger studies) validation across different research teams.

In complex assessment projects, the method becomes relatively expensive and time−consuming process from beginning to end.

Focus group results may not yield policy relevant outcomes per se. Sustainability policy assessments require a more comprehensive research framework than even state−of−the−art focus group techniques can offer.

The method requires good skills and certain personal attributes of the moderator to generate a good and spontaneous but focused discussion among participants. Unless there is a professional moderator, one risks getting data that are irrelevant to the purposes.

Due to the complexity and multidimensional scope of research topics, SA related focus group research requires yet more systematic, careful and hence time consuming planning and analysis than conventional ones.

The fairly elastic boundaries of focus group definitions often result in confusion about appropriate use and design of focus groups, and runs the risk of being misused for sale attempts, educational seminars, therapy or consensus building exercises.

There is no exact template for interview guide to follow. It all depends on the specific project and what the researchers want to get out of the focus group study. This runs the risk of results being interpreted by researchers in a biased way.

Quantification and strict generalisation to larger populations in not possible. Focus groups are indicative for the specific social group that they are representing. Therefore validity is somewhat limited.

It

is important to have appropriate equipment (notably high−quality audio tape and microphone with

360 degrees of recording of sound), otherwise there is a danger of getting unreliable data from the discussions.

Researcher has less control in the group interview than in an individual interview.

Focus group research is limited to qualitative research results. Generalisations and trend analysis must

not signal a pseudo−precision by displaying numerical data and statistical detail that is not warranted by the size of the sample. Instead, a categorical linguistic vocabulary referring to quantities (e.g. none,

a few some, a majority or all) may be more appropriate to describe the proportion of participants referred to.

Focus group (FG)

Not suitable for ranking exercises. There is often a reluctance to rank order of priority of problems among especially ordinary citizens.

4.6 Further work

Despite the wide spread and frequent use of this qualitative method, there is today some confusion on what a focus group really is and when it can be effectively applied. Part of this reason lies in the nature of the tool itself: the method is flexible enough to cover a myriad of topics, to be applied in different kinds of areas (e.g. science, public administration and marketing), as well as to allow for variations in group compositions, discussion guides, design of the process and output data. As argued above this is usually considered to be a strength insofar that the method can be tailored to the needs of the participatory assessment, but may nonetheless be deluding for practitioners who are not very familiar with the analytical−methodological framework of the focus group method. Another source of the confusion is that, notwithstanding the growing recognition of participatory IA in general, qualitative participatory IA approaches are still rather underdeveloped and this also applies to focus groups in such assessments. This is noticeable when comparing with the relatively large proportion of time and resources put into model development vis a vis stakeholder analytical approaches.

Moreover, further research is required to synthesize and document empirical findings of focus group research in SA initiatives. For example, there is limited documented knowledge on the specific role and contribution of focus groups in overall participatory SA efforts and on how the method fits within the expanding toolbox of participatory approaches for sustainability policy support. Examples of such initiatives could include participatory evaluation frameworks and typologies of participatory tools in this context.

In addition, future work should also be devoted to the conduct of focus group studies to gather more empirical evidence on the nature of, and opportunities for, focus group research in sustainable development related assessments and impacts on policy−making.

4.7 References

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