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Collecting and analysing qualitative data: issues raised by the focus group

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Abstract

The focus group has gained considerable popularity as a means of gathering qualitative data in nursing research. This paper examines some of the methodological issues raised by the collection and analysis of focus group data. In respect of data collection, the role of the focus group moderator and the method of recording data are crucial considerations. In particular, the moderator’s personal skills and attributes have a considerable influence on the nature and quality of the data gathered. When analysing the data, three principal issues arise. First, it is difficult, and probably misguided, to attempt to infer an attitudinal consensus from focus group data. An apparent conformity of view is an emergent property of the group interaction, not a reflection of individual participants’ opinions. Second, measuring strength of opinion from focus group data is problematic. The indicators used to measure attitudes in orthodox survey research are largely inapplicable to the context of focus groups. When comparing data from different focus groups, inferences may be drawn as to the presence of absence of certain views or issues across groups, but not in terms of their relative strength. Third, both methodological and epistemological objections can be raised against attempts to generalize from focus group data. Theoretical generalization is likely to be more feasible than empirical generalization, and if the latter is considered fruitful, it is likely to be of a provisional nature. The effective use of focus groups as a means of gathering qualitative data in nursing research requires due attention to problematic methodological issues such as those explored in this paper.

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