Focus groups, a method in which small groups of subjects are questioned by researchers, are widely used in politics, marketing, and other areas. In education policy, focus groups, particularly those comprised of teachers or administrators, are often used to design or shape policy. And, of course, during national election cycles, they are particularly widespread, and there are even television networks that broadcast focus groups as a way to gauge the public’s reaction to debates or other events.
There are good reasons for using focus groups. Analyzing surveys can provide information regarding declaratory behaviors and issues’ rankings at a given point in time, and correlations between these declarations and certain demographic and social variables of interest. Focus groups, on the other hand, can help map out the issues important to voters (which can inform survey question design), as well investigate what reactions certain presentations (verbal or symbolic) evoke (which can, for example, help frame messages in political or informational campaigns).
Both polling/surveys and focus groups provide insights that the other method alone could not. Neither of them, however, can answer questions about why certain patterns occur or how likely they are to occur in the future. That said, having heard some of the commentary about focus groups, and particularly having seen them being broadcast live and discussed on cable news stations, I feel strongly compelled to comment, as I do whenever data are used improperly or methodologies are misinterpreted.