Thursday, March 4, 2010

Understanding Focus Group Emotional Roller Coaster

On July 20, 2009, John Berry, Director of the Federal Office of Personnel Management decried the way government workers have been "denigrated and disparaged" in recent decades, and was delighted that President Obama understands the value of service and will not be throwing around 'bureaucrat' as a slur towards our workers." (, July, 2009 ¶1).

Few days after his laudatory statement, Mr. Obama was quoted as follows: “If you have health insurance, we will make sure that no insurance company or government bureaucrat gets between you and the care you need." In an instant retort, Mr. Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, deplore the use of the word bureaucrats for the federal workforce, because it is derogatory. He cited a 2004 study, which found that the term “federal government workers” receives a favorable response from 71 percent of those surveyed, but the term “federal government bureaucrats” receives only 20 percent -- a drop of 51 percent with one word (, August, 2009).

This is the news story that came to mind as I finished the required reading for this week. In the first study, Garrett, Thuber, Fritschler & Rosenbloom (2006), explores how senior federal managers like John Berry above, perceive campaign bureaucracy bashing using focus group data conducted by them. They found that senior government managers “do internalize negative messages about themselves and their agencies” and that this environment hampers recruitment, retention, training and important working relationships with political appointees that may end up affecting effective program management and policy implementation (p.237).
They used qualitative research methodology to explore the impact of bureaucracy bashing on relationship between senior managers and political appointees. The flexibility of focus group methodology enables them to ask open-ended questions (Creswell, 2009); compare to quantitative methods such as surveys and questionnaires which would have restrict them to asking participants identical close-ended questions. However, qualitative methodology is only as useful and as strong as its link to the underlying research questions and the rigor with which it is applied (p.201). As we found in the news story cited earlier, focus group research is a poor choice for predicting future action in settings yet to emerge since focus group discussants will articulate their views in terms of their own present experiences, e.g John Berry view of Obama. Participants are also often emotional in answering open-ended qualitative focus group questions and thus bring their value judgment to bear on the questions.

In the second reading, Robin Jarrett (1994) used a focus group, qualitative research to corroborate existing ethnographic studies of the impact of structural and cultural dynamic among never married African-American women. She underscores the importance of qualitative and ethnographic data, over quantitative census and survey data, for understanding family processes and dynamics (p.45). She suggested 3 directions for future research on the same topic and concluded that focus group data not only expand the structural explanation of poverty, but also highlight the humanity of the people who are too starkly described by statistical profiles and policy regulations (p.46). This writer tends to agree with this conclusion given my on personal experience.

In early 2001, a national poll conducted by National Public Radio (NPR), the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University's Kennedy School asked nearly 2,000 Americans 18 or older, "Which is the bigger cause of poverty today: that people are not doing enough to help themselves out of poverty, or that circumstances beyond their control cause them to be poor?" Respondents were roughly equally divided between "people not doing enough" (48 percent) and "circumstances" (45 percent). About 50 percent of the more affluent people polled believed that the poor were not doing enough to help themselves, but so did about 39 percent of the poor. The poor were more likely to blame "circumstances" than themselves for their financial hardship (, 2001). The Study by NPR is a quantitative study with generic close-ended questions; one could only wish that they had asked the poor themselves open-ended questions like Jarret did in her study. They would have found answers like that of Lois: “I got three kids and not married, that don’t mean I’m running the streets all the time. I’m at home helping my children” (Jarrett, 1994, p.44)

The advantages of qualitative focus group research should not however close our eyes to its obvious limitations. Focus groups are generally a poor choice when quantitative information is desired. The small size of focus groups makes any estimates of quantitative proportions unreliable, even if the members of the focus group are representative of the target population (Neuman, 2007). By the same token, focus group research is a poor choice for multivariate research, where one again needs the stability of large random samples to disaggregate the effects of explanatory variables through statistical techniques (Lichter & Crowley, 2002).

In conclusion, it is evident that the primary reason mixed methodological research approach is gaining wide acceptance in recent years (Creswell, 2009 p.203) is because of the strengths and limitations of both quantitative and qualitative research approaches.

No comments: