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Learning in focus groups: an analytical dimension for enhancing focus group research Victoria Wibeck, Madeleine Abrandt Dahlgren and Gunilla Ă–berg Qualitative Research 2007; 7; 249 DOI: 10.1177/1468794107076023 The online version of this article can be found at: http://qrj.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/7/2/249

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A RT I C L E

Learning in focus groups: an analytical dimension for enhancing focus group research

VICTORIA WIBECK, MADELEINE ABRANDT DAHLGREN Linköping University, Sweden GUNILLA ÖBERG University of British Columbia, Canada

Q R

Qualitative Research Copyright © 2007 SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore) vol. 7(2) 249–267

A B S T R A C T The focus group is a research methodology in which a small group of participants gathers to discuss a specified issue under the guidance of a moderator. The discussions are tape-recorded, transcribed and analysed. Notably, the interaction between focus group participants has seldom been evaluated, analysed or discussed in empirical research. We argue that considering the focus group in light of current research into interaction in problem-based learning (PBL) tutorial groups would facilitate the deliberate exploitation of group processes in designing focus groups, staging data collection and analysing and interpreting data. When the analytical focus shifts from mere content analysis to an analysis of what the participants themselves are trying to learn, one can explore not only what the participants are talking about, but also how they are trying to understand and conceptualise the issue under discussion. KEYWORDS:

co-construction of knowledge, elaboration, focus groups, interaction, problem-based learning

Introduction The focus group is a research methodology that has gained popularity in a growing number of contexts over recent decades (Hydén and Bülow, 2003; Morgan, 1996; Wilkinson, 1998a). In this method, a small group of participants gather to discuss a particular issue under the guidance of a moderator, who preferably plays a detached role. The discussion, which usually lasts between 60 and 90 minutes, is normally audio- and/or video-taped, and then transcribed and analysed (Barbour and Kitzinger, 1999; Morgan, 1988). Focus groups are of particular value because of their ability to allow researchers to study how people engage in collective sense-making; i.e. ‘how views are constructed, expressed, defended and (sometimes) modified in the context of discussion and debate with others’ (Wilkinson, 1998a: 186). In

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other words, it is claimed that focus groups enable researchers to study and understand a particular topic from the perspective of the group participants themselves. The focus group is a research method based on the dynamics of communication, language and thought (Marková, 2004). By using group interaction, the researcher can explore ‘how accounts are articulated, censured, opposed and changed through social interaction and how this relates to peer communication and group norms’ (Kitzinger and Barbour, 1999: 5). In other words, focus groups are said to offer an opportunity to observe the ‘coconstruction of meaning in action’ (Wilkinson, 1998b: 338); i.e. they may be conceptualised as ‘a thinking society in miniature’ (Jovchelovitch, 2001: 2). Some critical reviews of the focus group as a research method, such as Agar and MacDonald (1995), Hydén and Bülow (2003), Kitzinger (1994) and Wilkinson (1998a, 1999), have pointed out that even though the interaction between focus group participants is considered to be a hallmark of such research, the interaction itself has seldom been evaluated, analysed or discussed in research based on empirical material collected through focus groups. Hence, the particular strength of focus groups, i.e. the interaction between participants, has rarely been explored in and of itself. To enable researchers to exploit focus groups to their fullest potential, it is thus necessary to develop methodological tools that enable researchers specifically to study ‘how accounts are articulated, censured, opposed and changed through social interaction and how this relates to peer communication and group norms’ (Kitzinger and Barbour, 1999: 5). We argue that this could in part be done by drawing on current research into interaction in small groups from other research fields, one such relevant field being interaction in problem-based learning (PBL) tutorial groups.1 Our argument is that some group processes taking place in both focus and tutorial groups share certain features, even though focus groups are not learning groups per se. Hence, examining the focus group in light of research concerning interaction in tutorial groups could facilitate the deliberate exploitation of group processes when designing focus groups, staging data collection and analysing and interpreting data. This article draws on research into interaction in PBL tutorials, in analysing how knowledge is elaborated and co-constructed in focus groups. In addition, we discuss strategies for focus group design and for data collection and analysis. We illustrate our arguments with examples drawn from recent and ongoing research in the fields of environmental and communication studies.

Tutorial groups and focus groups – parallel features and differences In a recent review of what and how students learn in PBL, Hmelo-Silver (2004) describes the approach as an instructional method in which students learn through facilitated problem-solving, where the complex problems studied have no ‘correct’ answers. Within the framework of the course curriculum, students

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Wibeck et al.: Learning in focus groups

work in small groups where they collaboratively decide on what to learn. They engage independently in the learning process and come together to reflect collectively on what they have learned and on the strategies applied. The teacher facilitates the learning rather than acting as a knowledge dispenser. Research into PBL has predominantly focused on students’ knowledge, problem-solving and self-directed learning skills, but less so on collaboration and motivation. The major aim of tutorials in PBL groups is to enhance the participants’ learning; in contrast, the major aim of focus groups is to gather data to be used in research. Still, even though the major aims of the two methods differ, the methods share several similar features: i.e. the group, the framing, the ‘problem’, the tutor/moderator, the dialogue and the process of collective sense-making. Both techniques are based on small groups that discuss a pre-defined subject under professional supervision. In PBL, the discussion is framed by the course curriculum, while in a focus group the discussion is framed by the aim of the study, which, according to the ethical codex, should be presented to the participants prior to the meeting. Both the PBL tutor and the focus group moderator should preferably play detached roles, since the aim of PBL is to focus on the students’ need to know (Clarke, 2002) and the aim of a focus group is to explore what is central to the participants regarding a given issue (Morgan, 1998). In other words, tutorial groups and focus groups are both participantcentred activities. Even though both the tutor and the moderator play detached roles, they will intervene if the discussions diverge too far from the stated aim: the PBL tutor usually uses the course curriculum to guide the discussion, while the researcher directing a focus group has generally prepared an interview guide for the same purpose. Discussion in both types of groups is generally initiated and stimulated using some sort of prepared material. Discussion in a PBL group session is usually stimulated using a scenario, vignette or the like, which may consist of, for example, images, brief texts, film sequences and medical cases (Abrandt Dahlgren and Öberg, 2001), while discussion in a focus group is sometimes, but not always, initiated using some kind of stimulus material (e.g. newspaper articles, images, films, product packages and card games). In PBL, identification of learning needs is a core issue: students use the group to discuss and define problems,2 and through these discussions to identify both their learning needs and prior knowledge. Discussions in the group are rooted in the course curriculum and are initiated using a vignette. Hence, discussions are clearly framed, or in other words, ‘focused’. One of the major strengths of PBL is that students become aware that framed, or focused, group discussions both stimulate and force participants to verbalize both their learning needs and prior knowledge. The learning process is speeded up, as the students use the identified learning needs to formulate questions, which in turn are used in their self-directed studies (e.g. Clarke, 2002). The process by which participants’ learning needs and prior knowledge are identified mirrors the students’ conceptualization and understanding of the discussed issue.

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Discussion in a focus group is also framed or focused (hence the name), and participants in such groups also discuss and define problems. As in all focused or framed discussions, the discussion in a focus group is coloured by a process of collective sense-making that inevitably encompasses a tacit formulation of the individual participants’ learning needs and prior knowledge. The interaction between participants in a focused group discussion creates incentives for initiating learning processes, since participants exchange experiences, question each other, challenge each other to develop their arguments and sometimes even modify their opinions and arguments during the course of the discussion (cf. Billig, 1996; Linell et al., 2001; Myers, 1998; Wibeck et al., 2004; Wilkinson, 1998a). The participants are made aware of their mutual interests or their need for further knowledge (Yoshihama, 2002). There is a pertinent difference between focus groups and tutorial groups, namely, time. Tutorial groups are supposed to meet repeatedly over several weeks. Learning is regarded as a long-term process, where students use the group to discuss and define the problem, identify learning needs on the basis of prior knowledge and formulate questions. Thereafter, they conduct self-directed studies, and subsequently discuss the learning topic in the tutorial group (e.g. Clarke, 2002). The learning process is supported by continuous evaluation. Thus, there is time for participants to get to know each other, interactively elaborate on their knowledge and build mutual trust under the supervision of a tutor. Focus groups, on the other hand, usually meet for between one and two hours on a single occasion. Although the groups are sometimes drawn from existing social networks, at times the group members are strangers to each other. Still, communication and learning can doubtless also take place in a group that meets only once. Our point is that the learning processes taking place may be used as a point of departure, thus enabling the in-depth analysis of the interactive processes in a focus group. When analysing the empirical material derived from a focus group discussion, the researcher generally categorizes the material, simply stated, in a process by which the researcher asks ‘What are they talking about?’. Stevens (1996) has suggested applying the following research questions to the data in order to focus attention on interaction in the group: How closely did the group adhere to the issues presented for discussion? Why, how and when were related issues brought up? What statements seemed to evoke conflict? What were the contradictions in the discussion? What common experiences were expressed? Were alliances formed among group members? Was a particular member or viewpoint silenced? Was a particular view dominant?

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Wibeck et al.: Learning in focus groups How did the group resolve disagreements? What topics produced consensus? Whose interests were being represented in the group? How were emotions handled? (Stevens, 1996: 172)

We argue that the formulation of learning needs, i.e. when questions begin to emerge in the group, may be used as an analytical key to how the participants are trying to understand and conceptualize the issue in question in the focus group. The formulation of questions could be regarded as an elaboration of prior knowledge in the group, which in itself constitutes a co-construction of knowledge and/or an incentive for learning. The formulation of questions may thus be looked out for by the facilitator as an important feature, one that stimulates the participants to elaborate and clarify their viewpoints in the group. We argue that focusing on question formulation, asking ‘What are they trying to learn?’ rather than ‘What are they talking about?’, adds an important data analysis dimension to the analytical questions proposed by Stevens (1996). In the following section, we illustrate how the elaboration and co-construction of knowledge in focus groups can be scrutinized, drawing on research into PBL.

Elaboration of knowledge The specified subject of a focus group or a tutorial group leads to a problemsolving process, which implies a systematic inquiry into the subject. In both focus and tutorial groups, the activation of prior knowledge and the elaboration of new knowledge are important parts of the interaction process. In PBL research, it is argued that by elaborating on their knowledge in small-group discussions, i.e. considering a piece of knowledge in a broader context (Regehr and Norman, 1996), students learn to construct rich cognitive models of the specified problem (De Grave et al., 2001; Dolmans et al., 2001; Schmidt, 1993; Schmidt et al., 1989; Visschers-Pleijers et al., 2004). In addition, studies show that students in tutorial groups experience cognitive conflict, which results in the restructuring of their knowledge base or in conceptual change (Dolmans et al., 2001). To elaborate new knowledge, group participants need to verbalize the learning content in collaboration with other group members. The elaboration is a result of interaction in small groups, but the cognitive process takes place at the individual level, within the thinking of a single person (VisschersPleijers et al., 2004). We argue that the elaboration of new knowledge through group interaction also takes place in focus groups, as illustrated in the example below (Example 1). The excerpt is taken from a focus group consisting of civil servants employed by Swedish county boards. The specified issue was the implementation and assessment of national quality objectives for improving the environment and achieving ecologically sustainable development in Sweden (for details of the study, see Wibeck et al., 2006). In the excerpt, it is clear that one

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of the participants (Camilla) is articulating a deeper understanding of the process by which various issues are prioritised in her county. In other words, the quotation illustrates how group interaction helps Camilla to elaborate on her knowledge about different approaches to achieving environmental objectives.

Example 13 1 2

Anne: Camilla:

3

Anne:

4

Camilla:

5

Anne:

6

Camilla:

Do you work with themes, annual themes or something like that? What’s that? … No not themes, not thematically but the entire package. Yeah, but annual themes. I thought that maybe you decide on a water year or an (Camilla: Oh, no no) air year or something like that. I mean there are so many measures that you need to take. Yes, yes, but in practice it’s like that but I mean (Anne: Yes) we haven’t discussed it from the point of view that we would select themes, but everyone, every department sits and (Anne: Mm) kind of goes through it, because in some way it deals with the preconditions. Do we have basic data for starting to protect these biotopes now, or is that something we are still waiting for? Is there enough money to make inventories or securements, or air measurements or whatever (Ben: Um), so that’s mainly what it’s about. [13 turns omitted] Um, because you should do so much and it feels completely out of reach. You are incapable of managing all that (Camilla: Um), but if you have this much [i.e. fewer themes], well then it feels feasible to work with them … But in practice that is … it becomes some sort of annual theme. But we maybe, you have thought about it in those terms, and the rest of us … (inaudible) it’s a bottom-up approach in which you kind of analyse what we can work with (Ben: Um) and where the potential resources and preconditions for the work are (Ben: Yes).

In the above example, the issue of annual themes was brought up to illustrate the need to make priorities. In turn 1, Anne introduces the notion of annual themes, which appears to be unknown to Camilla (turn 2), who consequently denies that the group she works in employs the model. At this stage, there appears to be disagreement between the group members. Camilla gives a tentative justification, claiming that rather than using a thematic approach, her group works in an overarching manner, handling environmental objectives in their entirety (‘the entire package’). Anne persists in proposing that an appropriate way to handle the multitude of urgent actions needed is to select annual themes, by focusing, for example, on water issues one year and on air pollution the next (turn 3). In turn 4, Camilla starts to shift towards conceding that in practice part of her group’s work is indeed conducted thematically, although not explicitly so. Rather, pragmatic considerations, such as data availability and

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Wibeck et al.: Learning in focus groups

economic constraints, have prompted the use of thematic approaches. The argument that using an annual theme is a useful strategy for prioritising urgent needs is repeated by Anne in turn 5. This brings about a conceptual change on the part of Camilla, who in turn 6 admits that in her previous work annual themes have in practice been applied. She elaborates how the necessity of employing a bottom-up approach, identifying what should be prioritized since time and economic resources are insufficient to handle all the environmental objectives simultaneously (cf. turn 2), essentially leads to what is effectively a thematic approach. Even though she still positions herself as member of a working group that employs strategies different from those of the other focus group participants, she starts to form an alliance with Anne and the others, based on the common experience of prioritizing multitudes of potential actions. In sum, Anne’s initial question (turn 1) prompts Camilla to learn more about the notion of annual themes. Anne takes on a moderating role, posing questions to keep the discussion going and to learn about the experience of other group participants. The result is that Camilla elaborates her pre-existing knowledge, as she sets her experience against the other participants’ statements. The example illustrates how one participant (Anne) helps the moderator stimulate discussion in which another participant (Camilla) reflects on her routine practice, reformulates it and sees it from a new perspective. The accounts of the participants’ routines and conceptions of appropriate strategies for attaining environmental objectives are deepened as the participants elaborate on their prior knowledge, and expand on and clarify their viewpoints. In this particular example, one participant initiated the discussion, while at other times the focus group moderator needed to pose relevant questions to help the participants elaborate on their points. We argue that a central quality focus group moderators need is sensitivity, so they can discern when participants are formulating learning needs and encourage them to elaborate on their knowledge. In our opinion, in an atmosphere that encourages participants to elaborate on their knowledge, a group will generate rich data in which the participants explore the chosen issue in depth. By posing the analytical question ‘What are they trying to learn?’, the researcher can scrutinize how the participants are developing certain themes in the discussion and how they are reflecting on and developing their understanding and anchoring of individual experience against the sum total of the other participants’ arguments, experience and knowledge. In the analysis, the researcher may explore how the elaboration of individual accounts helps in forming a web of socially shared knowledge emerging through group discussion.

Co-construction of knowledge In our analysis of Example 1, we considered the cognitive process of elaboration as comprising an incentive for learning plus an elaboration process taking place in the mind of the individual group participant, although the entire process is triggered and facilitated by other group members. Understanding

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the interactive processes occurring in the group is further enhanced by focusing on the co-construction of knowledge (Leseman et al., 2000; Van Boxtel, 2000; Visschers-Pleijers et al., 2004), i.e. the attainment of shared understanding by means of shared thinking processes in which two or more group members interact (Visschers-Pleijers et al., 2004; cf. Linell et al., 2001). In the case of focus groups, Linell et al. state the following: The group is a think-group, in which cognition is going on in the minds of members, but this happens largely in and through the interaction. Individuals with some kind of common background stimulate each other to develop thoughts and arguments. In this process, ideas interpenetrate and often contradict each other. A stance or viewpoint often contains the seed of a counterpoint; the proposal of an analogy leads to its partial denial (ranging from ‘yes but …’ to ‘no, not at all, instead …’ replies), followed perhaps by a distinction. (Linell et al., 2001: 253)

In other words, expressing disagreement may also be part of the learning process, as participants challenge each other, defend their arguments and at times modify their viewpoints (Myers, 1998). The following example is taken from a focus group study of the public understanding of genetically modified food (Wibeck, 2002), and illustrates how participants co-construct knowledge regarding the specified issue through joint elaboration. The group consists of three participants belonging to the management team of a large Swedish food production company. In the extract, they discuss whether or not gene technology should be considered as analogous to traditional plant breeding.

Example 2 1

Nina:

2

Lars:

3

Nina:

4

Lars:

5

Nina:

6

Lars:

Do we have the right to do this [i.e. biotechnological intervention] to nature? (Olivia: Um) Is it God the Father who should help instead, or could conventional plant breeding produce the same results, only take more time? But it is very close. Is the difference so big between plant breeding and genetic modification? No it isn’t really. And as regards gene technology, in a fast process you know what results you’re going to get (Lars: Yeah) but you are into something that is also holy to touch upon. But plant breeding is uncertain too, isn’t it? [5 turns omitted] We can achieve the same things but it takes more time to do it with conventional plant breeding … to select those crops (Olivia: Um) but … they have worked with this plant breeding technology … for an incredibly long time. And then it has sort of become a natural part of what we already have, of how we behave as modern people or in other countries as well. But this is something that … if you could imagine … Well it interferes with the innermost building block [of life], isn’t that the boundary?

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Wibeck et al.: Learning in focus groups

Example 2 (continued) 7 8 9 10

Nina: Lars: Nina: Olivia:

Yes, yes, you are getting into something too holy. And that is not done in the same way in plant breeding. No, it isn’t. No, since the technology has become so refined (Lars: Um) it provides greater opportunities.

In the quotation, the ‘problem’ discussed by the focus group participants is whether gene technology should be conceived of as an extension of traditional plant breeding or as something qualitatively ‘new’. The process of elaborating and co-constructing knowledge concerning how to understand and form one’s opinion about, for example, genetically modified food is visible in how potential analogies and distinctions are constructed. Analogies and distinctions are powerful tools for anchoring new knowledge, in which the new phenomenon is placed in, or distinguished from, a familiar category (Moscovici, 1984). In turn 1, Nina begins the sequence by asking whether humans have a right to ‘do this [biotechnological intervention] to nature’. Her question functions to trigger group discussion of the ethical aspects of biotechnology, to learn more about arguments either for considering gene technology as an extension of traditional breeding, or as something qualitatively ‘new’. Nina distinguishes between gene technology, on the one hand, and God’s work and traditional plant breeding on the other. By the end of the turn, however, she poses another question, opening up the possibility of making either an analogy or a distinction between gene technology and traditional breeding, as she hints that there is an analogy as regards results, but a distinction with respect to the time needed for the two processes. As he overlaps with Nina in turn 2, Lars tries to propose an analogy: by posing a rhetorical question, he argues that there are no significant differences between traditional plant breeding and gene technology. In turn 3, Nina at first agrees with Lars and elaborates the analogy. She states that there is actually no big difference between traditional plant breeding and genetic modification, but thereafter develops a line of reasoning characterized by two distinctions pointing in different directions: gene technology enables the scientist to foresee the results, but it is also an area that may be conceived of as taboo for human beings (‘you are into something that is also holy to touch upon’) (turn 3). Lars then continues his attempt to establish an analogy, by pointing out that traditional plant breeding is also an uncertain activity. This may be intended as a counter argument (beginning in ‘but…’) to what Nina just said, since her argument for a distinction was exactly that traditional breeding is more uncertain than gene technology is, the results of which can be more exactly anticipated. Lars then proposes an analogy rather than a distinction in this respect. However, Lars’ turn (4) may also be interpreted in relation to what was discussed in the sequence preceding the example, i.e. that gene technology may have unforeseen

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consequences, and is thus also uncertain. He seeks confirmation of his viewpoint by ending his turn with ‘isn’t it?’. Nina, however, persists in saying that a distinction is more proper than an analogy, since the timelines of conventional breeding and gene technology are different. Furthermore, traditional plant breeding has been culturally incorporated in people’s mindsets, which is not the case with gene technology. At this point in the sequence (turn 6), Lars’ argumentation starts shifting towards making a distinction, implying that gene technology compared to traditional breeding more actively alters the fundamental conditions of life. This argument is supported by Nina (turn 7), who once again claims that gene technology implies human interference in something that is far too holy to legitimately meddle with. In turn 8, Lars explicitly acknowledges that such interference constitutes a difference between traditional breeding and gene technology. His interpretation is supported by Nina and Olivia in turns 9–10, with the result that the distinction between the two techniques becomes more prominent in the discussion than the analogy does. In the process of trying out different analogies and distinctions, the participants jointly construct knowledge regarding how to conceptualize gene technology in general. In discussing whether an analogy or a distinction should be established, the participants are also implicitly discussing how to position themselves regarding the issue of genetically modified food. In expressing different opinions, modifying their viewpoints and agreeing on certain issues, the participants are jointly exploring different aspects and perspectives regarding the specified issue. The answer to the question ‘What are the participants trying to learn?’, could be that they are exploring different ethical justifications for or against the use of gene technology. They are also trying out arguments for and against the view that gene technology is ethically equivalent to traditional breeding. In addition, the participants are trying to learn how to position themselves as company representatives regarding issues related to genetically modified food. In analysing sequences such as Example 2, the analyst can address how different perspectives interact and how certain perspectives gradually become dominant in the discussion, while other perspectives withdraw into the background. Thus, rather than simply coding the sequence according to what the participants are talking about, the analyst is also able to scrutinize how they are talking, and how their viewpoints are maintained, reinforced, modified or rejected in the interaction between the participants. We argue that the impact of the interaction needs to be taken into account in analysing focus group data, in order to increase the ability of researchers to reflect on their findings.

Strategies for analysing and supporting elaboration and co-construction of knowledge in focus groups ANALYSIS OF FOCUS GROUP DATA

One criticism of focus group research is that methods for capturing interaction in the analysis are lacking (Agar and MacDonald, 1995; Hydén and Bülow,

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Wibeck et al.: Learning in focus groups

2003; Kitzinger, 1994; Wilkinson, 1998a). Despite the fact that ‘the hallmark of focus groups is the explicit use of group interaction …’ (Morgan, 1988: 12, italics in original), the exploitation of this interaction phenomenon during analysis is often limited to the immediate context of the particular focus group session. More often than not, reports based on focus group studies present quotations from one individual at a time, giving the impression that individual viewpoints can be isolated from the context in which they were expressed, i.e. the interaction between the group participants. Over the past few years, however, several papers have called for the consideration of interactive factors when analysing focus group discussions. For example, some scholars have called for the analysis of ‘sensitive moments’ in the interaction between participants (Kitzinger and Farquhar, 1999), or for the use of conversation analysis to explore how participants interact, linguistically, at the micro level (e.g. Collins and Marková, 2004; Myers and Macnaghten, 1999). To explore how participants elaborate and co-construct knowledge regarding a certain topic, combining different types of analyses may be fruitful. Such analyses could include ‘dialogical discourse analysis’ (Marková et al., 2006; Wibeck, 2004), which aims to investigate under which contextual conditions, and with what rhetorical force and dialogical consequences, ideas and thoughts are constructed and used (Marková et al., 2006). Dialogical discourse analysis focuses on the interaction between different thoughts, ideas and arguments in the discursive web. For example, the interplay between analogies and distinctions (see Example 2), or the use of prototypical examples or metaphors may be analysed. The interaction of different voices/perspectives in a discussion is another potential analytical focus. At the content level, recurrent themes and clusters of themes can be analysed, as well as how the themes are interrelated. SELECTION OF PARTICIPANTS

To encourage the elaboration and co-construction of knowledge among focus group participants, we argue that a researcher may employ certain strategies. In preparing for the study, special attention should be paid to the selection of participants. Homogeneous focus groups are often recommended (e.g. Jarrett, 1993), since participants who share certain experiences and opinions are probably more willing to exchange ideas and thoughts in a focus group. However, heterogeneity among participants can also be illuminating (Kitzinger and Barbour, 1999). Drawing from the experiences from PBL, it is important not to strive for consensus and shared group norms when selecting focus group participants. Kitzinger (1994: 113) argues that ‘[t]he difference between participants … allows one to observe not only how people theorize their own point of view but how they do so in relation to other perspectives and how they put their own ideas “to work”’. Our conclusion is that even if a focus group is homogeneous in many respects, in planning the study attention should be directed to strategies for encouraging a ‘spirit of contradiction’ (Billig, 1996), so that arguments and counter-arguments will be elaborated on

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and co-constructed by the participants (for examples of such strategies, see the following sections). In addition, group size may be crucial for the outcome of the discussion. Since the intention of the focus group method is similar to that of tutorial groups, i.e. to maximize interaction between participants, roughly the same reasoning regarding group size determination may be employed in both cases. In discussing group size in PBL, Wilkerson (1996) refers to a study by Hare (1962) that proposes five as the optimal number of participants to promote small group discussion. Smaller groups imply that each participant needs to play a prominent role, while in larger groups the opportunities to speak are more limited. Wilkerson (1996) holds that in most PBL programmes, the preferred maximum number of participants is eight, but that groups may well be smaller. Empirical studies have demonstrated that students participating in smaller groups report having more opportunities for participation and that the discussions are more focused than in larger groups. In addition, in larger groups one or two students may take over the tutor/moderator role at the expense of interaction between participants (Wilkerson, 1996). In sum, to encourage the elaboration and co-construction of knowledge in focus groups, a certain amount of homogeneity among group members is desirable, while for the sake of active discussion, some heterogeneity should also be sought. An atmosphere that supports a range of perspectives is desirable, and such an atmosphere presupposes a relatively small group. INTERVIEW GUIDE AND STIMULUS MATERIAL

One important part of preparing for a focus group study is to compose an interview guide. Depending on the level of structure of the focus group, the interview guide will assume different forms (see, for example, Krueger, 1998). At times, there is also a need for stimulus material, which may consist of, for example, an image, text or product introducing the specified issue to the participants (Kitzinger, 1994). Participant elaboration and co-construction of knowledge are encouraged by well-designed interview guides and stimulus material. In composing the group questions and possibly in compiling the stimulus material, it is important to bear in mind that this material should encourage participants to explore a range of perspectives. To support the elaboration and co-construction of knowledge in PBL, Dolmans et al. (2001: 886) emphasize the importance of ‘develop[ing] problems to be discussed in the group which link up well with students’ prior knowledge and contain sufficient cues to stimulate the discussion’. In focus group research, Krueger (1998) advises that the interview guide should contain open-ended questions, i.e. questions that stimulate discussion without directing it too much. Probing questions may be included in the interview guide, to make participants reflect on links to their own prior knowledge and to other participants’ contributions. Probes may also be used to help the participants challenge each other and elaborate their accounts – in other words, to promote a ‘spirit of contradiction’ (Billig, 1996).

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Wibeck et al.: Learning in focus groups

In PBL, student discussions take as their points of departure real-life scenarios from which the students generate questions to be explored. Such scenarios are analogous to the stimulus material or opening questions used by the focus group moderator to stimulate discussion. In the literature regarding effective scenario design it is noted that ‘complexity is an important feature of scenarios’ (Abrandt Dahlgren and Öberg, 2001: 278). The scenarios should not be too ‘directing’, but contain enough clues to prompt the students to elaborate their discussions (Dolmans et al., 2001). It has been noted that ‘more ill-structured, complex tasks provoked extended elaboration among group members and were associated with conceptual learning’ (Wilkerson, 1996: 26). However, as Abrandt Dahlgren and Öberg (2001) point out, complexity is not the only feature that explains the effectiveness of scenarios. They found that ‘scenarios that were provocative or evoked emotional involvement, for instance, by containing a certain opinion or some kind of contrast or tension, were powerful triggers’ (Abrandt Dahlgren and Öberg, 2001: 278, italics in original). We conclude that to encourage interaction and provide incentives for collaborative learning among focus group participants, interview questions and stimulus material should be complex and open-ended, while incorporating elements that are provocative or cause emotional responses. MODERATING THE GROUP

Focus group researchers tend to assume that focus group participants instinctively constitute themselves and act as members of a small group. However, as Hydén and Bülow (2003) point out, there are at least three different perspectives according to which a group may be understood: 1) as an aggregation of individuals sharing some common experiences or social features, 2) as a small group in which the members share values, norms, roles and goals, or 3) as a focused gathering (Goffman, 1961) in which participants share a temporary situation with a common focus. Hydén and Bülow (2003) argue that focus group participants face two particular problems in interacting as members of a group, rather than as individuals, namely, how to establish a common communicative ground, and how to add their contributions to and expand that common ground. In other words, to provide good incentives for interaction, focus group participants need to form a small group, with a common ground, in which knowledge can be elaborated and co-constructed. We argue that the role of the moderator is crucial in this process. The same is the case in problem-based learning, in which students use the tutorial group as a small group in which collaborative learning is undertaken. A review of studies of the role of the facilitator in problem-based learning has demonstrated that many facilitators walk a tightrope between being ‘directive’ (i.e. leading the students towards discussing issues that the facilitator conceives of as central) and being a ‘voiceless participant’ (i.e. not engaging in the discussion at all, but being verbally silent and displaying a lack of involvement through non-verbal signals) (Savin-Baden, 2003). When the facilitator

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assumes a ‘directive’ role, students can become dependent on him or her, while a ‘voiceless’ facilitator risks ending up facilitating a group of students who – particularly if they are new to PBL – find that ‘the lack of direction is duplicitous because they feel it is the facilitator’s way of avoiding a declaration of their own agenda and concerns’ (Savin-Baden, 2003: 50). Likewise, focus group moderators face the challenge of striking a balance between guiding the group and not imposing a pre-determined agenda on the discussion. On the one hand, a strictly structured focus group may result in the researcher’s agenda being reproduced by the focus group participants, while issues that could have been more central to the participants themselves risk being overlooked. If, on the other hand, the moderator provides insufficient information regarding the framing of the focus group session (i.e. how the discussion should be conducted and what the aim of the study is), participants tend to be uncertain as to what is expected of them. They may thus put most of their effort into trying to determine what kinds of contributions they are supposed to make, rather than actually elaborating on and co-constructing knowledge. In the focus groups we have conducted and supervised, the moderator has generally assumed a detached position vis-a-vis the group. We have noticed that, depending on how the focus group activities were introduced to the participants and on how they interpreted the introduction, the discussions took different forms. The elaboration and co-construction of knowledge were supported by a clear introduction, and the participants demonstrated understanding and acceptance of the framing of the focus group session. At times, however, even though roughly the same type of introduction was given by the moderator, participants displayed uncertainty regarding the practical aspects of the methodology as well as whether the research team would really benefit from their contributions. In such situations participants devoted considerable time to determining what to discuss; they sometimes turned to the moderator for support, either explicitly asking for questions to be posed or implicitly through non-verbal signals such as turning to and looking at the moderator. Our conclusion is that since the interpretative frames and the previous experience of the participants may differ, it is crucial to ensure that the preconditions for focus group participation are clear to all participants before the discussion starts. However, once this common ground is established, little moderator intervention may be needed. In problem-based learning, the tutor is described as ‘a guide, a facilitator, a monitor and a catalyst … [who] … allows students to focus and direct discussion while listening carefully to determine when intervention … is needed to refocus the discussion, challenge thinking, or subtly raise additional points to be considered’ (Wilkinson, 1998a: 304). Intuition is central to successful facilitation of both tutorial (Savin-Baden, 2003) and focus groups. Rather than being a traditional interviewer, the focus group moderator, like the PBL tutor, should guide and facilitate the discussion. To stimulate discussion, the moderator should pay attention to the ‘dominant voices’ in the group (Smithson, 2000). At times one or several participants may dominate the discussion,

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Wibeck et al.: Learning in focus groups

silencing other voices. This may partly be dealt with by making a group homogeneous with respect to age, education, sex, etc.; however, dominant voices may still monopolize the discussion, even in homogeneous groups. Smithson (2000) suggests that the moderator in such instances should turn directly to the silenced participants to encourage them to speak. An alternative approach may be to use non-verbal signals, such as glances and bodily postures, to nominate a silent participant as a potential speaker. In addition, it is crucial to be aware of ‘normative discourses’, i.e. ‘“normal” or “standard” views, which are not necessarily explicitly stated in the group, but are assumed by the participants to be held by the other group members’ (Smithson, 2000: 112). We argue that it is important that the moderator, even at the beginning of the session, help create an atmosphere of trust, in which participants believe that their contributions are important, and that there are no ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ to be assessed by the researchers.

Conclusions Citing examples transcribed from focus group discussions, we have discussed how knowledge is elaborated and co-constructed in focus groups. We argue that when the analytical focus shifts from mere content analysis to an analysis of what focus group participants are trying to learn, it is possible to explore not only what the participants are talking about, but also how they are trying to understand and conceptualize the issue in question. Thus, researchers may capture and take advantage of the interaction itself in the focus group when analysing the data, rather than treating interaction as merely a tool for efficient data collection. To support the interactive elaboration and co-construction of knowledge, we argue that focus group researchers may benefit from studies of how small groups are used as arenas for sense-making and learning in PBL. Strategies for selecting group participants, formulating interview guides and stimulus material and moderating the groups may be informed by strategies used to support student learning in tutorial groups. Our intention has been to start bringing together the research traditions of PBL and focus groups. It is our conviction that the more the researchers from the two fields learn from each other, the more synergies – but also differences – will be found. Such discussion will add to the reflexivity of focus group research as well as research in PBL. AC K N OW L E D G E M E N T S

This article was made possible by a grant from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency for the research programme ‘Assessment of environmental goal achievement under uncertainty’ (no. I-37–03). The authors wish to thank Madelaine Johansson for productive discussion and assistance in data collection.

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1. For an introduction to PBL, see e.g. Margetson (1993), Barrows (1988) and SavinBaden (2000). 2. In PBL, ‘problem’ is used in the positive sense of a challenge, issue, etc. (see, for example, Russell, 1999). 3. The focus groups were conducted in Swedish, but for the purposes of this article the quotations have been translated into English.

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Wibeck et al.: Learning in focus groups Kitzinger, J. and Barbour, R. (1999) ‘Introduction: The Challenge and Promise of Focus Groups’, in R. Barbour and J. Kitzinger (eds) Developing Focus Group Research: Politics, Theory and Practice, pp. 1 –20. London: Sage. Kitzinger, J. and Farquhar, C. (1999) ‘The Analytical Potential of “Sensitive Moments” in Focus Group Discussions’, in R. Barbour and J. Kitzinger (eds) Developing Focus Group Research: Politics, Theory and Practice, pp. 156 –72. London: Sage. Krueger, R. (1998) Developing Questions for Focus Groups. Focus group kit, no. 3. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Leseman, P., Rollenberg, L. and Gebhart, E. (2000) ‘Co-construction in Kindergartners’ Free Play: Effects on Social, Individual and Didactic Factors’, in H. Cowie and G. Van der Aalsvoort (eds) Social Interaction in Learning and Instruction: The Meaning of Discourse for the Construction of Knowledge. Amsterdam: Pergamon. Linell, P., Wibeck, V., Adelswärd, V. and Bakshi, A. (2001) ‘Arguing in Conversation as a Case of Distributed Cognition: Discussing Biotechnology in Focus Groups’, in E. Németh (ed.) Cognition in Language Use: Selected Papers from the 7th International Pragmatics Conference, Vol. I, pp. 243–55. Amsterdam: International Pragmatics Association. Margetson, D. (1993) ‘Understanding Problem-Based Learning’, Educational Philosophy and Theory 25(1): 40–57. Marková, I. (2004) ‘Langage et communication en psychologie sociale: dialoguer dans les “focus groups”’, Bulletin de Psychologie 57: 231–36. Marková, I., Linell, P., Grossen, M. and Salazar Orvig, A. (2006) Dialogue in Focus Groups: Exploring Socially Shared Knowledge. London: Equinox. Morgan, D. (1988) Focus Groups as Qualitative Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Morgan, D. (1996) ‘Focus Groups’, Annual Review of Sociology 22: 129–52. Morgan, D. (1998) The Focus Group Guidebook (Focus Group Kit, no. 1). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Moscovici, S. (1984) ‘The Phenomenon of Social Representations’, in R. Farr and S. Moscovici (eds) Social Representations, pp. 3 –69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Myers, G. (1998) ‘Displaying Opinions: Topics and Disagreement in Focus Groups’, Language in Society 27(1): 85–111. Myers, G. and Macnaghten, P. (1999) ‘Can Focus Groups be Analysed as Talk?’, in R. Barbour and J. Kitzinger (eds) Developing Focus Group Research: Politics, Theory and Practice, pp. 173 –85. London: Sage. Regehr, G. and Norman, G. (1996) ‘Issues in Cognitive Psychology: Implications for Professional Education’, Academic Medicine 71(9): 988–1001. Russell, K. (1999) ‘The Problem of the Problem and Perplexity’, in proceedings of PBL: A Way Forward. The 1999 PBL conference, University of Quebec, 7–10 July, Montreal, Canada. Savin-Baden, M. (2000) Problem-Based Learning in Higher Education: Untold Stories. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press. Savin-Baden, M. (2003) Facilitating Problem-Based Learning: Illuminating Perspectives. Maidenhead: Open University Press. Schmidt, H. (1993) ‘Foundations of Problem-Based Learning: Some Exploratory Notes’, Medical Education 27: 422–32. Schmidt, H., De Volder, M., De Grave, W., Moust, J. and Patel, V. (1989) ‘Exploratory Models in the Processing of Science Texts: The Role of Prior Knowledge Activation Through Small-Group Discussion’, Journal of Educational Psychology 81: 610–19.

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Qualitative Research 7(2) Smithson, J. (2000) ‘Using and Analysing Focus Groups: Limitations and Possibilities’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology 3(2): 103–19. Stevens, P.E. (1996) ‘Focus Groups: Collecting Aggregate-Level Data to Understand Community Health Phenomena’, Public Health Nursing 13(3): 170–6. van Boxtel, C. (2000) Collaborative Concept Learning: Collaborative Learning Tasks, Student Interaction, and the Learning of Physics Concepts. Enschede, Netherlands: PrintPartners Ipskamp. Visschers-Pleijers, A., Dolmans, D., Wolfhagen, I. and Van Der Vleuten, C. (2004) ‘Exploration of a Method to Analyze Group Interactions in Problem-based Learning’, Medical Teacher 26(5): 471–8. Wibeck, V. (2002) ’Genmat i focus. Analyser av fokusgruppssamtal om genförändrade livsmedel’ [‘Genetically modified food in focus: analyses of focus group discussions’], PhD dissertation, Linköping University (Linköping Studies in Arts and Science, 260). Linköping, Sweden: The Tema Institute. Wibeck, V. (2004) ‘Exploring Focus Groups: Analysing Focus Group Data About Genetically Modified Food’, in K. Aijmer (ed.) Dialogue Analysis VIII: Understanding and Misunderstanding in Dialogue. Selected Papers from the 8th IADA Conference, Göteborg 2001, pp. 287 –98. Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer Verlag. Wibeck, V., Adelswärd, V. and Linell, P. (2004) ‘Comprendre la complexité: Les focus groups comme espace de pensée et d’argumentation sur les aliments génétiquement modifiés’, Bulletin de Psychologie 57: 253–61. Wibeck, V., Johansson, M., Larsson, A. and Öberg, G. (2006) ‘“Communicative Aspects of Environmental Management by Objectives”: Examples from the Swedish Context’, Environmental Management 37: 461–469. Wilkerson, L. (1996) ‘Tutors and Small Groups in Problem-Based Learning: Lessons from the Literature’, New Directions for Teaching and Learning 68: 23–32. Wilkinson, S. (1998a) ‘Focus Group Methodology: A Review’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology 1(3): 181–203. Wilkinson, S. (1998b) ‘Focus Groups in Health Research: Exploring the Meanings of Health and Illness’, Journal of Health Psychology 3(3): 329–48. Wilkinson, S. (1999) ‘Focus Groups: A Feminist Method’, Psychology of Women Quarterly 23(2): 221–44. Yoshihama, M. (2002) ‘Breaking the Web of Abuse and Silence: Voices of Battered Women in Japan’, Social Work 47(4): 389–400. V I C T O R I A W I B E C K is an assistant professor in Environmental Science, with a PhD in Communication Science (Linköping University, Sweden). She is currently involved in research projects on communicative barriers in environmental management and on public perceptions of genetically modified food. One of her major research interests is the development of focus group methodology. Address: Centre for Climate Science and Policy Research, Department of Water and Environmental Studies, Linköping University, SE-601 74 Norrköping, Sweden. [email: vicwi@tema.liu.se] M A D E L E I N E A B R A N D T D A H L G R E N is Professor of Education at Linköping University, Sweden. Her field of research is Higher Education. Her publications include a variety of books and articles, particularly on student-centred educational design, problem-based learning in different academic contexts, cross-cultural learning in a web-based environment. A recent research focus is students’ transition from higher education to working life.

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Wibeck et al.: Learning in focus groups Address: Department of Behavioural Science, Linköping University, SE-581 83 Linköping, Sweden. [email: madab@ibv.liu.se] G U N I L L A Ö B E R G is Professor and Director of the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) at University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada and was previously Director of the Centre for Climate, Science and Policy Research at LiU, Sweden. Öberg has chaired and participated in a number of interdisciplinary educational, developmental and research projects which, among other things, have involved the use of problem-based learning (PBL) and focus group interviews. Address: Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, The University of British Columbia, Aquatic Ecosystem Research Laboratory, 429–2202 Main Mall, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6T 124. [email: goberg@ires.ubc.ca]

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