Optimising Rigor in Focus Group Analysis: Using Content/Thematic and Form/Structural Approaches to Understand British Somali's Experiences of Policing in London.

AuthorAhmed, Anya
PositionArticle 3 - London, United Kingdom - Essay

Focus groups involve organising and conducting group discussions in order to gain knowledge of the attitudes, beliefs, practices and values of participants on a specific topic. (1) The talk generated in focus groups can be understood as a mixture of personal beliefs and available collective narratives, which are shaped by the context of participants' lives; and in this way, they have the methodological potential to highlight group norms and processes and also to illuminate the social and cultural contexts in which individual agency takes place. (2) In addition, focus groups can provide multiple layers of meaning, including personal and public information; convergence and divergence in attitudes and behaviour; and insight into people's lives and the circumstances of their lives.

Focus groups can be a stand-alone method and there is evidence that they are useful in studying issues with socially marginalised groups, notably when participants have experienced shared, particular "concrete" situations. (3) However, an often cited concern is researchers' inadequate description of the analytical process adopted which then affects the usefulness and credibility of the findings from focus groups and rigor in analysis. (4) This article addresses these concerns and the premise that rigor in focus group analysis can be achieved by applying an analytical framework which takes account of the content (themes) and form (structure) of focus group data. To illustrate this, this study uses focus group data to examine young British Somali men's individual and shared experiences of policing in the London Borough of Camden. Attending to structure allows for greater depth of analysis. Being clear and transparent about epistemological, theoretical, and conceptual frameworks and framing the material, social, and cultural contexts in which participants' experiences take place enhances the trustworthiness of findings and the robustness of analysis. There are limitations to focus groups, however analyzing focus group data can provide important insights into complex behaviours and motivations. (5)

Framed within an interpretivist paradigm, this paper's thematic analysis is driven by theoretical interest in how race/ethnicity--as social locations--shape young British Somali men's experiences of policing in the UK, and how experiencing multiple jeopardies or being constructed as "other" in manifold ways destabilises notions of homogeneity among BME populations. Additionally, drawing on the conventions of narrative analysis, this paper presents a form/structural analysis. This centres on three key areas: first, on positioning, or how participants cast themselves and others through their talk; and second, based on the premise that language is a cultural resource which people draw upon to reflect and (re)construct their experiences, the linguistic devices deployed by respondents, and the language they use to refer to and address one other; and third, the interactions between focus group members, considering consensus and disagreement, and on interactions between focus group members and the moderator.

The article first presents an overview of focus group analysis, taking particular account of approaches which privilege both content and form. It then outlines the theoretical and conceptual frameworks and places the focus group in context. A thematic and structural analysis of the focus group data is presented under the following sub-headings: stop and search; feeling unsafe in urban space(s); being under surveillance; negative interactions with the police; and troubling the notion of insider/outsiderness with regard to interactions between focus group members and the moderator. The paper concludes by reviewing the approach to analysis and the premise that rigour and robustness in focus group analysis can be enhanced by adopting an approach which attends to both content and form.

Analyzing Focus Groups

This paper's approach to focus group data analysis derives from and builds upon the work of others who emphasise the importance of rigour and trustworthiness. (6) However, before this is discussed, it is important to acknowledge that trustworthiness, or how truth claims can be made from focus groups--or oral sources--also have epistemological significance. From an interpretivist perspective, truth is multiple and subjective and ultimately an interpretation, and "Oral sources are credible but with a different credibility.... the importance of oral testimony may not lie in its adherence to fact, but rather in its departure from it, as imagination, symbolism and desire emerge." (7) Although trust in research is important, it is not well-understood, and additionally, "The nature and role of trust in research are complex and not well-articulated" The notion of trust is primarily discussed in relation to how one can optimise the "trustworthiness" or rigour in focus group analysis and also in terms of how trust is part of how focus groups operate in practice. (8)

Deborah Warr focuses on both the content and form of group interaction using focus group data on the ideals and expectations of intimate relationships within the context of socio-economic disadvantage. (9) Anthony Onwuegbuzie et al offer an analytical framework based on the degree to which there is consensus and disagreement among participants and put forward a framework for collecting and analyzing focus group data. (10) In order to achieve analytical rigour, they suggest that it is necessary to gather meticulous information about which respondents respond to each question, the order of responses, respondent characteristics, non-verbal communication, and also employ a conversational analysis approach. However, their 'micro-interlocutor analysis' is a rather prescriptive approach which does not address the importance of epistemological and theoretical frameworks nor does it take account of context.

Analyzing the content of focus group data is useful to gain insight into personal beliefs and conduct, while analyzing the form facilitates how frames of meaning are shared and disputed. Thematic analysis is a method for identifying, analyzing, and reporting patterns within data, and a theme captures something important about the data in relation to the research question. As such, theoretical thematic analysis is driven by the researcher's theoretical interests, and it can be used within both essentialist and interpretivist paradigms--but there is a need to make such epistemological and theoretical frameworks clear. (11)

Going beyond a content/thematic analysis can increase the analytical rigour of focus group data. Here, the form/structural analysis, centres on three key areas: positioning--or how the men in the study present themselves and others through their talk the linguistic devices deployed; and the interactions between focus group members. Based on the premise that language is a cultural resource which people draw upon, we examine the linguistic devices deployed by our respondents. Dialogue is a central feature of focus groups and language reflects and constructs the contexts in which people live and this provides linkage to and ethnographic understanding of the structural and material circumstances of young Somali men's lives and their positionalities. (12)

Interactions between focus group participants reference and describe the context in which lived and constructed experiences occur and these also shape the tone of the discussion. Jenny Kitzinger identifies two types of interaction in focus groups: complementary interactions where there is consensus; and argumentative interactions where focus group participants disagree or challenge one another's views. (13) Often a group consensus does not emerge and people disagree. In this way, focus group discussions/interactions cannot be described as groupthink behaviour since groupthink theory relates to decision making processes and how groups achieve consensus. The aim of the focus group was not for participants to make a decision through group consensus, rather to express their shared and conflicting views and experiences of policing. (14)

Yet knowledge can be gained through focusing on complementary and argumentative interactions since participants are (re)producing explanations of their everyday experiences, while simultaneously making sense of them. Agreements and disagreements are important processes which influence the nature and content of participants' responses and this needs to be taken into account when analyzing the data, as such transparency has implications for the trustworthiness of the findings and analytical rigour. Michael Agar and James MacDonald highlight two forms of discussion: "insider orientated" discussion where interaction takes place between focus group participants; and "outsider orientated" discussion where participants address the moderator. (15) The focus here is primarily on "insider orientated" discussions in relation to focus group participants. However, this paper also aims to destabilise the notion that "outsider orientation" necessarily characterises interactions between moderator and focus group participants, particularly when the moderator shares positionalities and concrete experiences with focus group members. Again, here the issue of trust is significant: this time in relation to moderator and focus group members. In participatory research, trust between researchers and communities is important. However, trust is "a complex and slippery concept" and a "multidimensional construct, making it difficult to operationalize, measure, and interpret." (16) In simple terms, trust can be understood to denote general beliefs about the extent to which people are "reliable, cooperative or helpful." (17) For the purpose of this analysis, Russell Hardin's threefold structure of trust is useful, whereby there are assumptions that: "a" trusts "b" to do "y"; the object that trust is directed towards can be...

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