The Pitfalls and Promise of Focus Groups as a Data Collection Method

Jennifer Cyr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

159 Scopus citations


Despite their long trajectory in the social sciences, few systematic works analyze how often and for what purposes focus groups appear in published works. This study fills this gap by undertaking a meta-analysis of focus group use over the last 10 years. It makes several contributions to our understanding of when and why focus groups are used in the social sciences. First, the study explains that focus groups generate data at three units of analysis, namely, the individual, the group, and the interaction. Although most researchers rely upon the individual unit of analysis, the method’s comparative advantage lies in the group and interactive units. Second, it reveals strong affinities between each unit of analysis and the primary motivation for using focus groups as a data collection method. The individual unit of analysis is appropriate for triangulation; the group unit is appropriate as a pretest; and the interactive unit is appropriate for exploration. Finally, it offers a set of guidelines that researchers should adopt when presenting focus groups as part of their research design. Researchers should, first, state the main purpose of the focus group in a research design; second, identify the primary unit of analysis exploited; and finally, list the questions used to collect data in the focus group.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)231-259
Number of pages29
JournalSociological Methods and Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • focus groups
  • mixed methods
  • qualitative methods
  • research transparency
  • social sciences

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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