Lesson Idea: Analyzing Focus Group Interviews

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Qualitative Research Methods

The twin towers were attacked on September 11th, 2001 when two planes were hijacked and flown into the buildings in a series of terrorist attacks. The effects of these attacks were the subject of North et al.'s (2015) qualitative study. (Image credit: Michael Foran)

Using real examples of qualitative studies is an effective way of teaching qualitative research methods and concepts. It also helps with developing students’ ability to apply their knowledge to stimulus material (i.e. they learn how to use details from the text to support their answers).

Note: this task has been developed for the “old” syllabus, but could be adapted for the new syllabus, too.

Task #1: Making Predictions

  • Show students only the opening two paragraphs of the summary, including the aim of the research. What research method would they use? Why?
  • Discuss as a class and then have students read the summary to see if they were “right.”

Task #2: Application

  • Students work together to come up with a list of relevant points to make about the study in regards to the following key methods and concepts in qualitative research:
    • Focus group method
    • Considerations (in setting up and/or carrying out the interview)
    • Thematic content analysis
    • Triangulation
    • Ethical considerations
    • Participant expectations and/or researcher bias
    • Credibility
    • Reflexivity
  • Their points could be related to:
    • How? (e.g. how triangulation was carried out)
    • Why? (e.g. why the sampling method was a consideration)
    • Limitations? (e.g. limitations of a focus group interview).
      • If students need more guidance, they can refer to the list of practice exam questions listed later in this post.

A study of the impact of the 9/11 attacks on New Yorkers (North et al. 2015)

On September 11th, 2001, a series of terrorist attacks were carried out in the United States, primarily in New York City. The World Trade Centre ‘Twin Towers’ were destroyed when hijacked planes flew into the towers and the towers collapsed, killing over 3,000 people.

There has been a significant amount of research into the effects of these attacks on Americans, especially those living in New York City at the time. Because a lot of this research has focused on PTSD and its symptoms, the aim of this study was to better understand the broader experience of individuals following a disaster.

The study used a self-selected/volunteer sample of 140 participants who signed informed consent forms before participating. These people were employees of companies that were located within the twin towers, and also from nearby areas. The researchers were granted permission to carry out the interviews on company premises and there were 21 focus group interviews in total. Managers and higher-ranking employees were interviewed in groups separate from other employee focus groups.

After the interviews were conducted, digital software was used to transcribe the contents of the interviews. Researchers then carried out a thematic analysis to identify major themes and sub-themes. Two other independent raters also conducted a thematic analysis on the content and inter-reliability was determined to be high.

The major themes emerging from the interviews were: Disaster Experience, Emotional Responses (including two subthemes, Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms and Other Emotional Responses), Workplace Issues, Coping, and Issues of Public Concern.

The focus groups of companies at Ground Zero and elsewhere discussed material related to all five themes. Symptoms of PTSD were only a minority of the PTSD, especially in those focus groups of companies not at Ground Zero.

The results from this study suggest that there is an array of psychological concerns that are affecting those who experienced the 9/11 attacks, not just PTSD symptoms. This is an important finding that may help with administering therapy and dealing with the effects of the attacks, since “…a narrow focus on PTSD in post-disaster response settings may promote interventions that are unresponsive or even counterproductive to survivors’ actual needs” and so perhaps a broader range of strategies should be considered.

Source: North, C. S., Barney, C. J., & Pollio, D. E. (2015). A Focus Group Study of the Impact of Trauma Exposure in the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology50(4), 569–578. http://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-014-0970-5

Link to full original study

Practice Exam Questions

  • Discuss the use of a focus group interview method in this study.
  • Explain two considerations relevant to setting up and/or carrying out the interviews in this study.
  • Explain the use of inductive content analysis (thematic analysis) on interview transcripts in this study.
  • Explain the effect of triangulation on the credibility/trustworthiness of this study.
  • Discuss ethical considerations relevant to this study.
  • Explain possible effects of participant expectations and/or researcher bias in this study.
  • To what extent can findings can be generalized from this study?
  • Explain the role of reflexivity in this study.

Teacher Tip:

Students develop deeper understanding of quantitative methods in psychology because they have more examples of research to draw from. This allows them to make connections between concepts much easier. Therefore, the best way to teach students about qualitative methodology is to use plenty of examples of actual qualitative studies. This will result in the discussions being less abstract and will build student knowledge with concrete examples.

Why are qualitative methods used?

This study is a good example of why a qualitative approach can be beneficial. As the summary states, a lot of research on the effects of the attacks have used PTSD criteria and have conducted studies using quantitative methods and gathered quantitative data. In order to study the effects of the attacks this way, they would probably be using existing diagnostic criteria to measure the effects.

But what about other effects that are not included in the PTSD diagnostic materials? By using these quantitative methods that measure effects of trauma using pre-existing categories, it eliminates the ability to understand other possible effects that are not included in these categories. In other words, we can’t understand participants’ subjective experiences of the phenomenon of experiencing extremely traumatic events.

This comes back to one of the primary reasons qualitative methodology developed in psychology (and other social sciences): can we really understand the subjective human experience by reducing behaviour to numbers? This study used qualitative methods because it allowed participants the freedom to discuss a range of possible effects and from this, the researchers can conclude that it’s not just PTSD symptoms that can be caused by trauma, but a range of other consequences can emerge, too.

But perhaps this also raises the issue of researcher bias. If they chose the method because they suspected the effects were broader than just PTSD, this might lead to a biased interpretation of the results. And here we see why triangulation is important.

From the above explanation you can hopefully see how using real examples can add to the understanding of qualitative methodology in general.