When Group Discussions became Focus Groups

Focus  Group  Discussion

‘Focus group’ has always been the American term for what was originally known as a group discussion in the UK, and as research – like everything – has become more international there has been an inevitable merging of terminology and also methodology (American groups tending to take a more face value/systematic line than the humanistic/psychological approach used in Europe).

More specifically however, the renaming of group discussions can probably be attributed to the Blair years at the turn of the 21st century. Prior to this, group discussions in the UK were used to talk to consumers and businesses about their attitudes and behaviours in relation to brands and products, and had no significant role in the political arena.

American political researchers meanwhile were recognising the value of using group sessions to talk and listen to ordinary members of the public about their political views (rather than just vociferous political activists), and these sessions were duly known as focus groups.

When the idea of using groups to talk to the general public about politics was subsequently taken up by researchers in the UK, the name focus groups was introduced and the term gradually became recognised amongst the general research community.

By the time Blair came along, the wider media were starting to pay attention to the tactics used by political party researchers. This effectively started the spread of the term focus groups into the public domain, and today nearly everybody in the UK says ‘focus groups’ rather than ‘group discussions’.

One of the legacies of this development has arguably not favoured the research industry, thanks to somewhat pejorative journalism at the time implying that Blair governed ‘by doing what the focus groups told him’. This tended to suggest that focus groups were purely about eliciting views rather than sensitively interpreting and analysing feedback, undermining the skill and value of properly run qualitative research.

In turn this has made it easier for managers and others to do their own ‘focus groups’, unaware that they are not really doing qualitative research at all and at worst, generating poor quality and misleading information because they lack the necessary research skills.

(This is perhaps reflected by Diageo’s launch of its 2012 Consumer Planning Team manifesto ‘Say No to Focus Groups’, when what it really meant was ‘say no to doing qualitative research badly for the wrong reasons’.)

Even today, it is not uncommon for qualitative researchers to feel a bit uncomfortable about saying they ‘do focus groups’, given the slightly lightweight connotations now attributed to one of the key tools of our trade which were not characteristic in the days of ‘group discussions’.

The change in terminology may also have gathered momentum during the early 90s through the actions of management consultancies. At that time a lot of established UK firms were undergoing all manner of corporate restructuring (mergers and acquisitions, stock market launches etc) and management consultancies took the opportunity to sell qualitative research using the label of focus groups. This had the effect of making it seem as if a ‘new’ technique had been introduced, thus giving the term corporate as well as political exposure.

With thanks to ICG members for their contributions to this blog.