The influence of ethnic group composition on focus group discussions

Greenwood N, Ellmers T, Holley J

BMC Medical Research Methodology 2014, 14, 1: 107

Available online 20 Sep 2014

Abstract

Background
Focus groups are commonly used to explore participants’ experiences in health and social care research. Although it is suggested that having demographically homogenous groups may help put participants at ease, the evidence is sparse.
The aims of the paper are to: explore the impact of relative ethnic homogeneity and heterogeneity of focus group participants on the group discussions; improve understanding of homogeneity and heterogeneity in focus groups; suggest ways to operationalise concepts such as being ‘more comfortable’ with other focus group participants.

Method
Digitally recorded focus groups were undertaken with family carers of stroke survivors and were later transcribed and analysed using framework analysis. Groups were designated as more or less ethnically homogenous. More homogenous groups included, for example, only White British or Asian Indian participants whilst more heterogeneous groups comprised a mixture of, for example, Asian, White British and Black Caribbean participants.

Results
Forty-one carers participated in seven focus groups. Analysis revealed differences in discussions around ethnicity between the more or less ethnically homogenous groups. For example, participants in more ethnically homogenous focus groups were more likely to say ethnicity might influence perceptions of social care services. On the other hand, more heterogeneous groups emphasised similarity in carers’ experiences, irrespective of ethnicity. Participants in the more homogenous groups were also more likely to make potentially controversial comments relating to ethnic differences. Additionally they appeared to be more at ease with each other discussing the topic. For example, they spontaneously mentioned ethnic differences earlier in these groups.
In contrast, analysis of topics not specifically related to ethnicity, such as the difficult experiences of being a carer, produced no discernible patterns when comparing more and less homogenous focus groups.

Conclusion
Considerations around focus group participant demographic homogeneity and heterogeneity are complex and these terms may be most usefully applied only in relative terms.
Data derived from more homogenous groups complement data from more heterogeneous groups providing different perspectives. Depending on the focus of the discussion, having characteristics in common, such as being a carer can override other differences.