Focus group methodology: Some ethical challenges
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Sim, J. & Waterfield, J. (2019) Focus group methodology: Some ethical challenges. Quality & Quantity, 53(6), pp. 3003-3022.
Focus group methodology generates distinct ethical challenges that do not correspond fully to those raised by one-to-one interviews. This paper explores, in both conceptual and practical terms, three key issues: consent; confidentiality and anonymity; and risk of harm. The principal challenge in obtaining consent lies in giving a clear account of what will take place in the group, owing to unpredictability of the discussion and interaction that will occur. As consent can be seen in terms of creating appropriate expectations in the participant, this may therefore be hard to achieve. Moreover, it is less straightforward for the participant to revoke consent than in one-to-one interviews. Confidentiality and anonymity are potentially problematic because of the researcher’s limited control over what participants may subsequently communicate outside the group. If the group discussion encourages over-disclosure by some participants, this problem becomes more acute. Harm in a focus group may arise from the discussion of sensitive topics, and this may be amplified by the public nature of the discussion. A balance should be struck between avoiding or closing down potentially distressing discussion and silencing the voices of certain participants to whom such discussion may be important or beneficial. As a means of addressing the above issues, we outline some strategies that can be adopted in the consent process, in a preliminary briefing session, during moderation of the focus group, and in a subsequent debriefing, and suggest that these strategies can be employed synergistically so as to reinforce each other.