Beyond focus groups

Date of publication: May 1, 1994

Abstract:

The purpose of the paper is to explain a new method - editing groups - of understanding viewers' response to programmes. The paper begins by questioning the claims that qualitative researchers make for research using focus groups. It argues that, although focus groups may offer a 'closeness' to the audience which questionnaire survey research cannot, nevertheless the communication process between the discussant and the moderator is distorted, and it is distorted for the very reason that linguistic expression is no guarantee of 'pure' communication. The result of this distortion is that we do not have a methodology that allows us to understand in any deep fashion how viewers read or interpret programmes. The paper then moves on to describe the application of a new method for examining the audience - experimental editing groups - applied to a particular type of media output, non-fictional violence. The methodology, however, is shown capable of application to any type of programme output. The method is described in some detail, but can be basically summarised as having the viewer act as their own editor. That is, having been provided with scripts, still shots, and programme material - broadcast and untransmitted - the viewer is allowed to construct their own preferred reading. The technique forces the viewer to question their judgement of material on a frame by frame basis to produce a physical account of their meanings, feelings and views on and about a programme, thus reducing the dependence on pure Unguistic accounts for understanding viewers' responses. The method allows us to examine viewers engagement with the text, rather than, as in traditional focus groups, understanding engagement only through the linguistic account they give of their understanding to the moderator. The final section of the paper shows how, through this method, it is possible to move into the life world of the viewer to create at a substantive level understandings of response by reference to the viewer's social experience, and suggests that the new method can act as a bridge, by good concept development, between qualitative and quantitative research.

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