Critical Psychology Teaching Materials

Qualitative Methods:
Use of Focus Groups to Study Racial/Ethnic Experiences on Campus

Larry Osborne
Carson-Newman College
Jefferson City, Tennesee

© Appalachian College Association




Psychologists have used qualitative methods to study human and animal behavior since the inception of the field until the present time. Freud’s clinical case studies of neurotic clients and Jane Goodall’s naturalistic observations of chimpanzees in the wild are two well known examples in which the researcher used words and narratives to describe, analyze, and explain the behavior under study. Recent theoretical work in critical psychology has emphasized the value of qualitative methods in a field that has at times appeared preoccupied with statistics and scientific objectification when other methods may be more appropriate (Fox and Prilleltensky, 1997).

Four of the principal categories of qualitative research include participant observation, interviews, focus groups, and case studies (Dalton, Elias, and Wandersman, 2001). For this project, you will utilize focus groups to study aspects of the experience of students on your campus in connection with their race/ethnicity.

In focus groups, the researcher arranges an interview with a relatively small number of persons (generally n=6-12) who are have in common some characteristic of interest such as race/ethnicity, gender, age, health condition, etc. The purpose is to assess the similarities and differences among people in the focus group in how they respond to ideas and topics posed during the interview as well as to each other. A focus group consists of a moderator who guides the interview from one topic or question to another, follows up on interesting lines of thought or points needing clarification, moves the conversation from generalities to specifics, and makes sure everyone is heard; and the participants who share the common characteristic (in this project, race/ethnicity) but who do not know each other well or at all. The data consist of the discussion and responses of the group to the questions or topics, the interactions generated among the participants themselves, and observations made by the moderator. While you will want to begin with an outline or tentative list of questions and topics, participants may interject their own and the moderator may think of new ones during the course of the interview. The moderator may tape record the interview (with permission) to prevent distraction and missing important information, which can then be transcribed for analysis. You interpret your observations and identify repeating themes and patterns within a framework that makes sense to you and also to the members of the focus group. Someone who reads your observations and interpretations should get a good idea of insider knowledge--what it’s like from a certain perspective and in a particular context (your campus) for persons who share the common characteristic under study (Dalton et al., 2001).

As a student at a private college in the Appalachian region, you probably attend a school where most of the student body is European American. While obvious racial conflict may be relatively rare on our campuses, it is a common observation that students segregate themselves in certain settings such as the cafeteria or in Greek organizations at least somewhat along the lines of race/ethnicity. It also is not uncommon, on some campuses at least, that students of color may feel marginalized, invisible, or not really an integral part of the campus community, as if they are "second-class citizens." Sometimes, students of color may feel disrespected or even discriminated against by some members of the majority group. Conversely, European American students may at times have questions about the fairness of Affirmative Action, feel that their own individuality is ignored, or feel cut off from the close social groups formed by students of color. The purpose of this project is to ascertain some of the attitudes and feelings around campus about issues of race and ethnicity and to generate some constructive suggestions for improvement that might be implemented by the administration, faculty, or student body to help your campus culture be one of inclusion, appreciation, and respect in regards to racial/ethnic diversity.

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The participants are students at your college you recruit to participate in 3-4 focus groups, each with around 6 people per group and representing identifiable racial/ethnic groups on your campus. The groups should be formed of people who are of the same race/ethnicity but who otherwise do not know each other well or at all. Seek to have a balance of females and males. See what groups are possible on your campus. Depending on the demographics at your college, it is likely you could compose the following groups: European American, African American, Latino/Latina, and Asian American. Other groups might include Native Americans, Asian nationals (e.g., students from Japan, China, Taiwan), or Chicano/Chicana. You will need to ask one person in each group to serve as moderator, unless you have a project team member of that race/ethnicity. Recruit participants through your classes, campus organizations, residence halls, and sports teams to take part in a conversation about race on campus. Talk with your instructor about getting approval to do this. Emphasize that the purpose is to understand the attitudes and feelings of students about issues of race and ethnicity and to generate constructive suggestions for improvement to help the campus culture be one of inclusion, appreciation, and respect in regards to racial/ethnic diversity.


Once you assemble your groups, work with the moderator to set a convenient time and place for the group to meet. Plan on about 1-2 hours for each interview. Rehearse with the moderator her or his role in the group to guide the interview from one topic or question to another, follow up on interesting lines of thought or points needing clarification, move the conversation from generalities to specifics, and make sure everyone is heard. Your project team will need to decide on a tentative list or outline of questions and topics. In doing this, keep in mind that an important guideline for qualitative methods from a community psychology perspective is to adopt what is called a strengths perspective (Dalton et al., 2001). Rather than focusing only on problems of a minority community or pointing out how different people are from one another, frame your observations and analysis in terms of how race/ethnicity serves positive functions and how people from across the racial/ethnic spectrum share universal human concerns. It is fine and good to deal with problems and their solutions but be careful not to frame the whole discussion this way.

Consider the following list of possible questions and topics. Add or delete items according to what your project team thinks would be appropriate for your campus.

With your project team and the moderator, discuss whether tape recording the interview is a good idea. It does have advantages but it can also inhibit discussion, and then there is the issue of people saying things they later regret and having it on tape. If you do decide to tape record, you will need to obtain permission from your participants. Obviously if you do not tape the interview, it will be very important for the moderator to take some notes during the interview and to write down everything she/he remembers about the discussion as soon afterwards as possible. Another possible decision is to consider having a project team member to sit in and take notes. However, if this person is of a different racial/ethnic group, will that pose a problem for the focus group in speaking as openly as possible? The project team should decide this and other details about how the focus groups will be run.

After each focus group interview, make sure you record the date, time, locality, and the particularities of the physical setting. Note the gender composition and number of students. Write down as much as you can remember about what you saw, heard, and otherwise experienced, in addition to the actual responses themselves. Try to describe your observations in behavioral terms but feel free to include your own thought and feelings as well.

As you collect your data and observations from the focus groups, see if you can identify repeating themes or patterns of behavior and the meanings behind such patterns for the participants. Talk about your results and interpretations with your project team members to help each of you improve the range and depth of your analyses, and to begin to move towards consensus. [When the conclusions of observers converge through using different lines of data, this is called triangulation, one of the indicators of validity in qualitative research (Dalton et al., 2001).] After you have collected all your results and observations, write up or otherwise summarize them and your conclusions in draft form. Go back to and present these to a least a sample of the members of the focus groups in order to check out your observations and interpretations and make revisions as appropriate.

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Presentation of Results

It is sometimes hard to think about how to present qualitative data in summary form since you are not working with numbers, statistical tests, or graphs (unless you choose to categorize and count certain behaviors or verbal responses). One format for qualitative data is to come up with a certain number of summary and/or interpretive statements, followed by brief quotations or behavioral descriptions that support and illustrate the points you are making. An example of this type of format is the study by Lester, Lamson, and Wollman (1996) of why peace activists burn out and how such burn-out might be prevented.

Another possible format is to present photographs of the participants along with brief quotations that allow the group members to seem like they are speaking directly to your audience. Osborne, Bailey, Ball, and Collins (1998) chose this way to present the results of the qualitative interviews they had conducted around the region with "Eco-Appalachians"-- persons from grass-roots organizations working for environmental justice in their local communities. (You must secure permission if you decide to take photographs.)

Perhaps you can think of additional, creative ways to present your results. Whatever method you choose, try to find a way to communicate the words and experiences of your participants in vivid and accurate detail so that persons regardless of racial or ethnic tradition can get a sense of being there and for the perspectives and experiences of students from other traditions different than their own.

One final consideration in presenting your results is, how can they be applied in helpful ways? In community-based research, the ethic is that results should be of use by and for the community with whom the research was done (Dalton et al., 2001). An additional consideration for this project is, how can you apply your experiences in support of racial and ethnic diversity on your home campus? Think about that with your team members and with the students from the focus groups as well. What might you do and how might you include a plan of action with your presentation?

Be prepared to report your findings and conclusions to the class and on the web. The oral report can follow this outline: (a) what you did; (b) your team’s reliability; (c) your team’s findings; and (d) your discussion.

In addition, you will be expected to present a poster containing 7 sections including:

Last, include your own individual 2-3 page reaction paper, which is written separately by each group member describing the research project, any surprises or challenges encountered, and what you learned from the project and from working with the other group members. Please include a comparison to the results of your collaborative team’s project at the other college.


Dalton, J.H., Elias, M.J., & Wandersman, A. (2001). Community psychology: Linking individuals and communities. Stamford, CT: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning.

Fox, D., & Prilleltensky, I. (1997). Critical psychology: An introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Lester, N., Lamson, M., & Wollman, N. (1996, October). How staff get burned (out) by social change work. Peacework, 14-16.

Osborne, G.L., Bailey, J.M., Ball, D.M., & Collins, L.I. (1998, March). Eco-Appalachians: Voices of hope for environmental justice in the Southern Highlands. Documentary exhibit presented at the Appalachian Studies Conference, Boone, NC.

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