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Handbags at twenty paces

Have you ever attended a debate where voting was abandoned because both sides ended up arguing the same case? Imagine this at the House of Commons, territory more familiar with conflict than consensus.

On 23rd October, Committee Room 14 hosted the MRS-sponsored debate: 'Political policy making is giving focus groups a bad name'. Peter Brooke, speaking for the motion, endorsed groups as a democratic vehicle. He reminded us that politicians, with a moral obligation to access the views of the people, embrace groups as a reasonable means to that end.

Lord Bell, ostensibly in opposition, concurred ­ but castigated Tony Blair for shifting policy according to feedback from the latest focus groups.

Marilyn Baxter countered that political focus groups are publicly associated with spin and control-freakery and, to add insult to injury, scorned in the Rover advertising poster! In truth, it is media reportage that is to blame.

Finally, Prosper Riley-Smith urged practitioners of group discussions to distance themselves from 'the F word' and contended that focus groups are, in, fact blameless. 'It's like blaming divorce on the telephone line which reports the infidelity,' he said.

The motion was defeated narrowly, by 58 votes to 53.


Andrea Williams
Director, Andrea Williams Qualitative Research

This article was first published in InBrief magazine, January 2001
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2001