The Association for Qualitative Research
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The Times comes up trumps

The Times comes up trumps when it starts to focus on focus groups.

Qualitative research gets a bad press, more often than not, in both broadsheets and redtops so it's worth noting when a quality paper actually deigns to give it a good write-up, particularly when it hasn't even been inspired by AQR. The following article appeared in The Times on Saturday 26 January.

Could it be that when a publication is a client, calling the shots in terms of the questions it would like answered, it takes the methodology and the results more seriously than if it were reporting on focus groups commissioned by a third party?

Maybe we ought to take this a step further, to raise the profile of the industry, and offer a selected number of titles/programmes the chance to host their own focus groups. If Live Strategy's work for The Times can alter perceptions so rapidly, this looks like a strategy worth pursuing..

The popular television programme Family Fortunes rewards contestants for guessing the most popular answer rather than the right one. It produces enough stupid remarks to fill a special Christmas edition. It is depressing to watch someone asked to "name a game played with a black ball" reply "darts".

Many politicians and commentators view focus groups as the political equivalent of this, believing that little good can come from asking people who don't know much about politics to ramble on about it. They fear that silly remarks from unrepresentative groups are replacing principle as the main inspiration of leaders .

This view is widely and deeply held, but is completely wrong. The focus group conducted by Live Strategy for The Times demonstrates clearly why political professionals pay for such research. It provides the Tory leader with a clear analysis of his problem on the NHS, and the findings on Tony Blair's foreign travel suggest that the public is less critical than many journalists.

By watching television, reading newspapers or simply relying on intuition the Prime Minister's critics might think that his trips are a huge political error. The research suggests otherwise. The Conservative Party, cutting back after the election, might decide that focus groups are a luxury it can ill afford. If it does so, it will be continually attacking the Government on the wrong issues.

John Redwood often responded to presentations of focus group results by saying that his conversations on doorsteps contradicted the findings. The group's attitude to the euro illustrates why relying on doorstep dialogue is inadequate. In a short chat a voter will usually say something hostile about the single currency.

Yet two-hour long focus group discussions reveal uncertainty and fear that joining is inevitable. Groups have been consistent about this for years. To enter a euro campaign without understanding the subtleties of public opinion would be disastrous. Eurosceptics can be sure that the Prime Minister will not make that mistake.

Mr Blair's fellow pro-European, Kenneth Clarke, is a different matter. He is dismissive of focus groups because he thinks politicians should rely on instincts and belief.

Voters expect politicians to keep in touch. Mr Blair does it professionally and continuously, using methods no business would do without.. He will not be beaten until his opponents do the same.

 

Daniel Finklestein
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2002