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close this bookA Manual for the Use of Focus Groups (Methods for Social Research in Disease) (International Nutrition Foundation for Developing Countries - INFDC, 1993, 97 pages)
close this folderPart II: Staff training for focus group discussions
View the documentSection 1: Introduction
View the documentSection 2: Introduction to focus groups
View the documentSection 3: Overview of skills training session
View the documentSection 4: Roles of the team
View the documentSection 5: Personal characteristics of the moderator
View the documentSection 6: Preparation for each focus group discussion
View the documentSection 7: Entering the community and activities for the reception of participants
View the documentSection 8: Beginning the focus group discussion
View the documentSection 9: Moderator skills: Asking questions
View the documentSection 10: Encouraging and controlling the discussion
View the documentSection 11: Moderator and observer skills: Observing non-verbal messages
View the documentSection 12: Observer skills: Recording the session
View the documentSection 13: Closing the discussion and meeting
View the documentSection 14: The debrief

Section 12: Observer skills: Recording the session

12.1 Introduction

There are many ways of recording focus group discussions, but whatever method you choose for your project, it is the responsibility of the observer to record the session. The interpretation of information relies on the quality of the record of the session, and so it is a very important part of the project.

12.2 Note-taking

In many circumstances, you will not have access to tape recorders or video cameras, and must therefore rely on paper and pencil. This is perfectly satisfactory, although it will limit the amount of information you can manage as well as the detail in which you can examine the responses of participants.

If you are only taking notes and have no other method of recording, then the quality of your notes becomes very important. Unless you have skills in shorthand (and most of us do not) then you will find it near impossible to record each response from each participant. One way of getting as much as possible is to try and summarise each participant's response. You should try and include direct quotes where interesting statements are made, or even to shown a common response.

Also be aware that if you are taking notes only, it is your interpretation of the response that you are recording through the summary. Be very careful to keep the summary true to what the participant intended. Do not record a quote that could take on a different meaning if read away from the discussion in which it was said.

If you are taking notes as well as recording the session, then the way you write your notes will change a little. If you have a tape recording that will be used to produce a full written or typed transcript of the whole session, then all you need to do is jot down words that can be used during the debrief to remind you of what was said, and by whom. If the taped recording is used to provide a record that will be used only if necessary, then your notes should be as full as possible.

Immediately after the session if possible, and certainly within 24 hours, you need to write up your notes in detail. This is especially important where your analysis will rely on these notes. Always ensure that you have the session written up before the next focus group. As you can't always remember details from one or two sessions ago, it is very easy to get confused. Check with the moderator: she or he may be able to remember some details you have forgotten, or have a different interpretation of various gestures or statements.

Do not forget to include your observations of the non-verbal messages in your notes. These can be of great assistance later for analysis.

12.3 Tape recording

This is a particularly useful method of recording the session. It can be used as a complete and accurate record when there are questions or confusions about responses or their meaning. It can provide a record of the whole session for anyone who was not present at the session, buy would like a detailed knowledge of the results of the focus groups. It can be very helpful for observers to expand their notes if they are unclear about their own summary.

Perhaps the most effective use of the tape recording is the full written transcript. This is only possible where you have the staff to produce the documents. As it takes one full working day to produce a transcript of a 90 minute focus group, not many offices will be able to use this method. However, it is recommended if it is at all possible as it will improve the quality of your results quite significantly.

The observer should set up and test the tape recording equipment in the field even if it was tested in the home office. It is also recommended to have two tape recorders so that each session has a back up recording should one of the recorders fail. Also, if you start one tape recorder about three minutes before the other, then you will not lose any of the session while turning the tapes around. However, good note taking skills can help you fill in the missing information.

You should always ask permission to record the session. It is probably better to use small microphones, as large ones can be a distraction especially if there are children around. Place the microphones in the centre of the group, and try to ensure that the voices of all participants will be heard. Always take at least two sets of spare batteries, and a spare microphone if possible. You should have extra cassettes too in case the session is very successful and goes on longer than you expected.

12.4 Video recording

This type of recording is rarely used in research in developing countries. Mostly, researchers and health departments do not have access to such equipment, but even if they do, video cameras can be very distracting to the group. This of course depends on how much exposure they have had to such technologies. If you are using video (and it can be very useful) follow the same principles as with tape recordings. Just ensure that people are not aware of the camera too much as this could easily stop a free and natural discussion.