Focus groups are widely used for research studies in such fields as social sciences, product development, and marketing research. However, reviewers have yet to come up with a universally accepted standard for the interpretation and analysis of the data collected with this method. French researchers are using computerised statistical procedures to ferret out the shortcomings of the reviewers' analysis.
The main advantage of focus group discussions is that they allow the investigation of a broad context of cultural and social attitudes and their influence on how consumers perceive a product. This kind of information is an important addition to the objective quality data obtained through other quantitative sensory methods such as descriptive analysis, also known as profiling.
As there is often considerable variation in the reviewers' interpretation of focus group discussions, experts have tended to question the usefulness of this method. To overcome this "human" problem, researchers from the French INRA have made use of a objective computerised lexical analysis program for this task. This statistical text clustering program lumps together parts of the text which have similar words.
In an example of focus group discussions on pig production systems and pork quality, this method revealed more overall contextual information than was indicated in the original questioning.
Additionally the computer program came up with different results when analysing the original focus group discussions and the summaries of three independent reviewers. These summaries showed a simpler contextual structure than the original interviews had indicated. More importantly the computer analysis revealed that all reviewers had failed to recognise the ethnocentric viewpoints which were clearly evident in the original texts.
Eric Dransfield concludes from these findings that lexical statistical analysis can be a useful tool for the interpretation of focus group discussions. He states that, "Once the problems of transcription from audio to text files have been overcome by technological advances in speech and voice recognition, this tool will allow focus group discussions to be widely used as a valuable method of sensory research."
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INRA Station de Recherches sur la viande
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