Culturally responsive approaches to focus groups

Jori N. Hall’s recently published book, Focus groups: Culturally responsive approaches for qualitative inquiry and program evaluation (2020) is a timely and much-needed contribution to the literature on focus groups. Sociologist Robert Merton and his colleagues (Merton, Fiske, & Kendall, 1990) introduced the term “focused interview” in 1940s research on participants’ responses to watching a film or listening to a radio program. At the time, a focused interview could be either with individuals or groups. Since then, the “focus group” has morphed into something quite different. Developed in the social sciences, adopted in the field of marketing, and then re-adopted by social science researchers once again, the “focus group” represents a method that has continued to develop and transform over time (Lee, 2010; Merton, 1987). Jori Hall’s book reminds us that research methods are not static, but continue to develop.

The book is organized into eight chapters. The introduction provides the background to focus groups and an explanation of what is meant by the term culturally responsive focus groups. Hall takes focus groups to be a “site for social justice” that “affirms the cultural context of participants” (p. 13). The book argues that applying a culturally responsive stance in which “marginalized groups are centered”, enables researchers to “interrogate taken-for-granted assumptions, challenge stereotypes, include voices that are often excluded or stifled, and disrupt oppressive practices” (p. 13).

Chapter 2 provides an overview of decision points involved in the design of a project (i.e., sampling approach and sampling size, recruitment, and ethics, etc.). Chapter 3 focuses on practical issues in developing focus group protocols and question development, the conduct of focus groups, as well as the moderator’s role. Moderators are provided with a range of strategies with which they might augment the more familiar sequence of questions. These include the use of vignettes, free listings, and ranking, rating, and pile sorting activities.

Chapter 4 examines in more depth what it means to establish a focus group that is “culturally responsive”. Here Hall engages with the concept of “multicultural validity”. Citing Kirkhart, Hall reminds readers that

validity does not exist “outside cultural contexts because validity resides in the applications and the applications are always culturally imbedded (Kirkhart, 2010, p. 401 cited by Hall, 2020, p. 61).

Hall provides a thorough explanation of how researchers might aim to establish multicultural validity in their work, through consideration of theoretical, methodological, interpersonal, and consequential validity (p. 61). This chapter also explores how researchers can demonstrate reflexivity – through reflective journaling, member checking, and triangulation.

Chapters 5 and 6 examine how culturally responsive focus groups might be used with particular populations, including youths and older adults (chapter 5) and using indigenous and feminist epistemologies (chapter 6). Chapter 7 orients to online modes of communication for the conduct of focus groups, and provides a useful overview of advantages, disadvantages and technical issues for researchers to consider. Chapter 8 addresses the analysis and interpretation of data generated from culturally responsive focus groups. Appendices include a sample focus group protocol that could be adapted by other researchers, and another case example of an application of focus groups known as “Sista Circles”.

The book is written in an approachable and personal style that will be helpful to students and researchers wanting to consider how to tailor their application of focus groups to particular groups. Throughout the book, Hall outlines practical strategies, along with numerous resources for further research. Hall explains concepts clearly and provides lots of examples to illustrate points. A key strength of the book is the case examples included — these work really well alongside the chapters in which they are included, and are drawn from studies on a variety of topics, including nutrition, transnational migrant youths, older adults, and breastfeeding. This book is an excellent addition to the literature on focus groups and provides an informative resource for qualitative researchers and program evaluators using focus groups.

To listen to Dr. Hall talk about the book, see her podcast (Episode 2) at the following link:

Kathy Roulston

Note: As author of this review, I want to let readers know that I am a colleague of Jori Hall, and a co-editor of the series in which this book is published.



Hall, J. N. (2020). Focus groups: Culturally responsive approaches for qualitative inquiry and program evaluation. Gorham, ME: Myers Education Press.

Lee, R. (2010). The secret life of focus groups:  Robert Merton and the diffusion of a research method. American Sociologist, 41(2), 115-141. doi:10.1007/s12108-010-9090-1

Merton, R. K. (1987). The focussed interview and focus groups: Continuities and discontinuities. Public Opinion Quarterly, 51(4), 550-566. Retrieved from

Merton, R. K., Fiske, M., & Kendall, P. L. (1990). The focused interview: A manual of problems and procedures (2nd ed.). New York: The Free Press.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s