A market of opinions: the political epistemology of focus groups

Lezaun, Javier (2007) A market of opinions: the political epistemology of focus groups. The Sociological Review, 55 (s2). pp. 130-151.


Provoking a conversation among a small group of people gathered in a room has become a widespread way of generating useful knowledge.1 The focus group is today a pervasive technology of social investigation, a versatile experimental setting where a multitude of ostensibly heterogeneous issues, from politics to economics, from voting to spending, can be productively addressed.2 Marketing is the field in which the focus group has acquired its most visible and standardized form, as an instrument to probe and foretell economic behaviour by anticipating the encounter of consumers and products in the marketplace.3 But whether they are used to anticipate consumer behaviour in a laboratory-like setting, or to produce descriptions of political attitudes, conversations elicited in the 'white room' of the focus group are relevant to a striking range of objects of social-scientific inquiry.4

The observation of contrived groupings of research subjects in 'captive settings' is of course a familiar source of knowledge in the social sciences, but there is something peculiar to the focus group as a research technology. In focus groups, knowledge is generated in the form of opinions. Moreover, a group dynamic is used to bring into existence a series of relevant individual opinions; the peculiar form of social liveliness of the focus group is meant to 'produce data and insights that would be less accessible without the interaction found in a group' (Morgan, 1988: 12). Both the productive qualities and methodological quandaries of the focus group originate in its special form of liveliness. The peculiar politics and epistemology of a focus group conversation derive from the tension implied in using a group to engender authentically individual opinions. Moderators are in charge of resolving this tension: they must make the conversation conducive to the expression of private and idiosyncratic views, while preventing the focus group from rising to the status of a 'collective;' they are called to structure a process of interaction conducive to the elicitation and elucidation of the most private of views, while reducing to a minimum the residuum of 'socialness' left over from the process. As a professional group moderator describes it:

We talk to ourselves all the time. Most of these inner thoughts never surface. They reflect the same kind of internal dialogue we have when we stand at a supermarket shelf to select paper towels or stop to take a closer look at a magazine ad for a new cell-phone service or decide whether to use a credit card to pay for gas. Our running commentary is often so subliminal that we often forget it's going on. As a focus group moderator, I reach out to consumers in my groups and try to drag that kind of information out of them and into the foreground. What I do is a kind of marketing therapy that reveals how we as consumers feel about a product, a service, an ad, a brand. (Goebert, 2002: viii)

Researchers hope to externalize the silent 'running commentary' of consumers by means of an intently managed group discussion, to translate a series of inaudible monologues into a visible conversation. They provoke an exchange so as to bring to light the inner qualities of consumers.

Knowledge about people is extracted from the opinions elicited from them – opinions that are freely expressed by the subjects, yet structurally incited by the setting.5 Those opinions are then selected, categorized and interpreted by the focus group researcher and fed into production and marketing strategies. 'Illustrative opinions' are filtered from the wealth of talk generated in the discussion, to be quoted verbatim or paraphrased in the research reports circulated to clients and other relevant audiences. Thus, opinions generated in the 'white room' are read, interpreted, and discussed by managers and marketers who were not present in the original conversation and are in no position to directly assess their authenticity or relevance. The statements produced in the unique environment of the focus group enter a long chain of quoting and rephrasing, and reverberate into other actors' market strategies. The ultimate product of a focus group conversation is a series of tradable opinions – statements that are generated in an experimental setting but can be disseminated beyond their site of production. Opinions elicited from focus group participants thus help constitute particular marketplaces.

Producing opinions of such value and mobility is a highly complex technical process. A focus group can generate a multitude of objects that, while seemingly identical to relevant opinions, are in fact radically different kinds: false opinions, induced judgments, or insincere beliefs, all of which appear profusely in the course of a focus group discussion – especially in a poorly run one. These deceptive statements must be sorted out and expunged so as not to lead researchers and their audiences astray. The task of the moderator is to manage the focus group discussion so as to limit the proliferation of irrelevant or inauthentic viewpoints; to foreground tradable opinions against the background noise that is inevitably generated in the experimental situation.

The purpose of this chapter is to draw attention to some of the strategies utilized by focus group moderators to carry out this task of extracting tradable opinions out of experimentally generated conversations. In so doing, we can regain a proper appreciation of the extent to which categories such as 'relevant opinion' or 'consumer preference' are problematic – and not simply or primarily to the external observer, but to the actors who are professionally trained to elicit and recognize them, the focus group moderators.

My account will be limited in a number of important ways. The manufacture of opinions in a focus group starts with the assembling of a group of adequate research subjects and a meeting with one or more moderators, but the 'focus group chain' comprises a long sequence of exchanges and analyses beyond this initial encounter. This chapter, however, will only investigate the initial experimental moment, when research subjects and moderators come together in the physical setting of the focus group 'white room.' Moreover, I will analyse this encounter solely from the perspective of the moderators: my analysis is based on the moderators' own technical literature – the training manuals, methods handbooks, autobiographical accounts, and other documents in which they lay out their own philosophy of 'good practice' and a portrayal of the 'good moderator.' I do not attempt to examine the focus group discussion from the point of view of the research subjects, nor will I draw extensively on analyses of the patterns of interaction between subjects and moderators that actually emerge in a focus group, a dimension of the focus group encounter that others have studied at some length (Myers, 1998 and 2004; Myers and Macnaghten, 1999; Puchta and Potter, 1999 and 2003). The chapter is thus limited to descriptions of the craft of moderation that professional moderators have put into writing.6 Through this literature, I try to reconstruct an ideal moral epistemology of moderation. In particular, I try to capture the political constitution of an experimental setting in which individual attitudes are elicited and market behaviour is routinely anticipated.

The chapter is organized around three themes, all of them topics that social scientists have frequently raised in relation to the production of scientific knowledge under experimental conditions: 1) the distinction and balance between naturalness and artificiality in the focus group setting, and the embodiment of this distinction in the moderator's skills and abilities (or, rather, in the accounts that moderators give of their own craft); 2) the co-production of knowledge and particular forms of social order, or the political constitution of the focus group – a constitution that ideally, I will argue, takes the form of an isegoric assembly; and finally, 3) the role of material artifacts and the physical arrangement of the setting in the organization of the 'focus group chain' as a technology of knowledge production. The chapter concludes with a call to make the production of opinions a proper object of sociological investigation, in the same way that the creation and circulation of knowledge has long occupied a central place in the agenda of sociological research.

Item Type: Article
Keywords: GAIn
Subject(s): Science & technology management
Centre: Institute for Science, Innovation and Society
Related URLs:
Date Deposited: 16 Apr 2010 10:42
Last Modified: 23 Oct 2015 14:05
URI: http://eureka.sbs.ox.ac.uk/id/eprint/139

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