Community research

For HRCs, identifying the most important issues and the most effective actions to take can be a critical challenge. Community research can help to ensure that priorities in those areas reflect the greatest needs and the greatest potential contributions to change. Community research refers to systematic inquiry into some dynamic or characteristic of the community. The “systematic” part separates it from casual observation or informal information gathering. Engaging in best practices in research ensure that findings are accurate, and that they are trusted by those to whom it is presented – such as a City Council, media, or the community itself.

Focus groups

Focus groups can be thought of informally as “group interviews.” They comprise a series of formal questions asked in a group setting, where each member of the group is invited and encouraged to provide responses. Focus groups harness group dynamics to elicit information about community sentiments and issues. This is useful because many issues emerge and are defined through community interactions. Ideally, a focus group harnesses those dynamics to help a group collectively identify (and refine and elaborate) their collective perspectives on a topic.

Those group dynamics also represent a danger of focus groups. Focus groups can lead to a false sense of consensus and can be dominated by stronger voices. In worst case scenarios, unpopular ideas can be censored out as members self-censor from expressing them. All of that can be minimized when a focus group leader is sensitive to those dynamics.

It is important to remember that focus groups are just one type of research used to answer questions about a community. Others, for example, include interviews, surveys, and secondary data analysis. Every method has strengths and weaknesses. It is important to start the research process by identifying the method best suited to answering the specific research questions.

Focus group tasks and issues to consider

  • Identifying a clear topic: It is critical to start with a clear goal to guide research in the form of a topic to explore or question to answer. What, specifically, is the goal of the research? A good scope should produce findings that are helpful and actionable. A useful topic should be neither too broad to effectively address nor too narrow to entertain a rich discussion.
  • Developing an effective interview guide: Focus groups are organized around an interview guide (a list of specific questions to be presented). An effective interview guide must elicit responses (discussion) that will explore and answer all significant aspects of the research question. Design questions to promote rich discussion (and generally no yes/no questions).
  • Recruitment: It is important to recruit participants who will collectively represent the range of perspectives existing among the community or group of interest. Depending on the topic, one may want to focus on community leaders, or perhaps on typical community residents. Answering research questions may require five or more focus groups of 6-8 participants each (as a very general guideline). Consequently, securing adequate participation to ensure appropriate breadth generally requires significant effort. Make sure you get enough of the right people to the table.
  • Leading focus groups: The role of the focus group leader (i.e., the person who leads the group interviews) is critical. Leading focus groups does not necessarily require deep expertise and extensive training, but it does require familiarity with group moderation as well as interview techniques. It also requires a team that can assist with notetaking/recording, and logistics. The most important skill is moderating the group so that all can contribute, and keep the discussion moving in the right direction. Try to get perspectives from all participants, and do not let the loudest voices dominate.
  • Conducting analyses: Focus groups produce rich data; it is important that those data be systematically and accurately represented (rather than, say, a general impression of the main ideas). That will require formal transcripts from video recordings. (Many recording programs provide a draft transcript that can be edited for accuracy.) Transcripts should be analyzed to identify themes and perspectives that emerge from responses for each question – ideally tracked and linked to participants. (That process is generally known to researchers as “coding.”) Analysis is the area where it is probably most useful to get assistance from an experienced researcher.
  • Presenting research: Research should be presented in whatever manner or venue that will help to fulfill its goals. That may be a written report to be made publicly available or submitted to the appropriate actors. It may also be an oral presentation made at a public meeting. It is important to have a clear understanding of the audience(s) for the research before it is undertaken; the style and format of a research report released to the public will be different than, say, a Power Point presentation to a City Council. However the research is presented, it should be done in a way that supports the main findings and brings attention to them. Always prepare a presentation with the audience in mind.

Accessing assistance

HRCs needing assistance with some aspect of research are welcome to reach out to CAHRO and we will try to connect you to researchers willing and able to offer advice or assistance. We would also recommend contacting your local college/university. Previous research conducted for CAHRO noted the possibility of creating research partnerships with California State University campuses in particular (see “California Human Relations Commissions: A Survey of Needs, Capacities, and Interests”).

This CAHRO resource guide was developed with the support of the Center for Community Engagement at California State University, Channel Islands, through its Community-Based Research (CBR) initiatives.