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Beyond Polls and Pundits: Hearing the Real Voices From Our Communities

Most people are willing to sit down and have serious discussions about issues that affect their communities if you invite them to the table. In addition to moderating focus groups, you become the field anthropologist/ethnographer able to explore cultural practices, generational differences, family and intra-cultural dynamics with your experts sitting right there with you.

 

Are you “done” yet? The general election has not even begun, yet between the cryptic data from pollsters, the dire warnings from prognosticators and what one respondent in a focus group hilariously referred to as the “Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!” of bloggers and pundits, I have to confess that I am just about done. In the all-consuming rush to simplify and codify the latest polls for the 24 hour news cycle, I’ve seen little evidence of the nuanced and substantive information that results from bringing people together in a focus group to discuss public policy issues. Focused on the singular narrative, there appears to be little interest in finding out what communities outside of the “mainstream” think.

There is a dismissive intellectually lazy subtext to the smug pronouncements from media personalities and political experts about how the American people “feel”. No one seems to have bothered to ask the questions that are so dear to the hearts of qualitative researchers. “Why do you say that?” “What does that mean to you?” If they have asked those questions, they certainly aren’t sharing the answers.

I have found that most people are willing to sit down and have serious discussions about issues that affect their communities if you invite them to the table. The incentive brings them in but the group dynamic and the caliber of the conversation is what keeps them engaged and they often delight in the challenge to go beyond the typical top of mind response to delve deeper into an issue. Even the disenfranchised are willing to problem solve if they feel that they are going to be heard.

Over the years, I have been privileged to work on multi-cultural and multi-ethnic qualitative research projects that have taken place in non-traditional communities. It has required moving beyond the framework of the focus facility into the neighborhood to work with grassroots organizations and non-government agencies to gain a better sense of the community’s perspective on education, the environment, health care, community policing, news coverage of ethnic communities as well as local, state and national politics.

Focus groups can be conducted almost anywhere: the church, the senior center, ethnic restaurants, the temple, the basketball court and my personal favorite, the clubhouse of a local motorcycle gang. In addition to moderating the groups, you become the field anthropologist/ethnographer able to explore cultural practices, generational differences, family and intra-cultural dynamics with your experts sitting right there with you.

Several years ago, I was conducting a focus group with young Hmong women about teen pregnancy. The Hmong are an Asian ethnic group from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. After the Vietnam War, many Hmong refugees resettled in the United States, with Hmong-American communities scattered across the country.

Every qualitative researcher knows this: if you’re in the community, you have to roll with the community. For this particular group, we invited the young women who arrived with their mothers, grandmothers, and respected elders determined to attend the meeting. The guests were seated around the perimeter of the room while the respondents took their places at the table. My co-moderator was the director of a women’s organization providing medical, mental health and family counseling services.

The first respondent prefaced her comments with “In my opinion” and then went on to provide thoughtful insight into the personal, educational, and cultural challenges she dealt with on a daily basis. Each person afterwards began with “In my opinion”, including the spontaneous utterances from our guests. The phrase took on an interesting synergy that seemed to startle my co-moderator. After the group, I casually mentioned the behavior to her. She nodded and replied, “They’ve never been asked.”

On rare occasions I have received thank you notes from respondents forwarded from facilities. Never from product research groups, the letters were always from some one who had participated in a public policy group who had enjoyed the discussion, particularly the respectful and spirited back and forth. As one put it, “When I walked out, I knew I had been heard.”

 

Rhonda Scott is President of RMS Communications and Research, Inc. and is a member of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA).

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