For some projects, focus groups may be used in combination with a survey questionnaire to provide an opportunity for people to discuss topics in more detail or depth than is possible in the interview. An important aspect of focus groups is the interaction among participants. While focus groups can be a valuable component of the research process, providing a qualitative understanding of the topics that are quantified in survey research, the results of focus groups must be interpreted with caution. Because people respond in a group setting their answers can be influenced by the opinions expressed by others in the group, and because the total number of participants is often small (and not a randomly selected subset of the population), the results from focus groups should not be used to generalize to a broader population.
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When asking closed-ended questions, the choice of options provided, how each option is described, the number of response options offered and the order in which options are read can all influence how people respond. One example of the impact of how categories are defined can be found in a Pew Research poll conducted in January 2002: When half of the sample was asked whether it was “more important for President Bush to focus on domestic policy or foreign policy,” 52% chose domestic policy while only 34% said foreign policy. When the category “foreign policy” was narrowed to a specific aspect – “the war on terrorism” – far more people chose it; only 33% chose domestic policy while 52% chose the war on terrorism.
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