Focus groups are an important method for data collection in qualitative research. While they offer many advantages to both researchers and research participants, they also raise some unique ethical concerns. First, researchers cannot guarantee confidentiality to focus group participants. Whether or not contributions to the focus group discussion remain confidential depends on the willingness of other participants in the focus group to respect that confidentiality. Second, focus groups addressing sensitive topics may raise some social risks for participants that cannot be well controlled by the researcher. For example, participants in the focus groups may respond to each other in ways that are painful, embarrassing, angering, or frustrating for other participants.
In order to address these concerns, the Fort Lewis College IRB has established some guidelines for researchers. In general, when a focus group is discussing a topic which is not sensitive (for example, taste or brand preferences), there is less concern about confidentiality and social risk. On the other hand, as the sensitivity of the topic of the discussion increases, so do the steps that researchers should take to protect subjects. The following is a list of guidelines aimed at reducing ethical concerns raised by the use of focus groups:
Any application which includes a proposal to use focus groups to discuss a sensitive topic will automatically undergo full review (review by the entire IRB) as opposed to expedited review (review by a single member of the IRB).