1In the range of qualitative methods, in comparison with different types of individual interviews or ethnographic observation, collective interviews (here also referred to as “group interviews”) have generated negligible interest amongst French researchers in the social sciences, particularly in political science. Since the beginning of this century, the growing number of studies in political sociology attests to its usefulness for various survey strategies and empirical protocols.  This type of method has also been presented and discussed by researchers in different fields.  Despite this, the method, its contributions, limits and the possibility of combining it with other methods for collecting data have been little examined. For example, from 2000 to 2010 the Genèses journal published five articles focused specifically on individual interviews whereas there was nothing available on collective interviews.  A lack of reflexivity remains, therefore, despite growing interest in the method. However, the more that this tool becomes the subject of a critical examination into the analytical gains that can be expected from it, the more the academic community will be encouraged to use it. In the same way, the more the range of research using collective interviews is developed, the more it will be possible to evaluate the value of the various possibilities of this type of data collection.
2This article aims to contribute to this two-fold task by examining how the group interview can be used to study individuals’ political reasoning, in particular in relation to choices concerning the composition of the discussion groups with whom the interviews are conducted. In order to do this, and in view of what has been said above, it will be necessary to turn to mainly non-francophone studies so as to make comparisons and situate our observations. In particular, we will refer to international literature in English to enable a better understanding of the possibilities opened up by using the group interview technique. This is primarily because the group interview has enjoyed growing usage in the United States and the United Kingdom both in social science research, and in research and consultancy in the business sector as well as in the field of social work. Furthermore, certain studies which specifically use this data collection method have acquired significant recognition in their respective fields and have thus ensured the academic legitimacy of the method. 
3More or less directly related to political sociology, the field of media and communication studies constitutes an extremely rich sector for research using group interviews.  Studies on how voters form judgements during election campaigns  as well as the capacity of citizens to make sense of social events or institutional issues  or to think through social issues,  have benefited from the focus on dynamic exchanges within the discussion groups with whom the interviews are conducted. Likewise, the interconnection of elements mobilised by participants in discussion groups to construct political reasoning is a particular focus of research in cultural studies, as a result of the way questions are structured in terms of social identity.  These dynamic dialogues of co-construction and clarification of reasoning arise from the fact that the perception of multiple points of view, even conflicting points of view, encourages participants to develop their own. In particular, when interactions take place at a deeper level an analysis organised by identifying thematic sequences or arguments allows us to understand the link between expressing preferences (opinions) and justifying them (norms), which can result in identifying the complexity, even the ambivalence, of reasoning.
4As interaction constitutes the distinctive characteristic of the collective interview method, it’s important to be familiar with and master its various elements. We can then adapt our research protocol in order to ensure the best possible fit with the research topic. This article thus proposes to establish, firstly, what defines collective interviews as a research tool, with discussion groups as a context for interactions, and with the interactions as units of analysis. Secondly, interrogating the international literature will allow for an explanation of how the research design develops depending on the number of participants in the groups and the criteria for the composition of the groups. Thirdly, drawing on two of my fields of study will allow us to observe the effects of different strategies for forming discussion groups on the analysis of political reasoning, whilst distinguishing what could be expected from groups whose members know each other but where the interviewer is not completely in control of the recruitment from groups where the socio-demographic variables are controlled but the members of the group are strangers to one another.
The recognition of collective interviews as a research tool
5If the Anglo-American world offers an unparalleled and rich universe of sources, it also offers the disadvantage of classifying collective or group interviews under a single label – “focus group” – which is only one specific way of undertaking group interviews.
Overcoming distrust of a method associated with business studies
6The term “focus group” which prevails in Anglophone literature  is often used for convenience in French. Its non-specific use is questionable because it refers to a somewhat reductionist view of the interviewing strategy. In effect, focus groups concentrate the attention of the people being interviewed on a subject in order to stimulate their responses to it. The emergence of this term as dominant was not the original intention of the man who involuntarily invented it.  In fact, the original technique to which the expression “focus group” refers was not so much intended to mobilise a collective dynamic as to canvass (individually or collectively) the participants in a semi-directive framework using a stimulus which was not simply a facilitating mechanism (a projective technique) but which was itself the subject of the research. In the 1940s Paul Lazarsfeld, Robert Merton and Carl Hovland were seeking to improve the study of the reactions of listeners to radio programmes broadcast during the war and how propaganda was received. In this context, the use of the term “focused” (from which we derive “focus”) designates the identification of the stimulus as the subject of the study: this is centred interviewing. Despite its specificity, this terminology then colonised the entire field of studies carried out using group interviews. However, in marketing  and social science surveys where stimuli have been used, most often it is not a question of directly submitting the object of the study to the interviewees but rather the elements which are associated with it, which avoids the imposition of the research issue. In this way, in contrast with centred interviewing which aims to provoke and observe attitudinal reactions (a more or less positive or negative connection by the subject to the topic studied), the purpose of collective interviews remains to understand the relationship of the interviewees to their environment by studying their discourse.
7The French expression “entretien collectif” (“group interview”, or “collective interview” in English) is therefore more satisfactory because it refers to the smallest common denominator for this data collection technique. In so doing, it makes explicit what the key difference is between this type of interview and the other generic interview category: in other words, whether the data is collected in an individual or group situation. It’s clear that in the social sciences, group interviews, just like individual interviews, can be directive, semi-directive or non-directive, may be developed in the form of life histories or even, depending on the researcher’s epistemological choices, may adopt a conversational and social approach  as opposed to one which probes via empathetic neutrality.  In other words, group interviews are first and foremost an interview, a method which consists of seeking and collecting discourse in order to understand the reasons, justifications, perceptions and thinking of the actors involved.
8We must therefore move past the reticence or indifference that has long prevailed within French social sciences because of the identification of this method with the services billed by market research and consulting groups under the name of “focus group”.  These services, which aim above all to spark sound-bites from participants by associating ideas or sensory responses, do not constitute interviews in the strict sense of the term but rather expressive experiences lacking a theoretical or epistemological status. Furthermore, these situations primarily consist of a succession of requests personalised for each participant by a “presenter” who systematically controls the order in which people speak, which represents an increase in bilateral situations rather than generating interaction between the participants. Once we set aside the spectre of such exercises, and finally recognise the status of interviews within the framework of methodological requirements suitable for the social sciences, it’s possible to consider what’s really at stake in the choice to seek and collect collective rather than personal discourse.
9From this perspective, it is not enough simply to claim that the group interview is a form of interview in order to justify its use. In effect, by increasing the number of factors which influence the construction of data collection in comparison to individual interviews, using collective interviews forces the researcher to make choices which have direct consequences on the situation in which the interviewees are placed, as well as on the nature of the data collected, and which influences the types of analyses that will then be possible for this data. These choices cannot therefore remain implicit. Yet it is not uncommon for publications which result from those surveys which have made use of discussion groups to include insufficient justification to explain their choice of research strategy, even though, at the same time, they include information on the socio-demographic characteristics of the members who make up the groups and the conditions governing how the interviews are carried out (place, length, period, type of recording, etc.).
The group context as research design
10It’s crucial that the mechanism for bringing together the interviewer and the interviewees not only leads to a situation in which there is a research relationship between these two types of actors, but also to the conditions of co-presence between interviewees. The analytical gains and limits which may be expected from the possibility of studying discourse produced by a collective dynamic are not independent of the conditions constituting the group which expresses itself. Justification of the criteria for the co-presence of the interviewees is required or the objective of an appropriate fit between the research question and the data collection method is compromised. It is particularly important to clarify, on the one hand, the mechanisms of the interview set-up which determine the group dynamic and, on the other hand, whether the types of interaction likely to be developed in the group allow for the production of adequate material to address the research hypotheses. When the interview method is examined in these terms, it is possible to specify the constraints within which the researcher’s choices must be justified.
11Two major conclusions can thus be set out. On the one hand, the observation unit is the group and not the individuals who make up the group. This means that even if it is possible to document features at an individual level (via filter questions during recruitment, or individual questionnaire after the interview), the fact remains that the individuals are recruited solely to form the groups and not to fulfil a particular function. On the other hand, the unit of analysis is the dynamic level of interaction (“what happens in the group”) and not the group itself in a static way. This means that the groups are formed in order to be used as context (in the sense of the configuration of the actors) allowing interactions between individuals (dynamic production).
12These two conclusions highlight the fact that, through “what happens in the discussion group”, the collective interview provides an intermediate level of analysis which consists of a (socially characterisable) context of interactions (between individuals). This meso level is situated between the micro level of the individual, which is conceived as not only a unit of observation but also as a unit of analysis in atomistic epistemology, and the macro level of social structures where, in an holistic epistemology, the individual acts as the unit of observation for the socio-demographic variables from which he or she is composed. Naturally, the definition of the notion of context is not stable and can refer to several scales.  It is not a question here of fixing it arbitrarily but of moving towards the specification of characteristics corresponding to the level of observation provided by the discussion group. In so doing, it becomes clear that the choices made by the researcher in forming discussion groups, far from being simple pragmatic ways of providing themselves with the means of carrying out research, are more fundamentally the criteria for defining the interaction context which determines the potential interpretive limits of data analysis. The requirements to justify the configuration of the survey (the “research design”) thus come into play.
The specificity of the link between sampling strategy and research question
13The issue of the co-presence of the interviewees takes us back to the theme of the sampling of participants. Defining the size and number of groups merely constitutes the descriptive aspect, whilst the strategic aspect is considered in terms of the way in which groups are recruited, composed and diversified.
From the number of participants to the composition of the groups: how “real” is the research context?
14In research undertaken by the business sector, the criteria for the number of participants to a group are strictly related to the practical issue of having sufficient material (in this instance, discourse) to represent a profitable unit cost. Thus, since it is difficult to envisage mobilising participants for longer than two hours, the usual recommendation is to have ten to twelve participants available in order to maximise the production of varied discourse in this time period. The impact of the number of participants on the nature of the material collected is not examined as such. Similarly, the number of groups is envisaged initially in relation to the time and financial constraints imposed by the deadlines for concluding the study, which leads to few groups being organised, often only three or four.
15Since the 1980s, Anglo-American academic literature has included a large number of books and articles specifically devoted to the ethical, epistemological and methodological aspects of group interviews.  In contrast to what we have observed for the focus group exercises carried out by the business sector, this literature focuses on the criteria for the number of participants but it does not really agree on an optimum strategy. Some recommendations advocate a limited number of participants in order to allow for more in-depth interaction, whilst others suggest bringing together sufficient participants so that, even if a certain number withdraw, enough active participants remain in order to maintain a collective dynamic. The standard recommendation in favour of five to ten participants is not particularly useful since it amounts to assuming that there is no difference between once or twice the number of participants within a context where the point is to maintain a collective dynamic. However, the sequences which allow members of the groups to present and adjust their reasoning mobilise in general two or three main speakers (or enunciators), whilst the other participants punctuate these sequences with a few remarks or remain on the sidelines before becoming involved in a subsequent sequence.
16The identification of this phenomenon that what people say develops through the interaction of a few individuals is important, as it forces the recognition that collective interviews using discussion groups produce a non-formalised and fluid discourse which is more like a conversation (more or less managed depending on the role assigned to the moderator). They are not, therefore, a deliberation in which the rules are gradually developed until the situation is institutionalised by the clarification of criteria for speaking, status, function and desired result.  The conversational aspect underlines the pertinence of the “discussion group” label and allows us to associate a conceptual value relative to the type of interaction which constitutes the collective interview: as part of a research mechanism, they remain situations created by the researcher but, through the conversational exchanges which take place, they are also situations which relate to ordinary experiences in the world around us. This factor constitutes an absolute distinction between collective interviews via discussion group and both the focus group exercises organised by the business sector on the one hand and in-depth individual interviews in social science research on the other, neither of which can ever reproduce the characteristics of the “real” world and therefore remain as strictly research relationships. These considerations about the nature of conversational exchanges within discussion groups to a greater or lesser degree lead us to the issue of the “naturalisation” or “artificialisation” of the situation. The question about the number of participants in a discussion group therefore is not only descriptive but it has consequences in terms of the realism of the data-collecting protocol.
17The notion of realism in the group situation corresponds to the academic project to account for actors’ reasons. Considering the analytical gains anticipated from this approach, the relationship between the group interview method and realism has been taken to a higher level. Certain authors have tried to theorise a research design known as the “ethnographic focus group”  whilst studies of the reception of the media carried out with discussion groups within cultural studies have been explained in terms of an “ethnographic turn”,  and there is an even clearer move towards taking a fundamentally ethnographic research approach to group interviews.  This desire to link the group interview method to a “realistic” field setting, as we have seen in terms of the criteria for the number of participants, is complemented in a significant way by a second criterion: how the researcher goes about forming the groups. A comparison of research designs appears to confirm that these two criteria are linked. When the group is “natural” (i.e. known to each other beforehand), there are usually three to six participants, which corresponds to the circumstances of normal life that these research designs are striving to recreate (the family group, a circle of friends, or group of colleagues, neighbours or activists). When the participants do not know each other before being brought together (and thus the realistic nature of the research set-up is diminished), there tend to be more participants in a group (always more than six).
18Indeed, whilst commercial studies guarantee the reliability of their stimulus-response protocol through the “freshness” or candour of the participants, which would undoubtedly be jeopardised by any complicity or familiarity between them and they thus never recruit participants who are already known to one another, this latter arrangement is frequently found in social science research. This contrast is an indication of the differences in the results envisaged by the professionals for each of these two sectors. Moreover, since the academic objectives of the researcher are to vary the set-up in order to avoid interpretive bias and to achieve saturation in data collection on reasoning (accumulating interviews until nothing new appears), this results in an opposing trend in social science research compared to what is observed in commercial studies: the number of groups is much higher (up to several tens of groups) and the number of participants in each group is much lower (Table 1).
Number and size of discussion groups in research using collective interviews
Number and size of discussion groups in research using collective interviews
19If, in works in English, the objectives of diversifying the groups and achieving saturation of discourse lead researchers to accumulate a significant number of interviews, another factor undoubtedly plays a part in this. Since quantitative methods continue to dominate social psychology research, political science and, to a lesser degree, sociology, an implicit pressure is exerted in relation to statistical reliability criteria, which leads researchers to attempt to safeguard collective interviews against criticisms of representativity bias within the sample. It is sometimes even the case that concern to attain validity through intersecting variables within a random sampling approach is explicitly recognised by the researcher. Gamson’s research aimed to achieve this through recruiting a population with weak socio-economic resources but met with the problem of a refusal to take part in the survey. Since self-selection resulted in a favourable rate of response from around 10% of contacts made, the objective of representative sampling was finally abandoned in favour of a diversification strategy mindful of certain criteria such as a balance between white and non-white participants.  Similarly, in a survey about the perception of AIDS, the recruitment of 351 participants divided into 52 groups aimed at “covering a variety of demographic characteristics such as age, social class, ethnic and national identity” and at including various professional groups but, in the absence of data on reference populations, in fact consisted of a diversification which could have been achieved with fewer groups.  These diversification strategies prove to be in fact the only appropriate ones in relation to validity that research using collective interviews can aim for in terms of identifying types of reasoning, since they cannot establish how widespread it is within a reference population.  Moreover, researchers who do attempt hypothetically representative recruitment, do not then attempt to make generalisations concerning reasoning from their results and interpretations, but, as with other research conducted via group interview, attempt instead to characterise types of reasoning in all their complexity. This is the direction being taken by work in French, which, moreover, tends to be more at ease with working with a reduced number of groups.
What is at stake in the composition of groups
20Seen as the corollary to the criterion regarding number of participants in the context of increasing the realism of the research design, the criterion for the composition of the groups also stands on its own. Several factors play a part at this level, with anticipated consequences each time for the collective dynamic of the discourse that the members of the group may produce.
21One point that has already been mentioned concerns the nature of the links between participants: to opt either for those who already know each other (a natural group) or for people who do not know each other (an artificial group). The expected benefit of natural groups is that they do not require a special effort to encourage participants to speak and the researcher thus avoids loss of time at the start of the interview. Their familiarity with one another makes taking turns to speak more fluid and this type of group is thus more suited to non-directive or semi-directive methods which are loosely moderated. Within this framework, it is possible to rely on the relative autonomy or self-management of the discussion by the group itself, with the moderator only having to intervene in cases of obvious and prolonged digression, depending on what is provided for in the interview guide, to introduce a new theme. The material collected is in this respect similar to conversations studied within the context of ethnographic observation of the primary  or secondary  socialisation of the actors.
22In order to facilitate this process of making speaking seem natural, several organisational elements are generally adopted. In particular, recruitment is undertaken via a founding member of the group who contacts the other members so that their participation appears to them to be as a result of a social invitation. The group is also gathered together at a time and place determined by the members, often at the home of the founding member. This requires much greater availability from the researcher but it offers him or her access to aspects of the interviewees’ living conditions that would have been otherwise invisible.
23When certain material elements fail to make the research setting as natural as possible (the group is not held at the home of one of the participants, for instance), the irreducible nature of the initial request to participate can lead to the conclusion that the research relationship continues to take precedence over the normal relationships between members of the group and thus structures their interactions. Conversely, without completely reducing the bias of self-selection on the basis of a sense of competency, a highly naturalistic setting serves to improve the rate of acceptance for participating in the survey. Several cases testify to the usefulness of attempting to make the research setting as natural as possible in order to maintain the flow of the conversation and facilitate the expression of a full range of interactions.  Thus, for a subject which is not morally or culturally easy to tackle, “small groups of people who know each other provide an encouraging and non-confrontational setting in which the interviewees can discuss personal, controversial and potentially emotional aspects of abortion. […] [T]he group method maintains the interaction between interviewees who appear to quickly formulate their own questions as much to examine as to clarify their respective positions”. 
24Recruiting people who do not know each other allows for more diversification in a short time period. Beyond this, it also allows the allocation of a participant to a group according to socio-demographic characteristics. The research strategy then consists of testing hypotheses about differences in reasoning as a function of the social characteristics of the actors. This strategy brings us to a second crucial point in recruitment criteria: the homogeneity or heterogeneity of the groups. Since a totally homogenous group is inconceivable, the researcher aims for a degree of homogeneity in relation to the initial hypothesis in a deductive process which involves (in)validating a causal relationship which has been theorised prior to collecting the data. Amongst the work which revived the use of group interviews in the social sciences, the survey of how political and social information was received by different categories of the British public corresponds to this model.  Extracts from the television programme Nationwide were shown to 26 groups who appeared to be socio-economically and politically homogenous. The results indicate how interpretations of the same content are structurally different between the groups.
25Relatively mixed recruitment approaches are used when the composition of groups who already know each other is combined with screening, for example in relation to “cultural community” membership,  age or gender. Thus, in the case referred to on abortion, the groups who knew each other were either “pro-life” or “pro-choice”. The contrast between the two approaches is due more fundamentally to the research preference for either an inductive strategy, associated with the recruitment of natural groups, or for a deductive strategy which needs to control the social characteristics of the members of the group. In fact, for the groups discussing abortion, the “pro-life”/ “pro-choice” dichotomy was used to make up the groups but proved unsuitable as a variable for interpreting data because ambivalent reasoning led to a reading which was more complex than binary. 
26A third factor can play a part in the recruitment strategy. In some ways it is a matter of optimising the discursive dynamic by forming the groups based on similarity with the subject of the research, which tends to correspond with a composition based on individuals who know one another but can be considered for artificial groups if the selection variables allow it. Thus, for the research on the British perception of the British royal family, the survey was conducted among natural groups in order to facilitate the expression of common ideas on this subject, and, moreover, the researcher chose to use the family unit at home as being an appropriate natural group whose social identity was similar to the subject studied. This strategy aimed to stimulate discourse by relying in particular on forms of reasoning by analogy: “whenever families talk about the royal family, they talk about family; and whenever they talk about family, they talk about themselves at the same time”.  Applying this strategy to every subject is not easy but can be attempted. In this way, the survey about the reception of the TV series Dallas in different cultural communities around the world set up each group in the form of three pairs of friends, thus implicitly referring back to emotional life and friendships as being what drives the intrigue of the series. 
The effect of the composition of groups on political reasoning: two case studies
27In order to demonstrate the effects of the composition of groups on political reasoning, I shall now compare the discursive dynamics observed in two surveys conducted in France in recent years. The first research approach – on the theme of connecting with politics – mobilises natural groups and was held at the home of one of the members.  In order to identify potential differences in reasoning according to the degree of political involvement, certain groups were made up of party activists whilst the other groups excluded this profile. The second research approach, which focuses on perceptions of the French presidential campaign in 2007, mobilises artificial groups, homogenous in terms of socioeconomic status, age and gender, with each group meeting three times.  In both approaches (cf. Appendix 1 and 2), each group lasts around three hours, which allows for the development of discussions.
The contribution of interaction dynamics to explaining reasoning
28At the basis of using the group interview method is the idea that the actor does not formulate reasoning by an isolated cognitive effort but by social mechanisms which interactions within the group recreate. The more there are exchanges with others, the more the actor can work something out for himself or herself and express preferences and reasons to others. The context of the group interview (co-presence of participants who are encouraged to exchange their points of view) is thus suitable for collecting opinions and reasoning. The hypothesis can even be formulated that, in the course of these interactions, specific or sensitive moments in particular will reveal how opinions are formed. 
29To analyse interactions, it is useful to draw up a typology of discursive interaction dynamics. From observing the groups in the two approaches which have been presented, seven dynamics have been identified: adhesion, confirmation, solicitation, questioning, speculation, distrust, contradiction. Adhesion consists of signalling agreement with a view held by another participant. Confirmation deepens adhesion in that it consists of arguing agreement, often by taking the original idea further. In contrast, distrust consists of signalling disagreement and contradiction consists of arguing disagreement. Furthermore, three co-operative dynamics may complement one another. Solicitation consists of asking others what they think about a point of view. Questioning consists of asking someone to explain their point of view. Finally, speculation consists of commenting on a point of view in order to evaluate its impact.
30These seven types can be arranged in three categories depending on whether they are dynamics of convergence (adhesion, confirmation), divergence (distrust, contradiction) or neutral co-operation (solicitation, questioning, speculation).
Categorisation of discursive dynamics
Categorisation of discursive dynamics
31It is through these dealings with the other members of the group that each participant is led to confront, amend or revise their thinking. Without seeking to question their significance, particularly in terms of understanding the mechanisms of interaction within the groups, the three dynamics of neutral co-operation will not be examined within the scope of this article, for two reasons: one practical – analysing them requires more space than is available for the remainder of this article; one substantial, in that the available literature focuses particularly on the distinction between the mechanisms covered by the two other categories of our typology and it will be more instructive to situate the results derived from our analyses in relation to these considerations.
32Divergent dynamics provide an interaction framework generally considered as very favourable for explaining the reasoning of the participants. By pushing speakers to defend their point of view, they produce a spur for clarification and specification. This is why pinpointing and taking on board divergences analytically is supported by discourse analysis theories  and can form the basis of a research strategy for group interviews.  It remains to be seen to what point divergences are taken on board because it is likely that a low intensity of divergence will not be associated with more in-depth interaction. A sequence with a group of young men in 2007 makes it possible to see the difficulties in developing the interaction when the intensity of the divergence is low, as the use of (bold) indicates below, and without significant argumentative impact (isolated connectors).
Philippe – When you really look, Ségolène Royal is also up with the fairies, eh… Because, er… the creation of juvenile units in the police [brigades des mineurs] er… they exaggerate… because below my house, there’s one, so she needs to catch up a bit… She wants to reform: ah, I’m going to create a juvenile unit. Er, it already exists!
Greg – Yeh but, on the other hand, her programme for reinstating community policing isn’t bad, all that…
Charles – Yeh, for me, community policing, I don’t think that it’s too…
Greg – Well, to give the cops the means to…
Charles – But what means… Yeh, they’re going to answer on the first call…
Greg – Well, Subarus, tasers, flash balls [laughs]… It’s like Christmas, eh…
Damien – They’re already over equipped…
Greg – No but, community policing, they know the blokes and that’s it… It’s easier like that…
Charles – And for minors on the other hand, I agree with Sarko about repeat offenders. Because young people have changed…
34The differences in preferences around the issue of security come to the surface but their reasoning is not explained and the sequence results in a juxtaposition of elements which do not structure an argued discourse. According to the categories of our typology, the dynamic of distrust is not followed by a dynamic of contradiction. The participants do not feel any embarrassment about expressing themselves, so it is not potential inhibition about a topic that is considered as sensitive which explains the absence of in-depth discussion but rather the absence of intensity in the confrontation of their ideas. In comparison, in a survey about their relationship to politics, the residents of a home for young workers accept a deeper divergence where each of the participants involved develops their point of view and consolidates it as they confront disagreement. The divergence markers (in bold) include pronouns designating the speakers (I/You) which demonstrates the engagement in the interaction. This intensification of divergence is reinforced by argumentative attempts which ensure that the dynamic of distrust moves on to a dynamic of contradiction and results in the clarification and specification of opinions.
Marion – And if you are not up to date, how can you expect to be… how can you be for or against?
Hocine – You know that ignorance of the law is no excuse.
Marion – But you know that if, each time…
Hocine – Each time that a law is brought in, it goes into the Official Journal.
Hamed – Yeh, well I don’t read it every day [laughs].
Hocine – No, me neither… The law on hunting, I’m not a hunter, eh… No, what I mean is that, er… people who make the laws of a country are people who are supposed to have been elected by the people.
Marion – Yes but that doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with them about everything. Hey, you’re not going to tell me that these people have been to see each citizen in the street to ask them. You’re not going to tell me that. And people can think for themselves. And they haven’t been to see each citizen to ask them “do you agree with this law?”
Hocine – No OK but…
Marion – And it’s not logical when it concerns us directly when, for instance, the guy from the Parliament who’s going to decide, he doesn’t care… OK, he’s a citizen too. But it isn’t because he’s step above us that we shouldn’t have a referendum, you see! So I don’t think it’s logical that we don’t have more referendums…
Nadia – You want to have referendums on everything?
Marion – No, not all the time but…
Hocine – He’s not… He’s not… He is not a citizen above you. A member of Parliament has as many rights as you…
Marion – No he doesn’t! He makes laws without asking our agreement so he is above us.
Hocine – But you’re supposed to have elected him.
Marion – Yes, we elected them but, afterwards, we’ve got nothing left to say?!
Nadia – It’s… it’s true that it’s difficult to see how all these laws get passed. To see that we have an impact on these laws which are passed, er… in the National Assembly and which are applied afterwards… in the street, by the police or… You see, you don’t feel as though have any control over it, when you are an average citizen.
Hocine – No but, it’s true… but even the average member of Parliament, he… he realises that he doesn’t have a significant impact. I knew a member of Parliament who…er, who…the former mayor of my village… And even he didn’t feel that he carried any weight in the votes in Parliament.
Nadia – You see, so that means that you’re in a set-up where you don’t know what’s going on… Marion – And then, you know, with a representative like that… eh, we are not represented very well!
36Comparing these two sequences is not sufficient to demonstrate the general trend according to which the research design in which participants know each other beforehand facilitates the development and deepening of divergent interaction. However the fact is that, without a specific prompt to guide the participants to take on board their disagreements, the research design for interviews around the 2007 campaign did not reveal this type of dynamic between participants who nonetheless had different preferences. This ties in with the findings of an experiment on the reluctance to expose opinions to strangers within the context of discussion groups.  As the majority of research which mobilises the “natural groups” previously discussed proves, knowing each other beforehand can enable participants to go beyond inhibitions regarding how others will judge them: since any eventual disagreements are not powerful enough to threaten the links between them, they can speak without fear of prejudice. In groups of political activists in the survey into people’s relationship to politics, moreover, familiarity with controversy leads to coded expressions of mutual respect after an exchange of opposing views.
37Convergent dynamics are considered intuitively as less useful for analysing the formation of opinions and reasoning than divergent dynamics. One element that is often mobilised to explain this but is never really demonstrated consists of assuming that convergent viewpoints lead to things remaining unspoken which means that participants do not feel the need to employ explanatory tactics. A closer examination of the groups who already knew each other in the survey on relationships to politics demonstrates, however, that convergent dynamics can be useful in explaining and deepening reasoning. For example, in the group composed of Black friends in employment, the repeated appearance (indicated in bold) of convergent opinions about their place in society even led to a statement setting out causal theories concerning politics.
Jean – But you must… You must, I think, you must still keep up to date, especially with the life that we’re living now. Because… for fear of… well, we risk… er, because our politicians… these people, they aren’t only there to lead us but to order us around…
Achille – Oh, that… that’s… that’s been going on for years…
Jean – because we don’t tend to pay attention. Unfortunately, we have to really pay attention.
Gérald – He’s absolutely right, eh… Because, in fact, if we look at the society that we are in… er well, the rich are getting richer and richer and the poor grow poorer. And this is a political strategy, because, actually, when we look at the elite group of politicians, we know very well that it is always the same. And it’s their children who are going to take over the reins.
Achille – It has always been like that… They run everything… And it’s been like that since… pfff… forever.
Jean – Exactly.
Gérald – Well, when you look, when you look, ultimately, the laws that they make, it’s not for them! It’s for us, the average people and the poor people, the ordinary people in society. So, what’s happening? For example, take a person who has made a mistake, fine, OK, but he gets a penalty notice, a large fine and he doesn’t have the money to pay it. And the Home Secretary, what does he do? He starts by saying that, that… that the law enforcement agencies must be stricter, that is to say that they work together as much as possible. But just watch… he doesn’t get a penalty notice, the guy who makes the law, just because of that, even if he commits an offence like we see, like we’ve seen… And even for those who get a penalty notice, even if there is an offence, the rich can pay, they can get out of it… But the poor, what are they going to do?… They can give everything that they have and they can’t put any money away, they can’t invest or buy. They’re always going to be poor… It’s deliberate, ultimately, it’s deliberate… And it’s not only the penalty notices but everything… They put pressure on everything. Everything is worked out in advance. We… the… the, how shall I put it, the poor people…
Jean – [smiling] The proletarians… the proletarians of the Republic…
Gérald – [laughing] Yeh, the proletarians of the Republic… us… us… what can we do?
Achille – Well, we understood the system but we can’t do much about it.
39At the end of the sequence, the spontaneous creation of the expression “proletarians of the Republic” helps the person speaking who is searching (quite literally) “how to put” his opinion. By associating the terms which exactly combine the thinking about the link between political domination and socio-economic status – a thought process which itself prolongs the suggestion that started the sequence – this intervention indicates that the dynamic of confirmation has been used to co-construct meaning. The dynamic of convergence when pushed to its limit thus provides the researcher with a discourse which clarifies the opinions of the actors. The same process is observed for students at business school and indicates the terms of their distrust of those who govern (a demand for proximity and authenticity), as well as for secondary school teachers when they develop the analogy between their dissatisfaction towards their educational establishment and towards political institutions (a demand that the decision-makers take into account the point of view of the actors on the ground). Across the board, and with even higher intensity in groups of political activists than for politically unengaged citizens (a counter-intuitive result in relation to the starting hypothesis), what comes out of the dynamics of convergence on the subject of political representation is the expression of high expectations and high requirements.
40The hope of revitalising the representative link rests on the articulation of two generic types of reasoning: on the one hand, the division of labour between the representatives and the represented who appointed them is seen as a satisfactory principle of political organisation and, on the other hand, the failings of representative democracy are attributed to the desire of politicians to withdraw from the representative link. The demand to rebuild the representative link also rests on the articulation of two generic types of reasoning: on the one hand, it expects the representative to conform to procedural requirements (respect campaign commitments, engage with their remit, clarify divergences) and, on the other hand, they are expected to demonstrate the representative link on a regular basis by their presence, availability and willingness to listen, without this exonerating them from making public policy. This explains the strong symbolic investment in and attachment to the cultural conditions of political legitimacy, which at the same time appears to be implicitly allied to a sense of mourning for the effectiveness of public policy, or, with a certain fatalism, a tolerance with regards to its lack of effectiveness.  Without being generalisable, these results stemming from an inductive approach reveal a level of complexity and development of opinions which require us to examine conceptions of political representation among citizens more closely. 
What can be expected from groups formed by controlling variables
41The groups formed to consider the 2007 presidential election, recruited according to sociodemographic characteristics without the participants knowing each other beforehand, did not deploy strategies of explaining and specifying their reasoning as extensively as the survey groups around relationships to politics did. Convergent or divergent elements tended to be limited to brief indications of adhesion or distrust and were without discursive consequences which would have enabled a move towards more in-depth dynamics of confirmation or contradiction (Table 3).
Mobilisation of interaction dynamics according to survey configuration
Mobilisation of interaction dynamics according to survey configuration
42The contrast presented by this summary table of group dynamics according to their natural or artificial composition does not mean that the groups where the participants do not know each other are unable to provide a result. However, it is a question of treating the discourse in a manner appropriate to the research design.
43Obviously, recruiting those who already know each other may produce homogenous groups in a certain respect, which in turn produces a variable that is useful for interpreting the data, without this having been intended. Thus the experience of discrimination due to skin colour influences the thinking of the group of Black employed friends. The extract cited above focuses on their perception of distance between themselves and the political leaders and is clearly confirmed by other sequences in their group’s discussion which particularly mobilises the idea of minorities in relation to how society functions in general; specifically political representation and more specifically still the use of referenda, perceived as a process wherein a circumstantial majority is likely to crush different minorities. The significance of reasoning in terms of variables is thus not to be dismissed even in the case of groups who already know each other, but it is less reliable when there is a lack of systematic control between the groups.
44When research is designed to test reasoning in terms of variables, it is preferable to control for these variables through the composition of the groups. The technique for group interviews around the campaign in 2007, for example, aimed at testing a certain number of hypotheses within a deductive approach. For instance, the desire to test opinions about the possible election of a woman as president led to forming groups of young people based on gender. In the event the young men neither commented on the hypothesis of the election of a woman nor expressed any opinion about the candidate as a woman, whereas the group of young women did. Moreover, this allowed us to trace the development of opinions from a concern by two members of the group to justify casting their vote (amongst other reasons) on the basis of a need to affirm the ability of women to take on political responsibilities, via irritation with the personality of the candidate, who was in the end perceived as being harmful to the credibility of women, and finally to the denunciation of what was perceived as her instrumentalisation of female identity. The collective expression of increasingly unfavourable opinions of the candidate created moreover a context of emulation which enabled those who had initially supported this candidate as a woman to voice their disappointment.
45In the survey about the 2007 presidential election, the main hypothesis focused on the differences in engagement with the campaign according to the socio-economic status of the individuals. The results confirm the differences but neither in the ways expected nor for the reasons envisaged. Although the link between socio-professional status and the level of political competence was confirmed, it did not result in a better ability to make sense of the campaign in the group of advantaged socio-professional categories (SPC+); in any event in so far as this ability was tested in relation to televised news (around environment, employment and security issues) during the second meeting with the groups. Even though the 2007 campaign was characterised by a rapid rotation of the most salient themes, it is striking that with all the groups there was a lack of sensitivity to the issues presented to them, whilst their reasoning was closely linked to the candidates’ personalities. Thus, even after introducing the theme of the environment a second time, it was not developed further by any of the groups, and the majority of the comments concentrated on the personnality of Nicolas Hulot (following a report about an event in support of his Pacte écologique). Despite this, it was possible to identify how socio-economic status affected the relationship to issues, which the group interview method, as a result of the homogeneous composition of the groups, helped to bring to light.
46Of the discussions studied, overall it is clear that public policy issues could not on their own make sense of participants’ relationship to the campaign programme, which turned out to be dominated by an overwhelming focus on the candidates’ personalities. One could hypothesise that, just as in theories of political competence or sophistication, the level of knowledge and interest in politics, which is higher in the SPC+ category than in the disadvantaged socio-professional categories (SPC-) and for young people, provides the members of the former group with alternative resources for following the campaign so that they can “intelligently” construct a perspective on the election issues or the candidates’ manifestos. Conversely, it is amongst the youth and the SPC- category that we see, in an incidental and irregular way, the development of a certain amount of political reasoning relating to congruency between the election issues and the life experiences of the members of the groups. This is particularly the case for concerns about their material conditions of life,  whereas this compensating strategy of engagement with the election issues does not occur amongst the SPC+ category. Thus, amongst the young women, a police woman initiated a sequence about security and another, an unemployed women, a sequence about the incongruity of making overtime exempt from tax when many people do not have a job. Amongst the SPC-category, an employee at a hairdressing salon initiated a sequence about the proposal for a minimum wage of €1500 by referring to his level of salary. Similarly, whilst the topic of employment measures was hardly discussed in this group, as it was in the other groups in relation to the candidates’ reactions to Airbus’s redundancy programme (which suddenly became a salient issue in the campaign and which was shown to the groups in a report on the televised news), it was eventually tackled in relation to personal situations. The following extract demonstrates this on the subject of Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal to stop benefits for job seekers who refused two successive job offers.
Béatrice – From what they said, er…the right has picked up social programmes, so now, right/left, er…
Benoît – Social, well, OK… on the right there is more inflexibility all the same. For example, with Sarko, if you refuse two jobs when you’re unemployed, he strikes you off, eh… So, if you call that resuming social programmes…
Corinne – Well it also all depends on what they offer you because… […] I remember… at the moment, I’m looking for a job. Over the years, I’d done lots of temp work and then I managed to work. So after that, I put on a different hat: I was employed on a fixed long-term contract. So, my contract was coming to an end and I had to get back into the fray and, at the time, I remembered, it was when they had created the infamous PARE plan [back-to-work assistance plan]. After everything that I had heard, at least understood, I thought that they would offer me a job. I was, what, 25 years old, I’d finished my studies and I’d worked so I was entitled to unemployment benefit. I went to the job centre all happy: so, what have you got to offer me by way of a job? They had nothing to offer me. I really would have liked… Now, Sarko, he’s right, there must be people who take advantage of the system. I did, others did too. There are times, if you don’t have any unemployment benefit, it’s true that maybe you’d make more of an effort. I’d like it if they helped me to find a job, if they said, “there you go”… But it’s got to be right. Nowadays, I can’t be too demanding about the salary or the job. But if they offered me something that really didn’t have anything to do with what I do, what I’m looking for, it’s true that that’s still important… From my point of view, if Sarko gets in it’s a bit worrying all the same.
Béatrice – But when you see certain people who get income support as a result of being unemployed and are moonlighting. Well, ultimately, whether it’s for income support or unemployment benefit, if they told them that, there would be less people moonlighting.
Corinne – Yeh, that’s true but you must also see…
Véronique – Do you know people who do that?
Corinne – You see, at the job centre, they have to help people…
Béatrice – I know people who are on income support, who have a 3-room place on housing benefit, who don’t have any kids to look after and, at the end of the day, well they earn more than me. Yes, they earn more than me. I don’t even earn the same amount of salary as they make in handouts.
Corinne – But there are lots of people like that, who don’t pay any taxes, or rent etc. I’ve got a friend who is younger than me, who works in a clothes shop in Châtelet, well he does that. But I said to him: think about your retirement. But, despite everything, the job centre, I’m sorry, but when I went there, I really wanted to find a job, you go there…and there wasn’t just me. Really, you know, sometimes we criticise the immigrants but they’re not there to loaf around.
Véronique – No, no, that’s for sure…
Corinne – They’re there to look for a job so the critics should be quiet. And you go there and you leave, you don’t have an appointment. We say to them: give us an appointment. They offer us an appointment in three months! Shit…three months! And they’re there with no worries… Ah, they’re not panicking, eh… Ah, the pace is… No, but it’s not that: the job centre, it’s useless. No, it’s useless. On the other hand, if Sarko gets in, maybe he’ll make them do something. That’s really…
Benoît – And what’s he going to do with the people he’s going to strike off after two offers. Well? He’s going to leave them with nothing. What’s that going to give all those people?
Béatrice – Well, the street…
Benoît – We don’t talk about that, do we?… It’s true, we don’t talk about it. What’s going to happen to those people who will be skint, who were living on their unemployment benefit?
48In light of what has just been demonstrated, the interest of the group interview consists in providing the researcher with data which is not produced from hypotheses alone. This particularly enriches deductive strategies which, through the criteria for the composition of discussion groups, provide the means of testing the effects of the variables selected whilst leaving room for what the interviewees themselves produce during the course of their interactions. In this case, analysis of the discussion dynamics shows, on the one hand, a high degree of distance from the campaign issues in all groups and, on the other hand, the ability to take on board the issues, not because of formal competence but because of an involvement which comes from an articulation between individuals’ circumstances and propositions made by the candidates. This mechanism of involvement had not been hypothesised at the outset, but could be established from its recurring appearance and unequal distribution between the groups.
49* * *
50At the end of this examination of the possibilities opened up by the group interview method for analysing people’s political reasoning, two conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, from a methodological point of view and in line with the findings from the international literature, it is clearly necessary to be rigorous in planning the research design. In particular, choices concerning the composition of the groups have significant consequences for the discursive dynamics which affect the fit between the research question and the type of data collected. In this respect, we have confirmed that the most valid unit of analysis in exploiting the data from groups is the level of interaction between the participants, most often linked with the notion of thematic or argumentative sequence.
51Secondly, since both are largely a question of the relationship with politics, what comes out of the two studies which have been used here is that the discourse produced by groups constitutes complex material and cannot be reduced to a single dimension (political representation is both desired and criticised; the election campaign does not make sense either by or for itself). Even in the case of a deductive survey strategy based on a protocol which controls variables, the results are found to be out of step with the formulation of the initial hypotheses and required a theoretical adjustment in order to interpret them. In the case of deductive survey strategy based on a protocol which arranges settings which are as naturalistic as possible for participants to produce their discourse, it is even clearer that the treatment and interpretation of the data requires great caution because it provides ways into several interlinked dimensions (social stratification, cultural identity, normative preferences, interview situation).
52In fact, the discursive dynamics by which actors are led to make continual adjustments to the development of their opinions and reasoning provide the researcher with material that is unparalleled in other data collection methods. The discussion groups give access to opinions as social constructions. However this “thick” layer of discourse is only an asset if the analytical framework which is applied to it develops from the justifications which are deemed necessary by the complexity of the material. Without this, the depth becomes a mass, and although it is still possible to extract aesthetically striking illustrations (rotation of the sequence of speaking, familiarity of language, intensification of exchanges etc.) these elements have lost their status as academic data. This problem takes us to the issue of how to mobilise and present the data in publication formats which are not well suited to the inclusion of long quotations from an interview, when it is only through using the data generated by discursive dynamics (which requires space) and making comparisons (which requires more space) that evidence can be presented.
Appendix 1 - The research design for studying the relationship between politicians and citizens
53The groups brought together people who knew each other and who were used to having discussions together. Following an introductory period, a compilation of extracts from television programmes was shown, presenting exchanges between politicians and citizens. This compilation lasted 40 minutes and was watched in two halves of equal length, each followed by at least an hour of discussion. The interview was semi-directive and loosely moderated. In six of these groups, the participants spontaneously addressed me using the familiar personal pronoun “tu”. The atmosphere was always relaxed and lively. In the groups held in people’s homes, the participants came and went (toilet, kitchen etc.) without deviating from their normal domestic habits.
54The groups were held in Paris (4) and in the Paris region (5) between 1999 and 2004. Four groups were made up of political activists and the five others did not include anyone with this type of involvement. For these latter groups, recruitment was varied by age, gender and socio-professional status. Recruitment was via a founding member who invited other members to meet on the basis of the following guidelines: “a few of you, whenever you want, wherever works best for you”. For meetings in the evening, the moderator was invited to share a meal with the participants. The participants were not paid.
Appendix 2 - The research design for the study of the 2007 presidential campaign
55The groups each met three times at the Communication and Politics research centre in Paris during the campaign. Age and socio-economic situation were the two diversification criteria selected for testing the main hypotheses. The age criterion corresponds to the hypothesis according to which the youngest people, with minimal experience of major elections, would be more likely to consult the media, and particularly television, to make sense of the electoral choice and understand the “election” event. Their socio-economic level was considered as tending to be determined by their level of qualifications and thus was linked to differences in their level of education (which did indeed prove the case) such that affluence was associated with a better level of formal mastery of politics and verbal expression. The participants were recruited by a company, did not know each other and were paid for each meeting. A buffet was available since meetings took place in the evening.
56Each meeting started with a general discussion about the news from the campaign. Extracts of television programmes were then shown to encourage more targeted discussions in a semi-directive setting. The agenda allowed for a discussion of the highlights of the campaign:
- four weeks before the first round: extracts from J’ai une question à vous poser (broadcast by TF1) with Nicolas Sarkozy (5th February) and Ségolène Royal (19th February);
- the week before the first round: extracts from the televised news programmes (TF1, France 2, France 3) and entertainment programmes (Guignols de l’info, On n’est pas couché);
- the week before the second round: extracts from the evening of the first round and the debate between Royal and Bayrou (1 group) or the debate between Royal and Sarkozy (3 groups).
Richard Balme, Jean-Louis Marie, Olivier Rozenberg, “Les motifs de la confiance (et de la défiance) politique: intérêt, connaissance et conviction dans les formes du raisonnement politique”, Revue internationale de politique comparée, 10(3), 2003, 433-61; Sophie Duchesne, Florence Haegel, “La politisation des discussions, au croisement des logiques de spécialisation et de conflictualisation”, Revue française de science politique, 54(6), 2004, 877-904; Pierre Lascoumes, Philippe Bezes, “Les formes de jugement du politique”, L’Année sociologique, 59(1), 2009, 109-47; Pierre Lefébure, “Citizens’ expectations: is what matters only what works?”, in Ingolfur Blüdhorn (ed.), In Search of Legitimacy. Policy Making in Europe and the Challenge of Societal Complexity (Opladen/Farmington Hills: Barbara Budrich Publishers, 2009), 73-92; Sophie Duchesne, Florence Haegel, Elizabeth Frazer, Virginie van Ingelgom, Guillaume Garcia, André-Paul Frognier, “Europe between integration and globalisation. Social differences and national frames in the analysis of focus groups conducted in France, Francophone Belgium and the United Kingdom”, Politique européenne, 30, 2010, 67-106.
Ivana Markova, “Les focus groups”, in Serge Moscovici, Fabrice Buschini (eds), Les méthodes des sciences sociales (Paris: PUF, 2003), 221-42; Sophie Duchesne, Florence Haegel, L’entretien collectif (Paris, Nathan, 2004); special issue, “Les groupes centrés (focus groups)”, Bulletin de psychologie, 57(3), 2004. Often referenced as a pioneering French source, the following text is focused more closely on approaches in experimental psychology: Alain Giami, “L’entretien de groupe”, in Alain Blanchet (ed.), L’entretien dans les sciences sociales. L’écoute, la parole et le sens (Paris : Dunod, 1985), 221-33.
In Genèses (author, volume, year): Daniel Cefaï, 46, 2002/Bertrand Müller, 62, 2006/Sylvain Laurens, 69, 2007/Choukri Hmed, 72, 2008/Wenceslas Lizé, 76, 2009.
Pamela J. Conover, Ivor M. Crewe, Donald D. Searing, “The nature of citizenship in the United States and Great Britain. Empirical comments on theoretical themes”, Journal of Politics, 53(3), 1991, 800-32; William Gamson, Talking Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Sonia M. Livingstone, Peter K. P. Lunt, Talk on Television. Audience Participation and Public Debate (London: Routledge, 1994); David E. Morrison, The Search for an Understanding. Administrative Communications Research and Focus Groups in Practice (Luton: University of Luton Press, 2000); David Buckingham, The Making of Citizens. Young People, News, and Politics (London: Routledge, 2000).
Marion R. Just, Ann N. Crigler, Dean E. Alger, Timothy E. Cook, Montague Kern, Darrel M. West, Crosstalk. Citizens, Candidates, and the Media in a Presidential Campaign (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996); Pippa Norris, John Curtice, David Sanders, On Message. Communicating the Campaign (London: Sage, 1999).
W. Gamson, Talking Politics; Jenny Kitzinger, “Media impact on public beliefs about AIDS”, in David Miller, Jenny Kitzinger, Kevin Williams, Peter Beharrell, The Circuit of Mass Communication. Media Strategies, Representation and Audience Reception in the AIDS Crisis (London: Sage, 1998), 167-90; Andrea L. Press, Elizabeth R. Cole, Speaking of Abortion. Television and Authority in the Lives of Women (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); David E. Morrison, Matthew Kieran, Michael Svennevig, Sarah Ventress, Media and Values. Intimate Transgressions in a Changing Moral and Cultural Landscape (Bristol: Intellect, 2007).Online
David Morley, The Nationwide Audience. Structure and Decoding (London: BFI, 1980); Tamar Liebes, Elihu Katz, The Export of Meaning. Cross-Cultural Readings of Dallas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Darnell M. Hunt, Screening the Los Angeles « Riots ». Race, Seeing, and Resistance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
The expression “group interview[ing]” is used descriptively and does not equate to an alternative concept. At a point when the expression had not yet been fixed as it would be in the 1970s, it appears more appropriate as a term in Joseph A. Banks’ pioneering article “The group discussion as an interview technique”, The Sociological Review, 5(1), 1957, 75-84. Furthermore, although inappropriate in view of how little it was unpacked, the term “group depth interview” appears in marketing literature between 1960 and1970 but remained marginal: see Alfred E. Goldman, “The group depth interview”, Journal of Marketing, 26(1), 1962, 61-8; Alfred E. Goldman, Susan S. McDonald, The Group Depth Interview. Principles and Practice (Englewood: Prentice Hall, 1987).
Robert K. Merton, “The focused interview and focus groups: continuities and discontinuities”, Public Opinion Quarterly, 51(4), 1987, 550-66.
In marketing, “testing” (individual or group) directly confronts potential consumers with a product before discussing its characteristics with them.
Pierre Bourdieu, “Comprendre”, in Pierre Bourdieu (ed.), La misère du monde (Paris : Seuil, 1993), 903-40; Jean-Baptiste Legavre, “La ‘neutralité’ dans l’entretien de recherche. Retour personnel sur une évidence”, Politix, 35, 1996, 207-25.
Guy Michelat, “Sur l’utilisation de l’entretien non directif en sociologie”, Revue française de sociologie, 16(2), 1975, 229-47; Sophie Duchesne, “Entretien non-préstructuré, stratégie de recherche et étude des représentations. Peut-on déjà faire l’économie de l’entretien ‘non-directif’ en sociologie?”, Politix, 35, 1996, 189-206; Nonna Mayer, “L’entretien selon Pierre Bourdieu. Analyse critique de La misère du monde”, Revue française de sociologie, 36(2), 1995, 355-70.Online
The two short paragraphs on this subject in a textbook which is extremely detailed in other ways (at over 1,000 pages), and the latest edition of which coincides with a renewed interest for group interviewing, clearly demonstrates this difficult period for group interviewing in France: Madeleine Grawitz, Méthodes des sciences sociales (Paris: Dalloz, 11th edn, 2000), 793.Online
Alfredo Joignant, “La socialisation politique. Stratégies d’analyse, enjeux théoriques et nouveaux agendas de recherche”, Revue française de science politique, 47(5), 1997, 535-59 (541-8). The author discusses notably the distinction between “environment”, “context” and “networks”. The meso level likely to be associated with group interviews corresponds to the “network” level and is defined as “frequent and affective inter-individual relations stemming from opportunities and constraints imposed by social contexts such as school, workplace, or social circle” (546).
Some references: David L. Morgan (ed.), Successful Focus Groups. Advancing the State of the Art (London: Sage, 1993); Michael X. Delli Carpini, Bruce Williams, “The method is the message: focus groups as a method of social, psychological and political inquiry”, Research in Micropolitics, 4(1), 1994, 54-85; Peter P. Lunt, Sonia M. Livingstone, “Rethinking the focus group in media and communications research”, Journal of Communication, 46(2), 1996, 79-98. Rosaline Barbour, Jenny Kitzinger (eds), Developing Focus Group Research. Politics, Theory and Practice (London: Sage, 1999); Rosaline Barbour, Doing Focus Groups (London: Sage, 2008). There is also the collection Focus Group Kit Series, overseen by David Morgan and Richard Krueger and published by Sage.Online
Conversely, a research approach which is sometimes associated with discussion groups comes under the heading of “problem solving”, or “task management”, often used in studies related to change management or social work: Greg Philo, Seeing and Believing. The Influence of Television (London: Routledge, 1990). The participants examine and classify photos of social conflict in order to produce alternative information to the television news. Taken even further, in an action-research perspective, deliberative polling which developed around James Fishkin, or sociological intervention which developed around Alain Touraine (cf. the article by Olivier Cousin and Sandrine Rui in this issue), both have something in common – in different ways – with this approach which involves making the interviewees engage in an activity.
A. L. Press, E. R. Cole, Speaking of Abortion…, 143-63.Online
Kim C. Schroder, “Audience semiotics, interpretive communities, and the ‘ethnographic turn’ in media research”, Media, Culture & Society, 16(2), 1994, 337-47.
Paul E. Willis, Learning to Labour. How Working Class Kids get Working Class Jobs (Farnborough: Saxon House, 1977); Paul E. Willis, Common Culture. Symbolic Work at Play in the Everyday Cultures of the Young (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1990); Chris Barker, “Television and the reflexive project of the self: soaps, teenage talk and hybrid identities”, British Journal of Sociology, 48(4), 1997, 611-28.
W. Gamson, Talking Politics, 189-94.Online
J. Kitzinger, “Media impact…”, 168, 228-30.
P. Lunt, S. Livingstone, “Rethinking the focus group…”, 89-91.
JoEllen Fisherkeller, Growing Up with Television. Everyday Learning among Young Adolescents (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002).
Katherine Cramer Walsh, Talking about Politics. Informal Groups and Social Identity in American Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).
T. Liebes, E. Katz, The Export of Meaning…; M. Billig, Talking of the Royal Family; Jacquelin Burgess, Carolyn Harrison, Paul Maiteny, “Contested meanings. The consumption of news about nature conservation”, Media, Culture & Society, 13(4), 1991, 499-519.
A. L. Press, E. R. Cole, Speaking of Abortion, 152-63.
D. Morley, The Nationwide Audience.
T. Liebes, E. Katz, The Export of Meaning; D. M. Hunt, Screening the Los Angeles “Riots”.
A. L. Press, E. R. Cole, Speaking of Abortion.
M. Billig, Talking of the Royal Family, 16.
T. Liebes, E. Katz, The Export of Meaning.
Pierre Lefébure, “Quand des citoyens discutent le lien représentatif. Approche compréhensive de la reception de l’imagerie démocratique véhiculée par la télévision”, Ph.D. diss. in political science, IEP (Institut d’études politiques) Paris, 13 December 2005; and “Citizens’ expectations”.
Study carried out as part of the “Media-Election” team (Communications and Policy research centre) with Isabelle Veyrat-Masson, and in collaboration with Jean-Baptiste Comby and Amélie Dalmazzo.
Jenny Kitzinger, Clare Farquhar, “The analytical potential of ‘sensitive moments’ in focus group discussions”, in R. Barbour, J. Kitzinger (eds), Developing Focus Group Research, 156-72.
Michael Billig, “The argumentative nature of holding strong view. A case study”, European Journal of Social Psychology, 19, 1989, 203-22; Helga Kotthoff, “Disagreement and concession in dispute. On the context sensitivity of preference structures”, Language in Society, 22(2), 1993, 193-216; Greg Myers, “Displaying opinions. topics and disagreement in focus groups”, Language in Society, 27(1), 1998, 85-111.
S. Duchesne, F. Haegel, “La politisation des discussions”; and “Avoiding or accepting conflict in public talk”, British Journal of Political Science, 37(1), 2007, 1-22.Online
Dietram A. Scheufele, James Shanahan, Eunjung Lee, “Real talk. Manipulating the dependent variable in spiral of silence research”, Communication Research, 28(3), 2001, 304-24.
Lefébure, “Citizens’ expectations”; and “À la recherche du lien représentatif. Tension entre exigence démocratique et attachement à la division du travail politique”, in “Quand des citoyens discutent le lien représentatif”, 380-458.Online
Within the LEGIPAR project (ANR 2009-2011), I am currently developing a component with Olivier Rozenberg on political reasoning as applied to the National Assembly and members of Parliament by citizens in six constituencies (two groups by constituency). A semi-directive group interview allows participants to express their views freely, then a more directive and experimental phase requires them to discuss their different criteria (selection, salary, sanctions etc.) for different types of representation (parent of a child at school, staff representative, member of Parliament, President of the Republic): http://www.legipar.sciencespobordeaux.fr/Index.htm.
This concurs with the results produced from a similar survey method: David E. Morrison, “Conversations with voters. a reconvened focus group study of the 1992 general election”, in The Search for an Understanding, 109-66 (especially 126-31).