Before I arrive in Lebanon I hadn’t conducted a ‘proper’ Focus Group before. I had done a fair few ‘mock’ groups, but most of my research has centred on one to one interviews, so conducting Focus Groups was a learning curve for me. Not only that, but I would be trying to control 5 women all speaking in Arabic. I was fairly nervous from the outset! Too add to the nerves and language hurdles, my very first focus group provided quite a delicate situation for me to negotiate and an ethical issue that I had never debated or discussed any pre-fieldwork ethics class.
The group consisted of 5 women, and as their stories were shared in became apparent within minutes that their experiences were vastly different. Three of the women were newly married to Lebanese men and were comfortable and content in the neighbourhood. Their experiences of the neighbourhood were few and far between – meeting at the cafe on the border of their neighbourhood where we held the Focus Group was the furthest they had been from their homes. This was quite a distinction from the other two ladies, who had far fewer restrictions on their movement, but who shared stories of abuse, assault, sexual harassment and fear.
I became aware, as the women began sharing, that the three ‘new’ ladies were being introduced to a wholly negative perspective of their new neighbourhood, which was their new home and their new lives. Furthermore I was very conscious that up to this point, that these newer arrivals had rarely left their homes. What would happen if they spoke to their husbands about the content of the Focus Group and shared how some of the women were treated in the neighbourhood? Would they ever leave their homes again? Was this experience scaring and intimidating them?
Thankfully one of the respondents seemed quite attuned to the different experiences, and said that she wouldn’t keep sharing, but it would be better to speak with me after the Focus Group (which we did).
I was so focused on the ‘atypical’ Focus Group prep (Engage with everyone, don’t let one person dominate) that I had naively never considered that what might be shared might intimidate some participants and make them change their behaviour, and that I would have to find a way to negotiate that. Now, more than ever before, I realised you should never roll your eyes at ethics classes! Talking through some of these issues with other researchers can help you prepare before you go into the field. You can’t be prepared, trained, or control, for everything, but I can assure you that sitting with other researchers and chatting through some scenarios will help you see things from a myriad of perspectives – which means you hopefully won’t choke in the field!
Ethically, I think you have a responsibility to protect your participants but also to inform them. Personally, I thought it was important that the newer women to the neighbourhood understood the vulnerabilities and exploitation of the other women living alongside them. However, I think on this occasion, my other participant rescued me with her balanced approach: She shared enough to indicate some of the challenges, but not enough (publicly) that they would have been fearful.
There’s a balance – and it’s your responsibility as a researcher, and overseeing the focus group- to find it.