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Focus Groups – Participation Case Study Part of 2004 Report "Designing Social Capital Sensitive Participation Methodologies"

Focus groups were held in several villages in each project area. They were conducted in late morning and a set time frame of two hours was established and catering was provided. Attention was paid to include all social groups that had been identified for each project. Fifteen people were asked to attend each focus group and the seats were placed in a circle to encourage participation and even power distributions. It was observed that participants did not sit in a circle, the socially dominant members of the group would sit directly in front of the facilitator and the remaining people would move chairs to sit behind or they would sit on the ground behind. The vast majority of participation can from the participants sitting directly in front of the facilitator.

Holding the focus groups in the late morning would exclude economically disadvantaged groups who could not afford the time away from work activities. In terms of project outcomes, this undermines the effectiveness of the project as the input of an important social group is missed. This exclusion further disadvantages poor people as their interests are not represented in project development. In terms of social capital theory, this exclusion represents a missed opportunity for poor people to make bridging connections, to strengthen bonding connections and benefit from information flows. This has a particularly significant impact as social capital is one of poor peoples’ major assets, particularly in terms of minimizing vulnerability.

Underprivileged groups are further disadvantaged by seating patterns. As identified above, seats were arranged in a circle to facilitate participation, however in all project sites, the participants did not sit in a circle. In reality, seating arrangement was determined by social stratification and disadvantaged groups always sat behind and often lower than the socially superior members. This further limited the participation of the disadvantaged groups, which limited the opportunities for building social capital. In this respect the project’s participatory planning failed to include all stakeholder groups.

The potential for building social capital is particularly significant given the effort of the project team to include all social groups identified. Combining members of social groups that are likely to have internal network closure, places the focus group participants in the unique position of being located at various structural holes simultaneously. The most significant benefit of being in this location is information flows, however another benefit – norms of reciprocity – could also be established between social groups, through individual members. This is best understood as empathy. Given the opportunity to hear the views and perspectives of different social groups develops a two way understanding that reduces the perceived gap, thereby initiating the process of forming norms of reciprocity. This process also allows for greater collaboration through identification of opportunities for individual or mutual benefit. In developed countries it is widely acknowledged that one can benefit from ‘networking’ opportunities at conferences, meetings and through interest groups.

The findings above represent social capital benefits that may be realized only under ideal circumstances. In the situation identified in the case study, participation of all members of the focus group did not occur due to power differentials and therefore the opportunity for norms to develop was limited, especially given only a one-off 2 hour focus group. Focus group theory in a developed country context would suggest that as participant numbers reached as high as 15, only some people would participate. In the case study context, people disadvantaged by social standing or gender were precluded from participation. The result was a disequilibrium of power where the views of the higher social classes prevailed and this was evident in the results of the project focus groups. This represents a further failure of the project’s participation plan, which aimed to include all stakeholders in the process.

In the developed country context, gender and social standing generally do not determine the pattern of participation. Other characteristics of the participants tend to be determinants of participation, such as the personality, education and knowledge, level of interest or motivation and attainment (in terms of being invited to attend). A common grouping distinction is ‘social group’ in developing country context and ‘stakeholder group’ in developed countries. The social capital building potential is also much greater in developed countries, particularly in urban areas. Under these circumstances it is unlikely that participants would know each other and the contact would establish weak ties and even in the short term, the establishment of group mores and norms of reciprocity. The role of residential proximity would have an impact of the strength and longevity of the weak ties formed through participation in the focus group and therefore the likelihood of reconnection and strengthening of the ties that represent social capital formation. Based on these findings, social capital building potential in the developed country context could be maximized by holding a series of focus groups with a smaller number of participants from a wide range of interest groups originating from a close residential proximity. This would maximize participation as well as allow time for formation of weak ties and norms of reciprocity that are more likely to endure after the participation process ends. Focus group participants would be located at various structural holes simultaneously as well as have inter- social group norms of reciprocity.

In the case study, participation could have been maximized by holding separate, small, focus groups for different social groups. This would separate disadvantaged groups who are inhibited by power differentials, enabling effective participation of all groups. The project background data identified gender power imbalances, which represents a need for separate focus groups. Although not carried out, it is acknowledged that the project may have been constrained by time or resources. Holding separate focus groups would limit social capital building opportunities in situations with high levels of participation but as discussed above, the project suffered from a lack of participation and thus holding separate focus groups would have little impact on the overall opportunities for generating social capital. It is recommended that providing feedback on issues that were identified to the whole group could enhance social capital building. This could be either through a public meeting or a meeting of all focus group participants. If further social capital building was an objective of the project, a further round of focus groups could then be help, mixing key individuals from different social groups, identified from observation. The familiarity of the topic and process, and increased empathy, should enable more even participation of all focus group members and allow for tie formation and establishment of group norms. Cooperation could be enhanced with benefits for project effectiveness and general civil society.

The key recommendation for the developed country context is that holding a number of focus groups with amble opportunity for networking could maximize social capital building. Although not as significant as in developing countries, giving feedback by way of a public meeting would increase understanding between stakeholder groups. This may have benefits for project effectiveness and social capital through enhanced community cohesion and understanding.

Citing this article

This report was prepared for Social Capital Research. You should reference this work as:

Claridge, T., 2004. Designing social capital sensitive participation methodologies. Report, Social Capital Research, Brisbane, Australia.

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