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The main benefits of focus group studies come from their ability to bring a greater depth in the analysis of attitudes and opinions on various topics. For most assessments of public opinion, polling a wide range of people is the preferred method, and polls often provide a good overall sense of where the public stands, but they sometimes leave many questions about the deeper motivations of the participants. Focus group studies allow researchers to investigate the reasons for people's opinions and gain a better understanding of all the different issues involved.
There are a few different approaches to running focus group studies, but the general idea is for the researchers to gather a relatively small group of people together and hold a moderated discussion. The researchers will generally guide the direction of the conversation, but the participants are often encouraged to speak freely and move the discussion into unexpected topics that might pop up naturally. Over the course of the interaction, information is gathered about the opinions of the participants, and then the moderator delves deeper to find out why the people feel the way they do.
Opinion polls are the main way that researchers study public opinions and attitudes. Usually these are designed so that participants answer a questionnaire or do a phone interview, providing some demographic information about themselves and offering their opinions on the issues at hand. For example, a poll may ask participants questions on how they feel about a presidential candidate, or a new product, but at the end of the process, sometimes researchers still aren't satisfied with the level of detail in their information. The researcher may know, for example, that the participants greatly preferred one political candidate over another, but they may not have any clue about exactly why the people feel the way they do.
In a case where the researchers want to know more about the nuts and bolts behind a public opinion position, focus group studies are often useful. For example, in focus group studies about presidential opinions, researchers will be able to ask people about all the reasons for their political beliefs. Furthermore, some of the answers will cause other participants in the group to pipe up in agreement, allowing the researcher to gain unexpected insights about the overall opinions of the public at large and perhaps offering a glimpse of larger trends. He may find that the reasons for people disliking or liking a candidate are all very different for each individual, or he may find that there are a few very common themes. In either case, the greater detail of the information provided may prove useful, depending on the reasons for the research.
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