Anyway, this week, we conducted focus groups discussions in villages that are similar to, but not included in, the sample set of villages for the household survey.
It’s been hard to conduct a focus group discussion on topics like family planning and women’s empowerment without considering the focus group itself as an intervention. There’s a good chance that I am overly optimistic in imagining changes in attitudes as a result of these focus group conversations. But given that people around here tend not to discuss family planning at all, the fact that we (three Tanzanians and myself) bring it up so blatantly seems likely has some influence on the status quo.
We have also learned to be politely strict about who ‘oversees’ the meeting. At the first village, we forgot to ask the chairman to leave the room during the woman’s focus group discussion. And because Tanzanian villages have strict central bureaucratic organization from the lingering socialist influence, he not only affected women’s responses through his mere presence as a man in the village listening to their conversations, but he also sat at the front of the room in a chair higher than all the others. This had the effect of seeming that we, as researchers, were sanctioning his opinions. He eventually quieted down after Loi, my field assistant, asked him politely to wait to share his opinions until the men’s session. However, this was not before he bluntly responded to the question about using contraceptives by informing every woman in the room that the only reason a woman would use them is if she planned to be unfaithful to her husband.
It was awkward.
My approach to asking these discussion questions was initially simple and objective. I was testing questions that will be in the household survey, and had a few open-ended questions to gain an understanding of the current attitude towards family size. But it is hard to maintain the notion that all responses are correct after hearing an older man insist that the mosquito net he got from PSI would prevent pregnancy (TWM- any explanation??). Or, when another woman said that if she told her husband that she wanted to stop having children, he would ask her: then what are you here for?
So, I have begun to think of the focus group discussions as an actual intervention and less as a one-sided information gathering session. It seems more realistic to allow information to flow both from participants to facilitators and also from facilitators to participants.
And lastly, folks who normally use and study qualitative research methods (looking at you CIDE folks) probably could have anticipated all of these challenges. But given that I am a faithful quantifier, I didn't see this coming I also nearly named this post “Focus_groups!=sponges” but it just didn’t seem to ring.