A New Way to Separate Focus Groups

By Robert Relihan, Senior Vice President

I was talking with some young men several evenings ago. Yes, it was a focus group, and I was the moderator. The topic was something of general interest, so I had also been conducting groups among older men as well as younger and older women.

The group began well with a bit of the typical bluff you expect from younger guys. Then something interesting happened, something I had not seen quite so strongly. A couple of the guys began alternately posturing and complaining about their incomes and job prospects. Suddenly, from that side of the table, every topic was dismissed as too expensive, or worse still, a rip-off. At the same time, there was another guy who bragged about his recent activities, with a tone that approached condescension. A gulf has split the group which I spend a good deal of time trying to heal when I should have been drilling down on the topic at hand.

Of course, in designing the project, I "knew" that group dynamics and commonality of interests dictated that I separate men from women and younger participants from older participants. Being attentive to lifestage is crucial to developing a meaningful atmosphere in a focus group. But, as one often does, I was willing to accept a "mix of incomes."

I mention this incident because of a new report from the Pew Research Center on the perceptions Americans have of class conflicts in the country.

"About two-thirds of the public (66%) believes there are "very strong" or "strong" conflicts between the rich and the poor--an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009."

"Not only have perceptions of class conflicts grown more prevalent; so, too, has the belief that these disputes are intense. According to the new survey, three-in-ten Americans (30%) say there are "very strong conflicts" between poor people and rich people. That is double the proportion that offered a similar view in July 2009 and the largest share expressing this opinion since the question was first asked in 1987."

What is even more remarkable, this is a larger percentage than those who perceive conflicts between the young and old, or blacks and whites.

Now, this does not say that there are actual differences in outlook and beliefs between the affluent and the less so. Although common sense suggests there are certainly behavioral differences. But, if those of us who conduct qualitative research are going to engage groups in meaningful conversations, perhaps we need to think just as seriously about constituting separate groups on the basis of income levels as we do splitting males and females or younger and older respondents into distinct groups.