Could focus group interviews be the missing link in critical research?

Lisa Gibson, University of Nottingham
In recent years, there has been an increasing shift in international relations scholarship toward more critical approaches like constructivism, feminism and poststructuralism. With this critical shift has come an acceptance and move toward more interpretivist methodologies. These shifts are characterized by a greater recognition of the role of discourse in understanding how meaning is negotiated between actors and even a shift to studying the relational side of international relations. Discourse can be explored in written documents and media articles, but also in social discourse like conversation and dialogues. These shifting perspectives are influenced by an increased understanding of the important role that agency and even emotions play in international relations. At least in part, these shifts are influenced by a recognition of the role that people play in causing conflict and facilitating peace between countries. Despite the awareness of the human side of conflict and the need to better understand people’s perspectives, what has surprisingly been lacking in these shifts is the use of focus group interviews in the research process. 
This is despite the fact that social science researchers have long recognized that focus groups are the most beneficial method to understand how actors construct meaning together around a given phenomenon (Barbour and Kitzinger, 1999)
Interpretivists see meaning as being constructed socially and experientially. Similarly, critical theorists tend to prefer dialogic research methods that foster conversation and reflection, where the researcher and participants are able to reflexively explore the nature of things. It is through a dialogic process that truth can be determined by consensus (Habermas, 1984). Theorists like Habermas see dialogue as essential to understanding and emancipation (Linklater, 2001). In addition, as critical researchers seek to understand the voices of more marginalised people groups it is important to recognize that many of these marginalised cultures are collectivist cultures. People from collectivist cultures tend to see themselves as interdependent with each other and prioritize group goals over individual ones. People from these cultures, already use more collective processes in their decision making. As a result, collective processes of negotiating meaning are a very natural social process for them. 
Therefore, focus group interviews, as an inherently collective process, can be particularly useful in understanding the group members perspectives when compared with other research approaches. Further, focus groups are also specifically helpful for critical researchers who are cognizant of power dynamics. ‘Compared with most traditional methods, including the one-to-one interview, focus groups inevitably reduce the researcher’s power and control’(Wilkinson, 1999). 
If dialogue is one of the best ways to understand how participants construct meaning together as a group, then focus groups are the best method to use in the research process. If this is true, then it begs the question, why aren’t IR scholars using focus group interviews more frequently in their research. Some benefits of focus group interviews is that they tend to be less expensive and more expedient than other qualitative approaches like ethnography and individual interviews. However, when research involves actors in foreign countries perhaps it is seen as cost prohibitive to travel to a foreign land to do a single focus group with 6-12 participants. Or perhaps with people’s busy lives, it becomes problematic to get a group of people together at the same place and time to conduct the focus group interview. These are all realistic issues. In addition, when doing research in the area of peace and conflict studies, there is always a need to consider issues like security and safety of a researcher and prospective participants when planning to travel into a conflict zone. Therefore, researchers have begun to explore more innovative approaches to research to reach more hard to reach populations. One such method, which has been used in health and culture studies, is the use of Facebook focus group interviews. This method is particularly beneficial, because it provides a forum to not only recruit participants, but hold online Facebook interviews. Rather than searching to find people to interview, you are doing your research in a place that people already are. Doing these interviews online are particularly useful for reaching hard to reach participants, because people are already spending a lot of time interacting online. Facebook focus group interviews can take place in an asynchronous format where participants don’t have to be online at the same time and in a bilingual format by using the Facebook translate features. Facebook provides a very natural and rich forum to explore the process of social discourse in a semi structured way, rather than more passive processes of data collection from existing Facebook groups or posts. It is only through the intersubjective process that the process of meaning construction can be appropriately observed. In addition, when people participate in these focus group interviews the process mirrors similar linguistic characteristics that happen in face-to-face dialogue such as the use of emojis, in lieu of body language. 
To sum up, as the field of international relations scholarship evolves with an increasing commitment to engage a multitude of approaches and gain perspectives of diverse actors, the research methods should evolve as well. Focus group interviews have a long history in social science research. Its recent re-emergence provides an exciting opportunity for researchers to use this rich format to explore critical perspectives on identity construction through a more natural dialogic format. 
Lisa Gibson has a JD in law and is pursuing a PhD in International Relations at University of Nottingham. Her research falls in the area of critical peace and conflict studies. She is currently using focus group interviews to explore how Libyans participation in friendship groups with Americans impact their views of Americans and American foreign policy. 
Barbour, R. and Kitzinger, J. 1999. Developing Focus Group Research. London: Sage.
Habermas, J. 1984. Theory of Communicative Action. Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Translated by Thomas A. McCarthy. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press.
Linklater, A. 2001. The Changing Contours of Critical International Relations Theory. In: Jones, W. Critical Theory and World Politics. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Riener Publishers, Inc. 
Wilkinson, S. 1999. How useful are focus groups to feminist research. In: Barbour, R. and Kitzinger, J. eds. Developing Focus Group Research. London: Sage.

PSA/BISA 11th Annual Learning and Teaching Conference 2018 – University of Leeds

Drs Stuart McAnulla and Victoria Honeyman, University of Leeds
This year’s annual Learning and Teaching Conference, jointly hosted by the PSA and BISA's Learning and Teaching Working Group and held in association with Oxford University Press, focused on the student journey. With the introduction of student fees, the National Student Survey, the Office for Students and the Teaching Enhancement Framework (TEF), academics are keen to ensure that they are continuing to provide the best possible learning experience for their students, often in trying and difficult circumstances. The first keynote speaker, Bela Arora (South Wales) discussed her inspirational teaching, explaining how she used external events and projects within her seminars, and outside of teaching hours, to allow her students to develop a range of exciting and useful skills. By utilising her own community connections, and encouraging her students to work with each other, she has been able to provide an extensive and impressive learning experience for her students, which her excellent keynote speech explained to the conference delegates.
Following the keynote speech, the conference panels began. The first panel began with a paper from Helen Williams (Nottingham) on the importance of feedback literacy and consistency across departments, not just so students are receiving a consistent message, but also so that they receive a message they can easily understand. The second paper from John Craig (Leeds Beckett) discussed the importance of lectures, a long-standing, but often criticised, form of teaching. The panel was concluded by Oana Burcu (Durham), who spoke on the subject of group work and assessment, based on her module which utilised extensive group work, suggesting that it was a key skill for students to engage with, and a structure which could be managed more easily than might be imagined. 
The second panel focused on the modern challenges which academics face in delivering a relevant curriculum to students. Simon Choat (Kingston) spoken on his experience of decolonialising his curriculum and expanding the scope of his political theory module beyond the classic scholars. Claire Sutherland (Durham) discussed the challenges academics face from external forces, such as TEF and QA and how these can be dealt with effectively. Ben Little (UEA) concluded the panel by discussing his experience of connecting pedagogy with forms of active political campaigning – his students campaign to introduce stronger controls on nurdles. 
The third panel concentrated on the teaching of political theory, with Spiros Makris (Macedonia) and Pete Woodcock (Huddersfield) discussing dilemmas concerning how the teaching of political theory speaks to issues such as citizenship and employability. The teaching of political theory can be considered too theoretical or philosophical to be viewed in practical terms, but Markis and Woodcock both argued in their papers, that the skills students acquired from learning, and analysing, political theory were key to their employability levels and should be encouraged and emphasised.
The final session of the day was the Jacqui Briggs Memorial Lecture, delivered by Heather Savigny (DeMontford) who spoke very movingly on her late friend, Professor Jacqui Briggs (Lincoln), a leading member of the Learning and Teaching community, emphasising how approachable and friendly Jacqui had been and what a huge contribution she had made to the discipline, both in terms of her professional output, but also in terms of her warm and welcoming personal attitude towards colleagues and friends.  Savigny then moved on to discuss textbooks, something which Jacqui Briggs was a big supporter of (and an author of), how they can be produced and how they can positively contribute to both the discipline and the CV of an academic. 
The first panel on day two centred on interdisciplinary and online learning. Cathy Coombs (Leeds) discussed her module, which was taught by academics across a range of schools to students from across a range of faculties to explore the interdisciplinary elements of power and conflict. By utilising an online learning environment, Coombs and her colleagues were able to cover a wide range of topics and varied material, which was very popular amongst their students. The second paper from Simon Rofe (SOAS) discussed online learning, drawing on his experience of leading a large online module, as well as a large MOOC.  
The second panel discussed innovative practices in fostering employability skills, with applied papers from Simon Lightfoot (Leeds) and Lata Narayanaswamy (Leeds).  Both papers discussed the importance of employability, and drawing ‘real world’ experience into the classroom, by using both  innovative assessment, based on real life examples and connections with external organisations as a research partner for dissertation students.
The final panel of the day considered renewed approaches to supporting students through their studies, with papers from Hannah Duggan (London Met) and Mark Shanahan (Reading) discussing areas including mental health support and preparing assessed work. With a growing student population, and the varied academic backgrounds which students have, the support mechanisms which universities have are under renewed pressure, and the papers focused on how these challenges could be met. The conference concluding with a roundtable discussion on the often neglected topic of the role of pedagogy in research supervision, led by Tony Armstrong (Birmingham City). This discussed issues such as originality in doctoral research, and whether current practices are too narrow or limiting in what is considered to be acceptable new contributions to understanding. inter-disciplinarity and the role of supervisors were also discussed.
All the conference papers were inspiring and attendees all left with a reinvigorated approach to their own teaching, and a host of new ideas to bring back to their home universities, as well as with new contacts and friends. 
: My PhD was a critical biography of the Labour MP Richard Crossman and was published in 2007 by I B Tauris. Since completing my PhD at the University of Leeds in 2005, I have taught on a wide range of modules. My primary research interest is British Politics, with a particular specialism in British foreign policy. I have written extensively on the foreign policy objectives of both the Conservative and Labour Parties. I am also Chair of the British International Studies Association Foreign Policy Specialist Group. I work extensively with the media, providing expert analysis for the BBC, Channel 5, Al Jazeera, France 24 Radio 5 Live, Radio 4 amongst others. I also work with members of the Associated Press. You can find her on twitter @vhoneymanleeds
Stuart McAnulla: Before coming to Leeds, I completed a PhD and taught at the University of Birmingham. I also worked for a year as a researcher at the University of Central England, where I also taught a public policy course. My particular interests are in: contemporary British politics; ideological and institutional change; political atheism; religion and politics. I am co-convenor of the Political Studies Association specialist group on Religion and Politics. I am also a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life here at the University of Leeds

The PhD & the Powerful: A BISA Post-Graduate Network Workshop

Disparities of power often exist between postgraduate students and the actors they focus on. This holds especially true for international studies, where access to information and subjects is often constrained by state actors able to envelop themselves in numerous, potentially legitimate, restrictions. At the same time, international studies is literally soaked with discussions and definitions of power. Furthermore, from realist debates about great power politics, Weberian ponderings of legitimate force, Foucauldian deliberations inspired by governmentality and biopolitics via the consideration of soft power, such discussions and definitions are as varied as they are predominant.

BISA@ 40 and beyond

A series of commentaries on the state of the

discipline to mark the 40th anniversary of

BISA's founding


British International Studies Association


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