Tag Archives: Focus Groups

Talking and laughing together about the sensitive dynamics of mundane everyday practices

By Alison Browne, University of Manchester 

Laundrette. Photo credit: Michael Robinson

Laundrette. Photo credit: (c) Michael Robinson

Winter Wool Wash. Photo Credit: Alison Browne

Winter Wool Wash. Photo Credit: (c) Alison Browne

Fully loaded? Photo Credit: Alison Browne

Fully loaded? Photo Credit: (c) Alison Browne

When was the last time you washed your sheets, and why did you do it? Was it just part of your regular laundry routine? Were they looking a bit grubby? Did you want to get into a clean bed with clean pyjamas for a special Saturday night in? Were you expecting a new bedfellow and want to make a good impression?

Talk about household sustainability butts up against moral and ethical boundaries regarding the sensitivities and intimacies of our day-to-day lives. While policy or business interventions try to persuade us to use less water or energy, such interventions often unintentionally moralise certain types of behaviours. Recent research by the Pew Research Centre and reported in the Guardian (November 2015) shows that there is still a gap in terms of fair distributions of male/female family and household labour.  As such the practices which they try to influence and intervene with are often very gendered, for example, focusing on how to do more energy and water efficient laundry, a task that is still overwhelming performed by women.

As geographical and allied social science research has tried to understand the dynamics and patterns of everyday resource consumption, the range of methods we use has become increasingly nuanced. Some of these methods such as CCTV or video are often used as a way of understanding how people do everyday practices and give interesting insights into public practices like cycling and mobility.

In a domestic space these forms of surveillance are connected to increasing ‘big data’ capabilities to track and understand the use of resources such as energy and water in the home enabled through the internet of things. However, such methods might not be appropriate given how awkward and intimate some of these resource consuming practices can be (e.g., what motivates you to wash your sheets, or take a shower).

The research methods used to understand everyday resource use related to cleanliness practices in the home (laundry, home cleaning, personal washing) often pushes us towards these intimately political aspects of energy and water use.

In the article “Can people talk about their practices?” I reflect on the need to apply new research methods in order to access and articulate these sensitive dynamics of everyday practice. The research reflects on six focus groups on ‘bodies, clothes, dirt and cleanliness’.  Enabling people to talk together about their practices in light gossip style, with humour and laughter can undo some of the unease that can be experienced when talking about these issues in one-to-one research interviews.

The article explores the ethics and politics of everyday life research in geography, and responds to calls for greater consideration of gender and bodies within human geography research. However, it also highlights the ethical and moral issues of gender embedded in everyday consumption, which is often a target of sustainability policy.

About the author: Dr Alison Browne is a Lecturer in Human Geography and Research Fellow at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester.

books_icon Browne, A. L. (2015), Can people talk together about their practices? Focus groups, humour and the sensitive dynamics of everyday life. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12250

60-world2 Valenti, J. 2015. Men think they do equal work at home, when facts show otherwise. The Guardian

“The public says…”: mobilising opinions and publics

By Helen Pallett

Balcombe protesters

Source: Guardian

A recent report authored by researchers at the University of Nottingham has indicated a shift in public opinion in Britain against the controversial practice of ‘fracking’, following the high profile protests in Balacombe, Sussex . This drop in the level of public support for the practice follows an increase in public support and acceptance of fracking, detected by the team at Nottingham University earlier in 2013. Another recent public opinion survey, this time carried out by the BBC, found that 6 out of 10 people felt that public services had been maintained or had improved since the start of the UK Government’s austerity drive.

These two headlines follow the oft-cited article in the Independent newspaper from earlier in the Summer entitled ‘British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows‘, which compared public perception on topics such as crime and immigration to the ‘facts’ and found that many people were wildly off the mark. This survey could be read as undermining the common media trope of transforming public opinion surveys into easy punchy headlines, or even questioning the utility and necessity of consulting members of the public on important policy issues altogether.  Another interpretation of the survey is that it reveals public distrust and scepticism of government statisitcs and policy pronouncements. In which case public opinion surveys are a tool which can in some cases be used to challenge government positions and hold key figures to account.

Academic work has also sought to point out the potential methodological challenges in orchestrating and reporting on opinion surveys. These challenges encompass, for example: the potential for the wording and layout of specific questions to be leading – for example, see this post on how public responses to fracking depend on how it is framed; how a person’s perception of the organisation carrying out the survey may affect their responses; and approaches to sampling  – for example, is it appropriate to take a demographically representative sample of a whole population, when an opinion survey seeks views on public services which may only be used by a small section of that population?

More radical academic critiques of public opinion polling and other methods of ascertain public views and opinions have emerged from perspectives which views these methods as technologies designed to distill the public voice and create a stable representation of public views. In a recent article in the journal Area, Natalie Koch has considered the technology of focus groups, illuminating how this one technique has different results and effects in different contexts. In her study, Koch used focus groups to talk to citizens about their experience of their government in Kazakhstan. Removed from its liberal western European context, Koch observed the focus group operating very differently as a technology of government, leading its participants to largely repeat government rhetoric and suppress dissenting opinions. Koch concluded that the citizens in her study had not been socialised in the vocal expression of their thoughts, in the way that the imagined focus group participants had been.

The conclusion that these ‘technologies of government’ produce different results in different settings sensitises us not only to the differences in national context which Koch highlights, but also other differences across time and context. Whether public opinion surveys or focus groups, these methods create an artificially stable picture of a public which is both diverse and mobile. As the research at the University of Nottingham shows, public opinion can shift over a relatively short time, in response to events like social protest. As Richard Seymour has pointed out in his response to the BBC’s public service survey, public responses to these methods of elicitation are inevitably part of the same context in which these policy changes are occurring, in this case the change in the ideological climate of the UK which Seymour sees as running hand in hand with the government policy of austerity.

Public opinion surveys and other forms of ‘technologising the opinion’, as Koch puts it, can be powerful tools in expressing the public voice and forcing government actors to listen. But it is equally important to remember that they can only ever be a partial representation of the diverse, movable and unpredictable cacophony which is ‘the public’.

books_icon Natalie Koch, 2013 Technologising the opinion: focus groups, performance and free speech Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12039

60-world2 Sarah O’Hara & colleagues at the University of Nottingham, October 2013 Public perception of Shale gas extraction in the UK: the impact of the Balacombe protests in July-August 2013

60-world2 British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows Independent, July 9

60-world2 Mark Easton Public service cuts – did we notice? BBC News, October 9

60-world2 Richard Seymour BBC austerity survey: why the public is wrong this time Guardian, October 9

Hurricane Documentation

by Benjamin Sacks

As Hurricane Sandy hits the densely populated US eastern seaboard, commentators and pundits alike compete to depict local reactions and identify those populations who will be hardest hit. Much of the current concern stems from officials’ highly criticised response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (2005), which devastated New Orleans and left at least 1,200 people dead. But, collection and analysis of valuable data on constituency responses, first-aid services, and suggestions for future defences against hurricanes has its own history. Sociologists, political scientists, and geographers have experimented with various field research methods.

In 1855, Andrés Poey, of Havana, organised a list of some 400 hurricanes documented in various forms since Christopher Columbus’s 1492 trans-Atlantic expedition. He hoped, by publishing his tables in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, to advance awareness on hurricane theory: for it had ‘now been proved…that wind, in hurricanes and common gales on both sides of the equator, has two motions; and that it turns or blows round a focus or centre in a more or less circular form’ (p. 291).

Nearly 150 years later, using techniques they had earlier tested in nuclear power accidents, in 1996 Donald J Seigler (Old Dominion University), Stanley D Brunn (University of Kentucky), and James H Johnson, Jr (University of North Carolina) documented their use of small focus groups to learn about hurricane responses and better react to future storms. In December 1992, six months after Hurricane Andrew slammed into Florida, the three researchers conducted several focus groups in the Miami area. They believed that their experiment was one of the first implementations of focus groups in post-hurricane emergency planning. Questions were organised around: ‘the pre-impact period’, or preparations for the hurricane; and ‘post-impact period’, or the storm’s psychological, physical, and social consequences. Seigler, Brunn, and Johnson delineated between ‘therapeutic’ and ‘parasitic’/‘exploitative’ responses – unified, communal support versus an “everyone for themselves” mentality (p. 127). The researchers concluded that focused, group discussion in post-disaster scenarios could provide information crucial to more rapid, comprehensive first aid.

 For an official U.S. estimate of casualties from Hurricane Katrina (2005), see here (p. 5).

 Donald J Seigler, Stanley D Brunn, and James H Johnson, Focusing on Hurricane Andrew through the Eyes of the Victims, Area 28 124-29.

 Andrés Puey, A Chronological Table, Comprising 400 Cyclonic Hurricanes Which Have Occurred in the West Indies and the North Atlantic within 362 Years, from 1493-1855: With a Biographical List of 450 Authors, Books, &c., and Periodicals, Where Some Interesting Accounts May be Found, Especially on the West and East Indian Hurricanes [sic], Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 25 291-328.