Research & Economic Development


Focus group research is a technique in which a researcher interviews multiple people at the same time. This can be a valuable technique for collecting data efficiently and understanding group processes. However, precautions must be taken to protect focus group participants. Focus group research requires IRB review to determine whether or not it qualifies for exempt status or requires expedited or full board review. However, it is possible that focus group can research can qualify for exempt status under certain conditions. Focus groups are often considered to be in the same category as surveys and interviews. When the data are collected from participants who are 18 years old or older and do not include sensitive information and findings will not include identifying information, focus group research can meet the federal guidelines for exemption. When you submit your IRB application to the Departmental Reviewer, she or he will make the determination about whether or not the study qualifies for exemption.

Examples of focus group research that could qualify for exemption:

Research about an experience or an opinion of a community program.

  • Asking students about their exercise habits.
  • Researching supervisors about management styles or best practices.
  • Discussions among teachers about managing challenging students.
  • Interviews with counselors or social workers about sensitive topics such as treating domestic violence survivors, people struggling with substance abuse, or people with other mental health issues.  

Generally, focus group research cannot qualify for exemption if participants are younger than 18 years-old, the topic involves participants sharing personal information of a sensitive nature, or participants are asked to – or there is a strong likelihood that they could voluntarily – share information that could place them at risk of legal, financial, social, or emotional harm. 

There are many other considerations that must be made when determining level of review for any research proposal. Therefore, the information above is intended to provide a general frame of reference. 

Guidelines for Focus Groups

Participants must be informed that, although the Research Team will make sure all information they collect will be confidential and that they will not share any identifiable information, total confidentiality cannot be guaranteed and anonymity cannot be guaranteed because of the nature of the group setting. Therefore, participants must be encouraged to keep this in mind when sharing their thoughts and/or experiences. A statement to this effect must be included in the informed consent form.

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