How should cross-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-country focus groups be conducted?

22 Nov 2021
Dr Mariana Pinto da Costa reflects on her own experience in a guidance paper published open-access in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

What led to the publication of this guidance paper?

I noticed that whilst there are unique logistic and analytical challenges to conducting cross-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-country focus groups, there is sadly little guidance about the necessary things to consider when conducting international focus groups. I have therefore decided to share my own experiences and make recommendations to help other researchers who are interested in conducting such projects. Since the challenges I encountered were not topic-dependent, many of these reflections may be applicable to other international qualitative studies.

What is your experience of conducting international focus groups?

I chose focus groups as a method to explore an under-researched topic, generate interactive data, and have access to participants’ natural language and fully articulated views.

I have conducted a cross-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-country focus groups study exploring the stakeholders’ views on volunteering in mental health, a study conducted across different research contexts embedded in broader socio-cultural and political environments. I focused on three European countries for an in-depth evaluation of the views of the two groups of key stakeholders linked with the provision of volunteering in mental health: volunteers and mental health professionals. The UK, Belgium and Portugal were selected due to their dissimilar traditions of volunteering in mental health and location in different geographical regions of Europe (north, central and south, respectively).

Since I am fluent in the three languages in which the focus groups were conducted (i.e. English, French and Portuguese), there was no need to identify interpreters or have language assistance to conduct the fieldwork. For each site there was a second researcher, a native speaker on that country’s language, who supported me in the co-facilitation of the focus groups and data analysis on their site. Whilst difficulties employing multiple interviewers in qualitative studies have been reported, a challenge that can be significantly augmented in a multi-country setting, this was not the case in this study, since all the focus groups were co-facilitated by me. Importantly, we know that translation is one source of threat to the accuracy of qualitative research, reducing its validity. When researchers have language barriers and can conduct analysis only through translated data, the depth of analysis is more limited, and the interpretations might not always be what was originally expressed. Therefore, in the analysis phase, in order to systematically analyse the data, transcripts were kept in the original languages. The task of merging all the analysis and summarising and contrasting all the themes in the three different languages provided a challenge.

What recommendations would you give to other researchers interested in using this methodology?

This guidance paper provides recommendations on the different stages of planning, fieldwork, analysis and dissemination, and how to mitigate possible challenges and overcome them. I would emphasise that it is essential to set up an adequate research team. Questions to consider include who might be a suitable moderator with fluency in the language, familiarity with the cultural context and appropriate interpersonal skills to facilitate the focus group discussions, and who and how many people should participate in data coding to ensure a culturally sensitive process.

All researchers should have the necessary training in qualitative methods and follow a standardised approach in the facilitation of focus groups across the different countries and in the analysis of the data, ideally in their original languages.