help! i have some righteous opinions that i want to be publishable as the sentiments of the general public

Three words: focus group research.

(Sure, you can do genuine inquiry with focus groups as well, but, if you aren’t so much interested in inquiry as advancing a point of view and want to be relatively efficient about it and yet not so efficient that you just make up interviewees…)

Bonus unrelated hypothetical — Which would be worse: (1) an article that lifts the literature review and theoretical arguments directly from another paper without attribution BUT collects and presents genuinely original data or (2) an article that has an originally written literature review and theoretical arguments BUT presents completely fabricated (though not plagiarized) data?

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

13 thoughts on “help! i have some righteous opinions that i want to be publishable as the sentiments of the general public”

  1. ap: I suspect you would be a wet blanket for “Would you rather?” games on long car trips.

    Regarding focus groups, my post was prompted by a couple papers in rear eschelon forums where the focus groups read like puppets of the author’s basic orientation. I’m being deliberately circumspect on details.


  2. I specialize in being a wet blanket; it’s a matter of personal pride.

    Focus groups are frequently misused and certainly poorly understood. They’re also the only way to get at certain kinds of behavioral and attitudinal information.


  3. What’s something you can only get at with focus groups? Not doubting, just curious.

    It would be a too clean world if some methodologies only produced good research and others only produced bad research.


  4. I vote for #2 as worse because it misleads you about the world, not only about the author’s effort and the contribution of the original scholar (which is bad enough, of course).


  5. @5.J: Pollock et al. argue (IMHO convincingly) that what they call “nonpublic opinion” or “latent public opinion” is best evoked through what we would now call controlled focus groups. Sadly they argue this only in German (_Gruppenexperiment: Ein Studienbericht_, EVA 1955). Happily Jeff Olick and I are translating it and you should be able to read it in all its glory next fall! Here’s a teaser.


  6. Well golly Jeremy… I’m not sure that focus group “researchers” (and we can use that term loosely) have corner on the market of selective data construction & interpretation. Survey researchers can (and do) play that game as well.

    A good focus group (structured or otherwise) allows the informants to dynamically react to the statements or sentiments of other informants. This can maximize the opportunities to ensure that the informants talk about what is most salient to them (which is not always important, but for some research questions is awfully important). If the research question is genuine and analyst not pre-committed to the outcome, focus groups can be a powerful data collection strategy. (In my opinion, Joshua Gamson’s book on Celebrity Culture is a particularly good example of the appropriate use of unstructured focus groups).

    Structured data collection (like surveys) have a different problem. The answers to some questions are contingent on the contextual meaning the respondent applied to them. The survey doesn’t capture those meanings so the analyst needs to infer it. These inferences can suffer from the same sorts of preferential bias that drive loaded focus group questions.

    Now, I will concede that it’s probably easier to cream focus group data. So, I’m not disagreeing that it may be easier to toss in questions designed to reinforce the preset conviction of the interviewer in focus group or standard interviewing; my point is that this is a problem of methodology rather than method…. a problem that spans the qual/quant boundary.


  7. Yes, one can see selective data construction and interpretation with every kind of methodology in social science. And yes, one can point to examples of good focus group research, focus groups can produce information of value, etc..


  8. The President of my esteemed university did number 1 in his dissertation. Well, if you can call it a literature review, and with a generous interpretation of what it means to present data. Despite the embarassment to the University, most alum and the board of trustees didn’t think it was a big deal. “It’s just the literature review”, seemed to be the consensus. Like most cheaters in the classroom, he copied and it still sucked.


  9. This is a trick question, right? Making up data is the worst thing you can do in any scientific or empirical field. For #1, you did not say whether this was plagiarism of someone else’s work or recycling one’s own work. Everybody seems to be assuming plagiarism, which is also very bad. Recycling your own work is way down on my list of sins.


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