Focussing in on focus groups: Effective participative tools or cheap fixes for land use policy?

Alister Scott*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Citations (Scopus)


This paper assesses the efficacy and relevance of focus groups as participative tools for land use policy and planning. The use of focus groups has mushroomed in land use research and policy in response to new governance and empowerment agendas with their emphasis on using more deliberative and participative approaches. However, their use within social science research has been controversial given perceived methodological limitations of rigour and bias. A detailed critique of three recent research projects has been undertaken to assess focus group in theory and practice; rural diversification, public perception of landscape and visitor payback. The assessment considers key questions relating to inclusion, participation, empowerment, policy impact and understanding of complex policy issues. The results show that focus groups can perform multiple roles as exploratory, explanatory, participative and deliberative tools. Nevertheless, focus groups have important limitations and methodological protocols which demand more care and attention. Crucially, they should not be used in isolation to influence policy decisions; end user pressure for quick fixes, group dynamics, issues of representativeness, together with the biases of a facilitator, can easily mask, distort or misrepresent results. It is concluded that focus groups have significant potential as qualitative tools in landscape research but that they must be used carefully and in tandem with other techniques if their true potential is to be realised.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)684-694
Number of pages11
JournalLand Use Policy
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2011
Externally publishedYes


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