The Birthplace of Focus Groups

Share this post:
Our always on-point and diligent policy intern Ari Wubbold shares his piece on the history of focus groups, answering the age-old question "just where the heck did focus groups come from?" We know they weren't delivered by a stork:

Ari Wubbold, September 4, 2012

Though reports vary, the prevailing story is that the first focus groups emerged during WWII for sociologists to study the impact of military propaganda films on viewers. Conducted by the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University, these groups were designed to identify the exact reason certain scenes, lines, or phrases made [the audience] think or act in a certain way. Such research was useful to the government as it helped point to messages that engendered greater support for the war effort.

Originally founded in 1937 at Princeton University as the Office of Radio Research, the institute conducted research in “decision making and social scientific methodologies.” One of its early reports - The Invasion from Mars - was a comprehensive study of the chaotic reaction to Orson Welles’ infamous reading of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. However, this focus on media research and communications would begin to evolve as several large shifts occurred within the institute.

The ORR moved from Princeton to Columbia and in 1944 changed its name to the Bureau of Applied Social Research. Also within that span, a notable addition was made to the staff: Robert K. Merton. A noted sociologist, Merton would become the first in his field to win the National Medal of Science for "founding the sociology of science and for his pioneering contributions to the study of social life, especially the self-fulfilling prophecy [a phrase he coined] and the unintended consequences of social action.” Not bad for a man who’s original career goal was to be a magician.

With the addition of Merton, the bureau began to “lay foundations for the mainstream of American sociology in the postwar era,” seemingly completing the shift from media commentary to influential social research (with the occasional market testing of laxatives to pay the bills). During the war, Merton and several colleagues developed the “focused group interview” to “elicit the responses of groups to texts, radio programs and films.” Though Merton believed that conclusions based on larger, representative samples were bound to be more accurate, he continued to stand by the value of focus groups (if conducted correctly) and would often state that he “wished he could be paid a royalty fee whenever the technique was used.”

Today focus groups are used to judge impressions of everything ranging from product advertisements to political messages to the performance of governments and businesses. DHM Research frequently employs them to gain a deeper level of understanding of how people feel about a particular issue than can be captured by an anonymous survey. Importantly, the ability to ask follow-up questions “allows for exploration of why respondents gave the answer they did.” Whether you’re testing war propaganda, surveying impressions of Oregon’s timber industry, or selling laxatives, such insights are paramount for accurately capturing public preference.