Focus Group Interviews as an Alternative to Traditional Survey Methods for Recreation Needs Assessments
Keywords:focus groups, recreation needs assessments, qualitative methods, method evaluation, park planning, public participation
AbstractRecreation needs assessments are conducted for fundamental park planning purposes. Public agencies typically choose a needs assessments method with which they are most familiar, particularly public hearings or cross-sectional, quantitative surveys. Rarely do they consider qualitative procedures, such as focus groups. However, focus group interviews, like other qualitative methods, provide a richer data set and a fuller understanding of the complexities of social reality than quantitative procedures (Gobster, 1998; Henderson, 1991).Given its potential and its unique strengths, we evaluated the effectiveness of the focus group methodology in the realm of recreation needs assessments. The Ingham County (Michigan) Parks Department recreation needs assessment (Knap & Propst, 1999) provided the data and context for the evaluation. Twenty-six focus group interviews were conducted with preexisting and constructed groups representing diverse organizations and individuals. Discussion questions were asked regarding recreation participation, reasons for visiting and not visiting system parks, and attributes needed. Using content analysis procedures and software, nine major concepts and a variety of other useful planning data emerged. A richer data set was achieved compared with a similar study using a selfadministered mail questionnaire. Channels for further community outreach were established.Following the recommendations of Henderson (1991, 1998), Yoder et al. (1995) and Babbie (1998), nine criteria were used to evaluate the effectiveness of the focus group discussions. Based on these criteria, the focus group procedure was evaluated favorably. It overcame several of the key limitations of traditional quantitative survey procedures, such as superficial coverage of complex topics, inflexibility of the instrument throughout the study, and an inability to deal with the context of social life. The focus group methodology met state requirements for grants to local units of government, was deemed relevant and useful by the parks department and was defensible in terms of social science standards. On the other hand, the procedure would be challenging for agencies to duplicate on their own with the same level of sophistication, the analysis of textual data required much time and validation, and the agency needed to be educated in how to use qualitative results.Despite these limitations, the focus group methodology was an effective stand-alone procedure for conducting recreation needs assessments and should be strongly considered by park and recreation professionals. Meaningful results may be obtained “in-house” using the method on a smaller scale. Benefits that may not be revealed by the results include the receptivity of data by agency decision-makers and staff due to their involvement in all aspects of the study and the enhancement of community relations achieved through citizen participation in the planning process.
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