So here’s the first blog post that is actually up and running in relation to my focus groups. I apologise for the delay and blame a toddler (adorable but time consuming), a conference paper (fascinating but again time consuming), and Game of Thrones (no explanation needed). I also offer my apologies for the fact this post is slightly out of sync – it’s a report on the third week of the group schedule yet feedback from weeks one and two will be appearing subsequently. My mother reminded me recently that I used to enjoy reading chapters out of order when I was younger and it never seemed to do me any harm.
In fact, in many ways, it is perhaps apt that this is my first post. It can serve as a reminder of the dangers of directing all our aspirations into fieldwork that so often has the potential to thwart the best-laid plans. We only had two participants in Monday’s group for various reasons. One on hand, it was a great session with some stimulating ideas and discussion floating round. On the other, my sensible sociological head tells me this is not sufficient for formal research purposes. I may need to think about putting contingency plans into place for such weeks; for instance, asking returning participants next week to complete a questionnaire on the same subject.[i] As I write this, I’m actually wondering if weekly follow-up questionnaires for all would be worthwhile. Indeed, “Mixed Methods” is now a respected research practice. Janice Radway, in her pioneering Reading the Romance (1984) conducted focus groups alongside individual interviews, questionnaires and textual analysis of romance novels themselves.[ii] As a friend of mine, who was the Queen of Qualitative Research during her academic career, always reminds me, “you can’t aim to get certain answers, but you can aim to get the information you want”. Perhaps complementary questionnaires would help me secure that information when focus groups are unpredictable.
But back to the group itself… this week we discussed the Jim Crow system and the Civil Rights Movement. If the 1950s and 60s was our context, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963) was our primary text for consideration. We read through key sections of the letter with them, wanting to hear their initial reactions before flagging specific sentences. It was worthy of note that one of the participants heard the reference to “victims of a broken promise” and immediately drew links with the character of James Allen from I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) that we studied last week. He also felt the most powerful moment in the letter was when the author referenced how “you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children”.[iii]
If King’s emotional rhetoric sparked fascination, so too did his reference to “just and unjust laws.” We asked them to consider “how does one determine if a law is just or unjust”? This sparked an ardent deliberation about the nature of a crime deserving a different law, as well as the potential to break the law should your life be in danger. I tried to draw links with the UK riots a few years ago, following which the government (making the laws) encouraged judges (doing the sentencing) to enact harsher penalties for crimes committed under the circumstances. At the time, it drew heated debates as to whether this was just / unjust because the two – politicians and judges – should arguably be kept separate. Perhaps more immediately relevant, Russ asked the group to consider the UK’s controversial IPP sentence (Indeterminate Public Protection) – see more information about it here. Though abolished in 2012, there are still over 6000 prisoners here in the UK who remain sentenced under IPP with no release date. Though the dissolution of it suggests it was deemed by many to be unjust, in their heyday the IPP
sentences garnered widespread support. While these focus groups are aimed at finding out about how ex-offenders in the UK perceive America (whether American society, the prison system, or prison culture), one way to do that is by drawing parallels with their experiences and understandings of the UK system.
As we moved into the creative writing section of today’s group, Russ had the pair writing “Acrostic poems” whereby the first letters of each line spell out a word. I have to confess I had forgotten what an “Acrostic” was (made me think all afternoon about the vast trench between academic writing and creative writing). But I am also happy to confess I was moved by two of the poems that were written today from two men who until three weeks ago had never even considered the act of creative writing. I have full permission to share them here with you, and any complements received will be communicated to their authors…
Martin is his name
And politics was his game
Running for his people
They’re praying under the steeple
Insisting on equality
Needing to rise up from poverty
Mad anger blinds your sight
Against race which is not right
Rise above and stand tall
The King did right, kept his cool
In all the time that has past
No one can say his name did not last
[i] For more information on the potential limitations of conducting focus groups (and ways to counterbalance any problems), see the useful document by Anita Gibbs at the University of Surrey, “Focus Groups,” Social Research Update, Issue 19 (Winter 1997): http://sru.soc.surrey.ac.uk/SRU19.html [Accessed 23/9/15]. Note in particular the valuable bibliography at the end for further reading.
[ii] Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy & Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984, reprinted 1991).
[iii] Martin Luther King, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 16th April 1963, transcript available online: https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html [Accessed 23/9/15].