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Methodological and Practical Considerations for Cross-Cultural Focus Groups on Sensitive Topics within Criminal Justice and Criminology

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Published onMar 26, 2023
Methodological and Practical Considerations for Cross-Cultural Focus Groups on Sensitive Topics within Criminal Justice and Criminology


Cross-cultural focus groups offer several advantages over other qualitative methods, particularly when the research goal is to better understand individual and collective perceptions, opinions, or conceptualizations of issues salient to marginalized groups. However, cross-cultural focus groups also pose several unique challenges despite their advantages. Therefore, more scholarly attention needs to address how to overcome these challenges. In this article, we tackle three issues related to cross-cultural focus groups: (1) defining homogenous regarding focus group formation; (2) incorporating intersectionality into cross-cultural focus groups while maintaining homogeneity in crucial aspects of participants’ identities; and (3) overcoming unexpected practical challenges that may appear when cross-cultural focus groups are conducted. In so doing, we contribute to the literature on conducting cross-cultural focus groups on sensitive criminal justice and criminology topics.

KEYWORDS: Focus Groups; Immigration; Intersectionality

A staple of qualitative research, focus groups are “a research technique that collects data through group interaction on a topic determined by the researcher” (Morgan, 1996, p. 130). Cross-cultural focus groups can be distinguished from generic focus groups regarding their target research population. In cross-cultural focus groups, the research goal is to elicit the views, experiences, or understandings of marginalized groups, such as racial or ethnic minorities (Krueger & Casey, 2015), women of color (Madriz, 2000), or linguistically diverse populations (Halcomb et al., 2007). Cross-cultural focus groups may include participants who vary across many aspects of their identity; for example, “women of color” may include women of different races, ethnicities, ages, income levels, spoken languages, parental statuses, etc. By contrast, generic focus groups entail a relatively homogenous research population, although scholars differ over how broadly or narrowly the term “homogenous” should be defined (Morgan, 1996; Greenbaum, 1998; Krueger & Casey, 2015). Indeed, one of the most significant methodological and practical challenges concerning cross-cultural focus groups is ensuring they are homogenous enough to encourage dialogue while incorporating participants’ intersectional, heterogeneous identities.

Cross-cultural focus groups offer several advantages over other qualitative methods, such as interviews or participant observation, particularly when researchers seek to understand how marginalized groups relate to and make sense of the world around them (Liamputtong, 2011; Madriz, 2000). For example, some racial or ethnic groups may constitute collectivist societies prioritizing the group’s well-being over individual needs or desires. Within this context, cross-cultural focus groups offer an environment more like how group members might organically interact with one another than alternative qualitative methods. For example, individuals in collectivist societies often have group conversations (e.g., a town meeting) and conduct daily activities in group environments (e.g., women cooking together). Consequently, focus groups are a much closer approximation of everyday life than interviews or participant observation for collectivist societies (Liamputtong, 2011). However, despite the value of cross-cultural focus groups, researchers face several methodological challenges concerning their implementation. Insufficient scholarly attention addresses these challenges, much less how researchers might attempt to mitigate or overcome them.

This article draws from our experience conducting cross-cultural focus groups with first- and second-generation Latino1 individuals living in a diverse South Florida community with a large indigenous Guatemalan-Maya population. Despite shared ties to Latin America, focus group participants differed in nationality, gender, age, birthplace, primary language, and English proficiency. These focus groups were part of a pilot study focused on sensitive issues at the intersections of criminal justice, criminology, and immigration, including participants’ perceptions of local police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as participants’ understandings of immigration infractions and other behavior defined as “law-breaking,” such as driving without a license or working without authorization (Lowrey-Kinberg et al., 2020). In the present article, however, we focus on a separate issue: methodological and practical considerations that we confronted in carrying out cross-cultural focus groups on sensitive topics within criminal justice and criminology.

We have three primary goals in this article. First, we address the unclear operationalization of terms such as “homogenous” or “heterogenous” concerning focus group formation. Second, we discuss the challenge of incorporating the concept of “intersectionality” into focus groups while maintaining homogeneity in critical aspects of focus group participants’ identities. Third, to guide future researchers, we discuss unanticipated cultural and practical challenges we faced in our cross-cultural focus groups and how we overcame them. Finally, we discuss the theoretical implications of this article for researchers who conduct cross-cultural focus groups, particularly regarding matters of crime and justice.

Overview of Focus Groups


Focus groups have only existed for a century. Before the late-1930s, most social scientists relied on interviews to collect qualitative data (Luker, 2008). Over time, researchers grew concerned that (1) interviewees’ answers were partially predicated on trying to “please” the interviewer, and (2) conversations were constricted by questionnaires, many of which used closed-ended questions that inhibited interviewees from sharing information outside of the researchers’ preconceived answer options. In response, social scientists adopted “nondirective interviewing techniques” that gave interviewees more agency in answering questions (Krueger & Casey, 2015).

While this strategy mitigated some of the challenges of interviews, researchers nonetheless concluded that some types of research were more suited to interviews. In contrast, other types of research demanded a different approach (Krueger & Casey, 2015). Enter the focus group (originally called a “focus interview”): a qualitative method that allowed group conversations to unfold organically under the guidance of a moderator, who could adroitly introduce new lines of questioning without overly impeding the natural flow of conversation (Merton, Fiske, and Kendall, 1956). Surprisingly, few social scientists used focus group methodology, instead preferring to adopt novel quantitative approaches. This “preoccupation with quantitative procedures” may be due to “a societal tendency to believe in numbers… [such as] experimental designs, control groups, and randomization (Krueger & Casey, 2015). At this particular point in history, some social scientists cast aspersions on the ability of qualitative methods to effectively and truthfully address research questions instead of relying on the supposed neutrality of numbers.

While academia may have initially scorned focus groups, businesses saw their promise as an efficient and effective way to assess product appeal. By the 1950s, market researchers routinely used focus groups to test products on prospective customers and receive feedback. Social scientists briefly revived focus groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s before relegating them to the back burner (Luker, 2008). It was not until the 1980s that social scientists revisited focus groups to address the limitations of interviews and data collection that either did not exist in a quantitative form or were not easily quantifiable (Krueger & Casey, 2015). The re-emergence of focus groups is also attributed to two pollsters, Stan Greenberg, and Frank Lunz, who argued that focus groups should be used to understand public opinion better. At the time, polling was akin to “survey research,” which “presumed that the categories of thought [that] people brought to public opinion polls were stable and clear-cut” (Luker, 2008, p. 181). Frank Lunz, in particular, noted discrepancies in how people responded to polls on abortion; he attributed these discrepancies to the lack of measurement reliability across polling instruments. Currently, focus groups are used in various academic disciplines and the private sector (Luker, 2008).

Today, scholars continue learning from, adapting, and refining focus group practices to fit specific academic disciplines and research goals. Thus, while focus groups initially faced a “popularity crisis” in their earliest inception, they are now accepted as an established method in academic fields that span the health and social sciences. In particular, focus groups are often adopted when collectivist societies and/or marginalized groups are the target research population (Liamputtong, 2011). While such focus groups are often “cross-cultural focus groups,” in our reading of the extant literature, we noticed that many scholars do not incorporate explicit discussions of the methodological and practical implications of conducting cross-cultural focus groups concerning both group composition and researcher-participant dynamics.2 Indeed, insufficient attention has been given to this topic (Liamputtong, 2011). We hope this article will revive scholarly discussion on this method within our academic discipline: criminal justice and criminology.


Focus groups should typically have five to eight people, although groups can be slightly smaller (e.g., four people) or slightly larger (ten people); some researchers even advocate for groups to be as large as 12 people (Vaughn et al.,1996; Krueger & Casey, 2015). The primary consideration is to ensure that the group is large enough to encourage conversation but not so large as to make participants feel shy or uncomfortable about speaking (Luker, 2008).

Following the same logic, focus groups should be sufficiently homogenous to facilitate dialogue while maintaining some heterogeneity to enable differing opinions or views (Morgan, 1997; Acocella, 2012). For example, imagine a focus group of White men aged 30 to 40 who all sell encyclopedias door-to-door but in different neighborhoods in the same city; in this hypothetical research scenario (which, admittedly, is not contemporary), the researcher might focus on how the men arrived at their profession, how their selling strategies differed or were the same, and how they envisioned their future careers.

The focus group instrument should be organized so that open-ended questions follow a logical, purposeful sequence allowing the moderator to move from general lines of inquiry to more specific topics of interest. The number of focus groups that a researcher conducts for a given topic of interest is also important: in general, three to six focus groups are needed to sufficiently address the goal of the research inquiry (Morgan, 1996; Guest et al., 2016).


Focus groups offer several advantages over interviews, participant observation, and other modes of qualitative inquiry. For example, focus groups enable researchers to scrutinize how conversations occur in a group setting, with particular attention given to how focus group dynamics unfold throughout the conversation (e.g., whether focus group participants agree or disagree with one another, how focus group participants respond to each other’s stories, anecdotes, or experiences, and the rationales that focus group participants provide for their viewpoints). These group dynamics are not manifested in interviews or participant observation since the former involves a one-on-one conversation between a subject and researcher, and the latter typically requires a researcher to observe natural phenomena with minimal interference, thereby precluding the researcher from actively questioning research participants (Krueger & Casey, 2015).


Of course, all data collection and analysis methods have tradeoffs, and focus groups are no different. Researchers must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of focus groups against the goals of the research inquiry, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of other “traditional” qualitative methods (e.g., ethnography), quantitative methods (e.g., regressions), or mixed methods approaches. Ultimately, the research question should dictate the methods used to collect and analyze data.

Focus groups include several practical challenges. For example, focus groups are time-consuming to organize and carry out. Finding an appropriate meeting place and time can be challenging, let alone gaining access to a particular research population (Breen, 2006). Suppose one focus group participant is more vocal than others. In that case, this may result in other participants feeling pressure to agree with the vocal participant (Breen, 2006), or they may feel silenced by the vocal participant (Smithson, 2000). Likewise, the focus group moderator can influence group dynamics due to their identity (e.g., a female moderator in a focus group that consists entirely of male participants or a White moderator in a focus group that consists entirely of African American participants) or due to their (in)ability to manage the flow of conversation (Morgan, 1996). Unfavorable group dynamics can also occur in other ways; for example, if the research goal is to gain insight into a particular workplace environment, then this goal can only be met if participants are comfortable sharing their views in front of each other, which may not always be the case (Liamputtong, 2011). Sampling can also be complex; there is always the risk that the people who participate in a focus group are different from those who choose not to participate, resulting in a biased sample (Breen, 2006). Finally, as with many other types of qualitative methods (e.g., interviews, participant observation), researchers must navigate questions of “insider” versus “outsider” status when organizing focus groups (Liamputtong, 2011).

While all focus groups can fall prey to the challenges mentioned above, cross-cultural focus groups present additional practical challenges, such as (but not limited to) whether the research team speaks the same language as the focus group participants (Liamputtong, 2011). A recent systemic analysis of several linguistic studies found that the type of language spoken in a focus group is related to how a discussion is carried out; for example, speakers of some languages are more willing to interrupt one another or engage in periods of silence than speakers of other languages (Sha et al., 2020). Beyond understanding how a spoken language affects a particular focus group’s communication style, researchers must also be aware of cultural norms, such as age dynamics (e.g., if younger participants will show deference to older participants) or other hierarchical norms (Liamputtong, 2011).3

Beyond practical challenges, conceptual challenges may also present themselves in carrying out focus groups, particularly cross-cultural focus groups. The biggest conceptual challenge that we encountered in our focus groups was ensuring that they were sufficiently homogenous (an essential requirement of focus group methodology) while maintaining sufficient heterogeneity for the intersectional identities of our focus group participants. In the three sections that follow, we discuss the following: (1) our target research population; (2) the purpose of homogeneity in focus groups; and (3) the integration of intersectionality into focus group research. In so doing, we contend that additional scholarly dialogue is needed around insufficiently conceptualized terms, such as “homogeneity,” and that the purpose of heterogeneity should be tied to intersectionality and other theoretical concerns.

Focus Groups with Guatemala Maya

Our Focus Groups

In March 2018, we conducted three focus groups in a diverse South Florida community with the support of a local community organization. We had 22 Latino participants across the three groups: 16 Guatemalan-Maya, three Mexican, one Honduran, and two Puerto Ricans, one who disclosed that she was born in Puerto Rico, and the other who stated that she was born in Florida. In addition to their differing nationalities, the 22 participants varied in gender (17 female and five male participants), age (ranging from 18 to approximately 50), birthplace, primary language, and degree of English proficiency.

The focus groups were part of a pilot study that focused on issues such as participants’ perceptions of local police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as participants’ understandings of behavior defined as “law-breaking” by U.S. law, such as driving without a license or working without authorization (Lowrey-Kinberg et al., 2020). We were particularly interested in the local Guatemalan-Maya population, which included individuals who spoke Spanish and/or indigenous languages such as Mam and Kanjobal. We surmised that police outreach initiatives, such as “charlas” – a term used to describe informal talks between the police and community members, typically in Spanish – might not be accessible to the local Guatemalan-Maya population, depending on their proficiency in Spanish or English. Because of this, we theorized that the local Guatemalan-Maya population might have unique perceptions of legal authorities, such as the police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as unique understandings of unlawful behavior, compared to other Latino and immigrant groups residing in the United States.

A local community organization supported our research by helping us recruit focus group participants, providing a physical space for the focus groups, and securing an on-site space for childcare. We spoke Spanish but recognized that some Guatemalan-Maya community members had limited proficiency in Spanish. Consequently, we asked the local community organization to recommend Mam and Kanjobal interpreters.4 Finally, the director of the community organization gave us advice about cultural dynamics that could influence how the local Guatemalan-Maya population communicated with each other within the focus groups.

Notably, although the local community organization that we partnered with primarily served Guatemalan-Maya immigrants, its services also reached other groups of Latinos. In this diverse South Florida community, community members often worked together, sent their children to school together, and even worshipped together. Limiting our focus groups to only Guatemalan-Maya immigrants would not have been an authentic representation of how the local Latino population made sense of police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or law-breaking behavior because this population did not exist in a bubble; instead, this group coexisted alongside other first- and second-generation Latinos. Thus, via our partnership with the community center, we were able to reach a wide swath of community members.

Literature on Focus Groups with Guatemalan-Maya

This section provides a brief background on the Guatemalan-Maya and highlights some extant literature on focus groups among this population. It is important to note that much of this literature is from the healthcare field. Thus, the social sciences can benefit by drawing on other disciplines that rely on cross-cultural focus groups.

Descendants of the ancient Maya civilization, today’s Mayan people live primarily in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, and Belize (Minority Rights Group International, 2018). Since the Guatemalan civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans of Mayan descent have immigrated to the United States (Turner, 2021). Significantly, this group's distinct indigenous cultural heritage differentiates them from other Latino populations (Hiller et al., 2009). In addition to separate religious and cultural traditions, the Mayan people have historically faced significant strife, including decades of civil war and genocide. This has left a lasting legacy, manifesting in economic instability and mental health challenges among today’s Mayan population (Lee, 2016; Hiller et al., 2009). Further, many Maya speak indigenous dialects rather than Spanish, and many do not consider themselves to belong to the broader Latino cultural group (Hiller et al., 2009). They may “experience prejudice and discrimination from other Latinos, which could alienate Guatemalans from protective Latino networks because of their indigeneity” (Jacquez et al., 2016, p. 1770).

Previous research on this population has often used cross-cultural focus groups to understand a range of topics in healthcare (Carter, 2002; Chary et al., 2013; Cooper & Yarbrough, 2010; Davis et al., 2014; Jacquez et al., 2016; Long et al., 2012; Rhodes et al., 2014; Schooley et al., 2009; Ward et al., 1992), including mental health (Caxaj et al., 2014; Lee, 2016). Focus groups allow participants to share their experiences in a group setting, which is likely more comfortable for those from indigenous, collectivist cultures than one-on-one interviews (Lee, 2016). For example, in research with Guatemalan-Maya participants, Lee (2016) explains that Guatemalan Mayans are more comfortable sharing personal information in group discussions than in one-on-one interviews.5 Opting to use cross-cultural focus groups in her research on women’s health, Lee (2016) found that the expected focus group dynamic did not hold in her groups. Instead of group conversations, her groups morphed to resemble group interviews, with a question-answer structure directed by the moderator.

Still, cross-cultural focus groups present unique challenges, as discussed earlier in this article. Beyond the potential language barriers, researchers are part of a subculture that can cause barriers between them and participants (Cooper & Yarbrough, 2010). Thus, researchers suggest that “The sociocultural context of the study should influence each step, from the development of the discussion guide to data collection and analysis” (Cooper & Yarbrough, 2010, p. 646). Nevertheless, beyond this general advice, only a handful of discussions or strategies for addressing cross-cultural focus groups are present in the literature. One important consideration when conducting cross-cultural focus groups is ensuring that researchers recruit participants who are representative of their communities, as those who volunteer may feel that they have more “‘acceptable’ stories to tell” (Carter, 2002, p. 265), thereby limiting the range of views present in focus group discussions. Although this may be a factor regardless of the study population, it takes on added importance in the context of immigrant and indigenous communities who may feel additional stigma when participating in research on personal topics.

Building upon these observations from prior research, we delineate additional considerations and strategies that future researchers might consider when conducting cross-cultural focus groups on sensitive topics within criminal justice and criminology. Finally, we aim to move the discussion forward by providing both conceptual guidance and concrete advice for researchers, beginning with discussing how researchers think about homogeneity.

Goal 1: Defining Homogeneity

While scholars agree that homogeneity should be a key consideration when configuring focus groups, they vary in how they define homogeneity. For example, in their textbook on focus group research, Krueger and Casey (2015) maintain that “homogeneity can be broadly or narrowly defined” (p. 7) and provide as an example a hypothetical focus group that consists of adults who live in a community, but who differ in terms of their age, gender, profession, and hobbies. In this case, such a broad definition is appropriate because the researchers aim to investigate why adults do or do not participate in a community education program. Another textbook offers a narrow definition of homogeneity. It asserts that a cardinal rule of focus group formation is broken if participants are not sufficiently homogenous, such as if people of different genders are in the same group or if there is more than a 15-year age gap between participants (Greenbaum, 1998, p. 2). To make things even more confusing, the same textbook that used a broad definition of homogeneity includes a chapter specifically on cross-cultural focus groups in which it cautions against race or ethnicity as the primary characteristic on which homogeneity is based since doing so may cause researchers to ignore other salient characteristics, such as age or gender (Krueger & Casey, 2015).

A “middle ground” is offered by David L. Morgan (1996, p. 143), who notes that “segmentation” can be used to make focus groups as homogenous as possible but for specific characteristics, such as gender, and then to conduct multiple focus groups for each segmentation characteristic. For example, “there may be several groups of women, several rural groups, and several groups of older participants, but only one group of older, rural women” (Morgan, 1996, p. 144).6 A segmentation strategy may suit specific populations and research topics. For example, Ward et al. (1992) studied family planning among indigenous Maya-Quiche and chose to segment their groups by sex and age group. This enabled participants to discuss this potentially sensitive topic within groups that most closely shared their experiences and allowed researchers to compare how attitudes might shift over time.

Importantly, segmentation does not mean that researchers create focus groups that consist of individuals who are likely to hold similar views; to the contrary, “the goal is only homogeneity in the background or personal characteristics, not in attitudes or opinions” (Peek & Fothergill, 2009, p. 39). Likewise, researchers who adopt a segmentation strategy are not privileging specific identity characteristics over others concerning focus group formation; instead, they are purposefully adopting a scaffolded approach such that specific attributes, such as gender, are given attention before adding in other traits, such as age (Morgan, 1996). In this manner, a segmentation strategy facilitates focus group homogeneity while incorporating the heterogenous aspects of participants’ identities.

Researchers should also consider when there are more promising approaches than strict homogeneity. Sometimes, intentionally integrating distinct groups may result in a more comfortable environment for the population in question. For example, Schooley et al. (2009) explored women’s healthcare choices in Guatemala. In composing their focus groups, they separated men from women but invited traditional birth assistants to join mothers as they discussed sensitive topics. These women were midwives who worked for the healthcare facility that was at the center of the study. While the authors recognize the possibility of bias, they assert, "The intention was to help participants feel more comfortable, and for the most part, this was achieved. For example, some women held the hands of their TBAs [traditional birthing assistants] while relating experiences from their past that were difficult for them to discuss, indicating that the relationship was not one of constraint, but rather of support” (Schooley et al., 2009, p. 416)

As illustrated by the above examples, there is no “one right way” to implement a segmentation strategy; while researchers who are interested in vulnerable populations, marginalized groups, or sensitive topics may segment their focus groups in less standardized ways than researchers who study individuals in less precarious situations, the central premise behind segmentation remains the same: “controlling the group composition to match carefully chosen categories of participants” (Peek & Fothergill, 2009, p. 39). For example, Peek and Fothergill (2009) used segmentation differently for three research projects: one comparing two urban daycare centers, one analyzing second-generation Muslim Americans’ responses to September 11, and one focusing on children’s experiences after Hurricane Katrina. The one thing all three segmentation strategies had in common was that they were based on Peek and Fothergill’s (2009) understanding of participants’ needs and identity characteristics.

The above examples illustrate the definitional dilemma confronting the term “homogeneity,” with scholars offering varying – and, at times, conflicting – explanations of what constitutes a homogenous focus group. There seems to be a consensus in the literature that the ideal focus group is as homogenous as possible. However, researchers differ in how they achieve this, with some adopting strict approaches to homogeneity and others using a segmentation approach.

Scholars less familiar with focus group methodology may be confused about the range of approaches and definitions attached to “homogeneity.” We hope this article inspires additional scholarly attention on defining seemingly objective terms, such as homogenous, particularly as they pertain to cross-cultural focus groups. Although we suspect that there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” answer, we wish that more sources – specifically textbooks – discussed the range of focus group approaches (e.g., broad, narrow, in-between) and strategies (e.g., segmentation) used by researchers. Instead, most literature on this topic seems to take a stance one way or the other. Morgan’s (1996) textbook, which describes different approaches across disciplines, and Peek and Fothergill’s (2009) article, which discusses focus group research with vulnerable populations, are welcome exceptions. Still, both publications are relatively dated, and more contemporary scholarship is needed.

Goal 2: Incorporating Intersectionality

Researchers must navigate competing interests of homogeneity and heterogeneity when forming focus groups. Focus groups must be homogenous enough that participants feel comfortable speaking with one another but sufficiently heterogenous to encourage different viewpoints (Acocella, 2012; Morgan, 1997). The challenge confronting researchers is delineating the boundaries between too homogeneous, not homogenous enough, and just right. Researchers may feel they are playing a “methods version” of the proverbial story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” particularly when the extant literature glibly suggests that “the most suitable option is to reach a balance between homogeneity and heterogeneity… according to the research topic” (Acocella, 2012, p. 1127).

We are not the first researchers to feel frustrated by the lack of guidance on this topic. Indeed, as Greenwood et al. (2014, p. 2) note: “evidence to support the claims for the impact of participant demographic homogeneity on focus group data or guidance on how to operationalize concepts such as being more comfortable in a focus group setting is sparse.” To address this methodological quandary, Greenwood et al. (2014) conducted seven focus groups with family caregivers of stroke survivors; some of the groups were more homogenous (e.g., comprised of only White British or Asian Indian participants), whereas other groups were more heterogenous (e.g., comprised of Asian, White British, and Black Caribbean participants). They determined that data from more homogenous groups complemented data from more heterogenous groups and that some characteristics, such as being a caregiver, created enough commonality to facilitate discussions, even if there were differences in other characteristics, such as race or ethnicity. Greenwood et al. (2014, p. 12) concluded, "The multi-faceted nature of identity makes decisions about focus group participant selection extremely complex.” Thus, even when researchers try their best to define homogeneous or heterogenous or to “test” the application of these terms in focus groups, precise approaches to focus group formation remains elusive.

As a result, one of our main goals in this article is to reassure scholars that this task is difficult for even the most thoughtful researchers; none of us possess crystal balls to predetermine the “correct” amounts of focus group homogeneity and heterogeneity. Indeed, in conducting our focus groups with Latino participants, we initially adopted a broad definition of the term “homogenous,” prioritizing shared ethnicity and culture over other identity characteristics, such as age or gender. We were confident in this approach because it drew upon existing focus group literature that adopted a segmentation approach. For example, Roche et al. (2020) conducted focus groups with Latino/a immigrant parents and only segmented the focus groups by immigration status (e.g., undocumented, permanent resident, U.S. citizen, or Temporary Protected Status), not by other characteristics. We quickly realized, however, that male participants dominated the discussion in our cross-cultural focus groups, and women were unlikely to challenge their perspectives. Consequently, we adopted a segmentation approach for our two subsequent focus groups. As described in Section VI, we would have benefitted from a more robust discussion of “homogeneity” in scholarly literature. Part of the impetus for writing this article comes from our desire to share what we have learned with the academic community.

Our second goal in this article is to explicitly incorporate the theoretical framework of intersectionality into discussions on focus group methodology. The extant literature subsumes the principles of heterogeneity and homogeneity into the goal of focus groups: encouraging dialogue around a topic of interest. However, we argue that scholars can take things further by articulating a theoretical rationale for this goal: avoiding essentialism, or the view that identities can be boiled down into a single characteristic, such as race (Delgado & Stefancic, 2012). Intersectionality poses a helpful critique of essentialist understandings of identity, and we devote the remainder of this section to discussing this concept.

Intersectionality is “the critical insight that race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but as reciprocally constructing phenomena that in turn shape complex social inequalities” (Collins, 2015, p. 2). Although intersectionality originates in Black feminist theory (Crenshaw 1989, 1991) and critical race theory (Delgado & Stefancic, 2012), scholars from other academic disciplines have increasingly applied the concept to their fields of inquiry. Indeed, Hancock (2007, p. 249) argues that “intersectionality is a normative and empirical research paradigm… rather than a content specialization.”

Building on Hancock (2007), we argue that researchers should more explicitly incorporate intersectionality into their research goals. The world is complex, and while it intuitively makes sense that focus groups participants would be more comfortable speaking to one another in an environment where they are “similar enough,” researchers should not ignore important differences that may contribute to variations in how participants make sense of the world or experience particular events (e.g., diagnosis of an illness, loss of employment, or a traffic stop). Moreover, incorporating intersectionality into focus groups goes beyond balancing homogeneity with heterogeneity; instead, an intersectional lens must be infused into planning, executing, and analyzing focus groups (Zhang et al., 2021). While our goal in this article is to discuss intersectionality in relation to heterogeneity, we nonetheless recognize and applaud the efforts to adopt intersectional approaches in qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis.

Regarding focus group formation, intersectionality may mean that researchers start (as we did) by broadly defining homogeneity to capture a diversity of intersectional identities, only to adopt a thoughtful segmentation approach later. Whether implemented at the outset of a project or in a scaffolded fashion, an intersectional approach to focus group segmentation should recognize and adapt to the multifaceted nature of identity within the specific contexts of the research question(s) and population(s) of interest. This will inevitably require a significant investment of time and resources as segmentation multiplies the number of focus groups researchers conduct. Indeed, this approach could quickly become unwieldy or even resource-prohibitive.

For example, imagine a hypothetical study in which researchers want to explore questions about dating, sex, and sexual assault among college students using focus groups. A traditional segmentation approach by the gender binary might result in a doubling of focus groups (e.g., female-identified participants and male-identified participants). An intersectional approach to segmentation, on the other hand, could easily result in a tripling or quadrupling of focus groups (e.g., female-identified bisexual participants, male-identified bisexual participants, female-identified homosexual participants, male-identified homosexual participants, female-identified heterosexual participants, male-identified heterosexual participants, female-identified pansexual participants, male-identified pansexual participants, etc.). In such cases, researchers may be required to narrow the scope of their investigation, ultimately prioritizing specificity over broad generalization.

In the end, adopting an intersectional approach to cross-sectional focus groups requires researchers to approach their work critically, forcing them to challenge their assumptions about methods, identity, and knowledge production directly and intentionally. As such, we advocate for researchers to do their best to remain flexible and open to what they discover in the field. This can be accomplished by building in additional time at research sites and collaborating with crucial community gatekeepers, informants, and community organizations in advance of and during data collection. Nevertheless, the world is imperfect, and researchers cannot plan for every contingency, nor can they spend indefinite time at research sites. As such, researchers should share their findings' limitations and their approach's methodological trade-offs with the scholarly community, as we are doing in this article.

Goal 3: Cultural and Practical Considerations

Despite being well-informed concerning the literature on focus groups, we learned “on the ground” when conducting our cross-cultural focus groups in March 2018. Below we describe cultural and practical considerations that researchers should consider before conducting cross-cultural focus groups, especially in the context of sensitive research within criminal justice and criminology. In doing so, we hope to provide future researchers with a framework for designing their focus group environments to be conducive to addressing the research goals while also being culturally informed.

Cultural Considerations

Gender Dynamics

We found that men dominated the conversation when placed within the same focus group. When this occurred, women in the group usually nodded in agreement or remained silent. Male dominance in Guatemalan-Maya culture is well-documented (Carter, 2002; Lee, 2016; Crosby & Lykes, 2011; Schooley et al., 2009). Other scholars conducting focus groups with Guatemalan-Maya participants have also noted the importance of creating separate focus groups for men and women (Davis et al., 2014; Schooley et al., 2009; Ward et al., 1992). Generally, however, these focus groups have centered on sensitive personal topics, such as healthcare decisions.

Our experience confirms that even when addressing more general impressions and perspectives, such as participants’ perceptions of police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and behavior defined as “law-breaking” by U.S. law (e.g., driving without a license), holding separate focus groups for men and women is more likely to yield varied perspectives. We created space for female participants to share perspectives during this first mixed-gender focus group. We did this by allowing natural pauses in the conversation; these brief periods of silence prompted some of the more reticent participants, many of whom were female, to share their views. After discussing this experience as a research team, we adopted a segmentation strategy for our remaining focus groups. What we learned from this experience is that what constitutes “homogeneity” may vary depending on the goal of the focus group; for some research aims, organizing focus groups around a shared Latino ethnicity may be sufficient. However, in our focus groups, homogeneity in both ethnicity and gender was crucial to ensure that participants felt comfortable sharing their views.

Differences in U.S. Citizenship

We also found citizenship status to influence focus group dynamics, which is aligned with the segmentation strategy adopted by Roche et al. (2020). In one focus group, three talkative latecomers, all women, dominated the flow of conversation. The women identified themselves as Guatemalan-Maya, Puerto Rican (born in Puerto Rico), and Florida-born Puerto Rican, respectively. Given their places of birth, the latter two participants were U.S. citizens. These two participants were more vocal than the other non-U.S. citizen Latino participants; for example, the two U.S. citizens jumped at the opportunity to answer a question, setting the tone for future discussion. Whereas the original four focus group participants had initially engaged in a lively conversation with one another, the group dynamic changed when the two U.S. citizens started sharing their views. In particular, the two U.S. citizens were more critical of the U.S. police than the other participants, whose national origin was outside the U.S.; this finding also comports with existing academic literature (see, e.g., Menjívar and Bejarano, 2004). To include non-U.S. citizens in the discussion, we actively invited them to share their thoughts, reassuring them that they did not have to contribute to the conversation. These direct invitations sometimes resulted in additional dialogue from non-U.S. citizens; at other times, non-U.S. citizen participants declined to say more about a specific topic.

Thus, whether or not a participant self-identified as a U.S. citizen seemed to add a hierarchical element to our focus group that otherwise shared a common characteristic of being Latino. This is not surprising, given that hierarchy’s influence on speaking norms in particular cultures is well-documented (e.g., Liamputtong, 2011). This observation also intersects with a practical challenge: addressing late arrivals to focus groups, which we discuss later in this article. For now, our goal is to emphasize that segmenting focus group participants according to citizenship status may be necessary for specific research goals; for an example of when this was necessary, please refer to Roche et al. (2020).

Conflict Avoidance

Even within the most homogenous group of Guatemalan-Maya women, we noted a tendency toward conflict avoidance. In this group, one particularly talkative woman voiced her opinion that stealing was acceptable under certain circumstances. No other participants commented on this until she left the focus group before its conclusion due to another commitment. Then, another participant shared: “…that lady said that it’s ok to steal. Under no circumstances is it alright to steal. It’s better to borrow or ask for help or look for organizations that can help you. Anything but steal.” Once she said this, several other women in the group agreed and commented on how much help is available from community organizations. Thus, while significant differences in opinion existed between participants of the focus group, several were sensitive to avoiding public confrontation. This has elsewhere been termed a “courtesy bias” (Yelland & Gifford, 1995, p. 260). Researchers should be aware of how strong a cultural preference toward avoiding conflict may be, as it played out even within our most homogenous focus group.

Group Interactions

Finally, we found that group conversations rarely emerged organically within focus groups despite, as previously discussed, what much existing literature may claim. Rather than engaging with each other, participants primarily directed their responses to the moderators and usually did not build upon each other’s reactions. As a result, we found ourselves directing the conversation to a greater extent than expected. Rather than implement a strategy to alter the tone of the interaction, we elected to respect this tendency as it appeared to be the dynamic in which the participants were most comfortable. Our experience closely echoes Lee’s (2016) observations among Guatemalan-Maya focus group participants. She explains, “although group discussions did emerge, they were largely encouraged by the moderator, and group dynamics followed more of a question-answer format” (Lee, 2016, p. 55). Again, this most likely results from a cultural tendency to defer to authority and avoid interpersonal conflict. Researchers should consider this when conducting focus groups in these and similar cultures.

Practical Considerations

In addition to the cultural factors described above, we noted several practical considerations that researchers should consider before conducting cross-cultural focus groups, particularly in the context of sensitive research within criminal justice and criminology.

Sensitivity and Fostering Rapport

Given the sensitive nature of the topics under study—namely, crime, law, and law enforcement—fostering rapport with study participants was paramount. If participants did not feel at ease, they would likely be reluctant to engage in focus group discussions openly and honestly. Regardless of a specific methodology, researcher positionality inevitably impacts researcher-participant dynamics (e.g., Merriam et al., 2001; Berger, 2015). Recognizing our positionality as researchers and individuals was essential to project design and implementation.

One study team member was raised in the county where we conducted our focus groups; she is also a native Spanish speaker and identifies as Hispanic. The other two researchers involved in the study are fluent in Spanish. They have spent ample time conducting research, working in nonprofits, and engaging in community organizing and activism within Latin American immigrant communities in various parts of the United States. Still, we viewed ourselves as “outsiders” to the community under study, albeit informed outsiders, and approached the question of rapport from this standpoint (e.g., Gundur, 2022).

Due to the nature of our pilot study and our status as outsiders, we knew that gaining access to and building trust with participants would be nearly impossible—or, at least, infeasible given the financial and time constraints of the project—without the support of crucial community insiders. Community-assisted recruitment strategies are standard practice among researchers working with immigrant communities, which are often hesitant to discuss immigration and the law and are challenging to access (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001; Small, 2009). We were fortunate to work with a prominent and well-respected organization with a longstanding history in the community under study. Partnering with this organization not only gave us crucial insight into community dynamics but lent us credibility. Indeed, fostering rapport with study participants began before data collection when the community organization vouched for us and our project during recruitment. Similarly, we benefited from holding focus groups onsite in the community organization’s building as it implicitly transferred community trust in the organization to us and our project.

Before conducting our focus groups, the director of the community organization shared the organization’s approach to working with the population of interest, advising us to arrive early to set out food and drinks and to gain trust through polite conversation before the sessions started. In particular, he suggested offering pastries from a local bakery selling traditional Guatemalan foods during our morning focus groups. We chatted with participants while they enjoyed breakfast and their children played. Offering refreshments before and during focus groups has been used in other research on Latino populations (Deeb-Sossa et al., 2004; Schooley et al., 2009). We believe offering food from participants’ cultures fostered a friendly and inviting tone for the following focus groups.

Language and Communication

Again, all three researchers were fluent in Spanish: one is a native Spanish speaker, all three have previous experience conducting social science research with Spanish-speaking populations in the United States, and two have experience conducting Spanish-language interpretation in immigration legal settings. However, based on conversations with the local community organization, we knew that while some Guatemalan-Maya community members would be fluent in English, Spanish, or both, others might need more proficiency in Spanish and English or prefer to speak in Mam or Kanjobal. Since ensuring fluid conversation and clear communication is crucial to building rapport, running effective focus groups, and collecting meaningful data, we knew that we needed to have Guatemalan-Maya interpreters available should they be needed. Working with the local community organization that supported the project, we hired several interpreters with experience working in this community. As it turned out, only two participants spoke exclusively Kanjobal, and only in our first focus group; in our subsequent two focus groups, all participants spoke Spanish. Therefore, Kanjobal interpretation was used in just one of the three focus groups and for these two participants only.

Ultimately, while there is no way to predict what one’s language needs might be when carrying out multilingual/cross-cultural focus groups with a research population such as ours, we have three pieces of advice. First, we encourage researchers to be prepared for as many interpreters as needed, within reason. Second, we suggest that researchers adopt a segmentation strategy when needed (e.g., had multiple Kanjobal speakers been present, we might have divided participants into two smaller groups based on language; we could have done this on the spot since our research team was large enough for us to have two moderators at the ready if needed). Third, we recommend that researchers, particularly those who do not speak the language(s) of the communities they are studying, be aware of how “language dynamics” (also referred to as “communication styles”) may influence focus groups (see, e.g., Sha et al., 2020). For example, Spanish speakers are more likely to fill conversational pauses than English speakers; they are also more likely to interrupt one another or have overlapping conversations than English speakers (Ardila, 2004). Our focus groups benefitted from our familiarity with Spanish speakers’ communication styles, as well as our efforts to learn about language dynamics that might be specific to the local Guatemalan-Maya population; we were able to intentionally use pauses to create spaces where female participants and non-U.S. citizen participants could add to the conversation. Finally, we recommend that researchers conduct pilot studies when possible. Our pilot study informed us how future focus groups could be better segmented and organized regarding our target research population.


Although rarely discussed in focus group studies, hosting childcare onsite but away from earshot of the participants is key to including parents of young children in the discussion and ensuring a range of views are represented (Côté-Arsenault & Morrison-Beedy, 1999, 2005; Deeb-Sossa et al., 2004). Upon the recommendation of the director of the community organization, we arranged for two childcare workers to host activities for children during the focus groups. This childcare was provided for free and on-site at the community center. We wanted to ensure that we gained the perspectives of as many community members as possible, including those with caregiving responsibilities, and did not want childcare responsibilities to inhibit participation (Côté-Arsenault & Morrison-Beedy, 1999). Several participants brought their children during our evening focus group; during our weekend morning focus groups, at least ten children were present. Depending on the population in question, researchers should consider the best way to provide those with caregiving responsibilities the opportunity to become participants.

Unexpected Participants

As previously mentioned, two U.S. citizen Latinas unexpectedly joined one of our focus groups after it was about halfway completed. We were surprised by their desire to join a focus group since our prior conversations with the local community center focused on us better understanding the local Guatemalan-Maya population. However, we understood that the community center’s services reached other groups of Latinos beyond the local Guatemalan-Maya population, so we surmised that a wide range of community members could be interested in our study. We did not envision that our study would also capture the attention of Latinos who held U.S. citizenship at birth. Consequently, when these two U.S. citizen Latina women sought to join a focus group, we had to quickly decide: do we remove them from the focus group and risk offending them, the center, or other participants? Or should we adapt to the demographics of the center and the surrounding community with a welcoming and inclusive approach, regardless of their citizenship status?

As our ethics protocols did not preclude these individuals from participating in the study, we adopted a welcoming and inclusive approach to address this unanticipated event while remaining aware of variations in national identity among focus group participants for subsequent analysis. We did consider a third option—to include these participants in the focus groups but exclude them from data analysis—but realized this would have been difficult given that focus group conversations are a product of participants’ interactions with one another, thereby making it virtually impossible to identify how the two U.S. citizen participants might have influenced the comments made by the non-U.S. citizen participants. Indeed, as Smithson (2000) notes, “the focus group method is… a social event that includes performances by all concerned” (pg. 105). As such, researchers should focus “on the discourses which are constructed within this group context” (pg. 110). We also recognized that excluding the two U.S. citizen participants from our data analysis would have required a form of participant deception in which we did not want to engage. Ultimately, our approach afforded some rich insights into shared Latino experiences that span national and ethnic origin and some significant differences, which are ripe for future study.


As compensation for participating in the focus groups, we offered participants $10 gift cards to a large chain retailer, a standard form of compensating participants in focus groups (e.g., Collins et al., 2017; Madriz, 1998). While some participants accepted the gift cards without comment, several others seemed unfamiliar with what a gift card was and asked us how to use it. Although gift cards are a generally accepted method of compensating research participants, in this particular cultural setting offering cash as an option may have been more helpful to participants and may have made them more comfortable. In other settings, focus group participants have also commented on their preference for cash over gift cards, as gift cards were viewed as patronizing, challenging to use, and as introducing an additional barrier for marginalized groups (Collins et al., 2017).

Unanticipated Events

An essential aspect of organizing focus groups should be considering unexpected events, problems, and contingency plans, even if it is unlikely that they will be needed (Côté-Arsenault & Morrison-Beedy, 1999, 2005; Yelland & Gifford, 1995). For instance, before scheduling the focus groups, we discussed the need for Kanjobal interpreters with the community center director. He assured us that they could connect us with interpreters they frequently employed who spoke indigenous languages. Unfortunately, the interpreter arrived late, forcing us to look for a last-minute alternative. Luckily, a community center volunteer was fluent in Kanjobal and could participate. We provide this as an example of an unanticipated event that required us to think of a creative alternative “on the spot.”


Although a potentially useful qualitative method, cross-cultural focus groups pose unique challenges for scholars working with diverse and/or marginalized research populations. Drawing upon our experience conducting cross-cultural focus groups with first- and second-generation Latinos, most of whom identified as indigenous Guatemalan-Maya, we highlight said challenges and offer a set of cultural and practical considerations to aid researchers in cross-cultural focus group research design and implementation, particularly when conducting sensitive research on matters of crime and justice. These include paying close attention to matters of gender, ethnicity, citizenship status, and cultural norms among populations of interest when organizing cross-cultural focus groups, as well as strategies for increasing participation and engagement, such as fostering rapport, ensuring clear communication, providing childcare, and planning for the unexpected.

The implications of this discussion extend beyond cross-cultural focus group research to matters of identity, intersectionality, and operationalization in qualitative and quantitative research more generally. Despite taking hold among critical academic circles, much criminological research overlooks identity's multifaceted and intersectional nature when establishing inquiry categories and examining their role in criminological phenomena (Barak, 2023). Complex constructs such as race, gender, and ethnicity are often reduced to little more than static control variables. At best, failure to adequately interrogate and incorporate identity into one’s methodological approach produces incomplete findings. At worst, it normalizes and perpetuates harm against historically marginalized and overlooked communities. Ultimately, social science scholars should actively endeavor to highlight the complexity and richness of the human experience—not erase it.


This article highlights the advantages of cross-cultural focus groups over other forms of qualitative and quantitative inquiry, particularly concerning sensitive topics within criminal justice and criminology. We also discuss the methodological challenges researchers confront regarding cross-cultural focus groups, such as determining the appropriate degrees of homogeneity and heterogeneity across focus group participants. Finally, we discuss several cultural and practical issues that researchers should consider when carrying out cross-cultural focus groups, such as how to respond to unexpected dynamics in focus groups. We make three arguments: (1) that greater attention should be given to supposedly objective terms, such as “homogeneity,” as well as what constitutes a sufficiently homogenous focus group; (2) that goals of heterogeneity should be tied to theoretical considerations, such as the concept of intersectionality; and (3) that researchers should be prepared for unexpected practical and methodological challenges that may arise during the execution of cross-cultural focus groups.


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Contributor Bios

Dr. Hillary Mellinger is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Washington State University. She earned her Ph.D. in Justice, Law, and Criminology from American University. Her research interests include the criminalization of migration, asylum policy, the immigration legal profession, and interpretation challenges within the criminal justice system and immigration system.

Dr. Belén Lowrey-Kinberg is an Assistant Specialist in the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine. She received her Ph.D. from the Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology at American University in Washington, D.C. Her research focuses on procedural justice, prosecutor decision-making, and applying linguistic methods to issues in the criminal justice system.

Dr. Maya Pagni Barak is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice and an affiliate of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She earned her Ph.D. in Justice, Law, and Criminology from American University. She is the author of The Slow Violence of Immigration Court: Procedural Justice on Trial.


This research would not have been possible without the support of the community organization that provided us with advice and facilitated our access to the local population. In addition, this research was funded via two sources: the St. Francis College Faculty Research Grant and faculty research funds from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Finally, we would like to express our sincere appreciation to Sarah Arestin for her assistance in transcribing the audio recordings from our focus groups and the interpreters who provided their services during our focus groups.

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