The use of WhatsApp for focus group discussions in violence prevention research in Zimbabwe

#16DaysofActivism 2021 Blog Series

Written by Natalie Davidson and Prof. Catherine L. Ward

In pursuit of integrating the prevention of violence against women AND violence against children into the Parenting for Lifelong Health (PLH) programme for Teens - and in the scope of a study funded by the Sexual Violence Research Initiative – we have been collecting data from parents and teens in Zimbabwe. To do this, we aimed to collect data from parents and teens who had already experienced the programme, and those who had not. Given the covid-19 pandemic, at the start of the study we found ourselves needing to completely change the way that we had planned to collect the data. This would have to be online, as we could not travel to Zimbabwe, and people in Zimbabwe could not gather in person for traditional focus group discussions. There were various options to choose, from Zoom to phone calls, but all came with different disadvantages.

Why WhatsApp?

Practitioners on the ground in Zimbabwe said that WhatsApp was resource-low and most importantly, by far the most popular of all the different virtual platforms. Following this advice and the advice from experts internationally, we choose WhatsApp for the focus groups using the group chat function. Each day, one question was shared, and the group had that day to answer it. We hoped that this would give participants the time not only to answer the questions, but also to interact with each other, even if asynchronously, instead of the “synchronous mode” that in-person groups would have allowed.

And it worked!

This was the best (most feasible) approach given the circumstances, but we were concerned it would be a complete disaster where no one would engage, and we would be left with little to analyse. Our fears could not have been further from the actual outcome: participants did share, sometimes in great detail. To our surprise and pleasure, everyone, and fathers in particular, shared and engaged deeply with our questions. We have a sense that participants shared things that they would not have in an in-person setting, possibly because they may have felt that this avenue of data collection provided greater anonymity.

Some words of caution to consider...While this approach has its advantages, there are also risks and disadvantages. Firstly, there are some serious ethical considerations here. How do we ensure participants’ safety? For this study, we were careful not to ask for stories of personal experiences of violence. Disclosure would not be safe in this context, as participants (and their phone numbers) would in fact have been identifiable. Secondly, the facilitator of the group has very little control of the interpretation of the questions asked. As such careful and considerable thought must be given to constructing questions, to ensure that they were as immediately understandable as possible. One clear problem with using WhatsApp to collect data is that there was no way to tell if participants understand the questions posed until people started to answer it. There are no facial expressions to judge understanding, and no space for rephrasing until after the question is posed. Lastly, the length of time given to the WhatsApp group is an important consideration – from our experience it was clear that engagement tailed off about two weeks into the focus groups discussions, possibly because of participation fatigue.

In summary, WhatsApp is a promising platform for virtual focus group discussions. Participants (and particularly men) engaged and shared in ways that amazed us, but great care is needed with the phrasing of questions, the time the focus group took for participants and the safety of the participants.

Follow us at @ParentingLH and @planinternationalzimbabwe

For more information email Natalie Davidson, dvdnat009@myuct.ac.za. Natalie is a Master’s student at the University of Cape Town, under the supervision of Prof. Catherine L. Ward, professor in the Department of Psychology and Safety and Violence Initiative. 

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