On February 15, 2017, our Executive Editor Claire Potter met with journalist Liza Featherstone to discuss the launch of her new book, Divining Desire, about the development and legacy of one of the great curiosities of our culture: focus groups. We livestreamed their conversation on Facebook, which you can watch here.

If your knowledge of focus groups only involves the careful selection of neckties for presidential candidates, then you’re in for a treat. As it happens, the formal consultation with ordinary people emerged out of the psychoanalytic tradition, when psychologists such as Ernest Dichter devised new ways to answer social questions by getting people together and simply asking them. Dichter, who was Austrian-born but American-minded, became famous in the fifties for helping Betty Crocker with a particular marketing question: why aren’t more women buying just-add-water cake mixes?

Sales were surprisingly low for a product that boasted remarkable convenience in the age of TV-dinners. Through his innovative market research, Dichter was able to discern that the cake mix was too convenient; women in these groups admitted feeling guilty when serving ready-made foods to their families. To remedy this, a very slight change was made to the recipe: it now required, in addition to water, one egg. The extra effort in adding a single egg was just enough to relieve the average housewife of her anxiety. It was a psychological maneuver that bridged the gap between a strenuous recipe and overly simplistic one.

This now-mythical success story speaks to a certain ideal of focus groups as functionaries of the public will, and one of Featherstone’s accomplishments in Divining Desire is demonstrating the complicated relationship between the general public and the corporate/political elite. The political and social inequality characteristic of American society, whose divisions are marked along the fault lines of race, class and gender, have made focus groups all but imperative for ascertaining the needs, wants, and worries of those with whom elites have such trouble communicating.

Sometimes the motivations for asking those questions are political, as when the U.S. government wondered why more Americans weren’t enthusiastic about fighting in the Second World War. At other times, the incentive is less practical than sinister, for example, when industries seek the most persuasive or emotionally coercive marketing for products. In this way, the public can be at once the tasteless masses, pining after products, and other times the voice and authority of democracy itself.

Indeed, in its many twists and turns, the history of focus groups has involved interesting findings and dramatic failures. If there’s one constancy to them, it’s their unique, if sometimes ineffective, mediation between people with questions and people with answers. The book wrestles with the question of whether even carefully selected groups have genuine wisdom for researchers, and why focus groups endure even when they fail. Whether focus groups really serve the public and the researchers, or if they’re unfairly blamed by both, remains an open question.

What was most poignant during the conversation between Potter and Featherstone was the idea that throughout the twentieth century, groups of all kinds were vital to the kind of social change historians associate with that period. Group therapy, emerging as a general phenomenon in the seventies, led people to lead healthier lives by sharing their private experiences with others in a secure setting. Relatedly, the feminist mobilization of the public was in part spurred by encounter groups, where women were empowered to share their experiences with one another in previously unexplored ways. Consciousness raising for the feminist movement was led by local chapters and groups. (In a sense, the history of focus groups is a history of women; women within and outside the industry were pivotal in the restructuring of focus groups over the years.)

The big questions this book opens up are fascinating and enduring. What kinds of methods allow for genuine avenues for participation in a highly stratified society? Are the biases of certain social settings erasable in the search for a true public opinion? Will digital media eventually eliminate the need for focus groups?

It’s well researched and, as Featherstone demonstrated in a short reading during our livestream, even funny. You can watch the video of the conversation on our Facebook page, and buy the book from OR Books.