The story of the focus group is a story of the relationship between elites and the masses. The current culture of consultation has flourished and become more necessary in a period during which the actual power of ordinary people relative to the rich – whether in the workplace or the political arena – has greatly diminished. Listening is not the same as sharing power.
A focus group, whether convened in an office park in Columbus, Ohio, or in a brightly lit conference room on Madison Avenue, is not at all what democracy looks like. But a focus group is, in some ways, what democratic participation now feels like. It is one of the ways we crack the egg and feel we are doing something. It has been part of the evolution of our expressive democracy – that is, a society in which the expression of opinion has been dramatically democratised, while the distribution of everything else that matters (political power, money) has only grown more starkly unequal.
Liza Featherstone on why talk is cheap.