Sampling Methods | Types, Techniques & Examples
When you conduct research about a group of people, it’s rarely possible to collect data from every person in that group. Instead, you select a sample. The sample is the group of individuals who will actually participate in the research.
To draw valid conclusions from your results, you have to carefully decide how you will select a sample that is representative of the group as a whole. This is called a sampling method. There are two primary types of sampling methods that you can use in your research:
- Probability sampling involves random selection, allowing you to make strong statistical inferences about the whole group.
- Non-probability sampling involves non-random selection based on convenience or other criteria, allowing you to easily collect data.
You should clearly explain how you selected your sample in the methodology section of your paper or thesis, as well as how you approached minimizing research bias in your work.
Population vs. sample
First, you need to understand the difference between a population and a sample, and identify the target population of your research.
- The population is the entire group that you want to draw conclusions about.
- The sample is the specific group of individuals that you will collect data from.
The population can be defined in terms of geographical location, age, income, or many other characteristics.
It can be very broad or quite narrow: maybe you want to make inferences about the whole adult population of your country; maybe your research focuses on customers of a certain company, patients with a specific health condition, or students in a single school.
It is important to carefully define your target population according to the purpose and practicalities of your project.
If the population is very large, demographically mixed, and geographically dispersed, it might be difficult to gain access to a representative sample. A lack of a representative sample affects the validity of your results, and can lead to several research biases, particularly sampling bias.
The sampling frame is the actual list of individuals that the sample will be drawn from. Ideally, it should include the entire target population (and nobody who is not part of that population).
The number of individuals you should include in your sample depends on various factors, including the size and variability of the population and your research design. There are different sample size calculators and formulas depending on what you want to achieve with statistical analysis.
Probability sampling methods
Probability sampling means that every member of the population has a chance of being selected. It is mainly used in quantitative research. If you want to produce results that are representative of the whole population, probability sampling techniques are the most valid choice.
There are four main types of probability sample.
1. Simple random sampling
In a simple random sample, every member of the population has an equal chance of being selected. Your sampling frame should include the whole population.
To conduct this type of sampling, you can use tools like random number generators or other techniques that are based entirely on chance.
2. Systematic sampling
Systematic sampling is similar to simple random sampling, but it is usually slightly easier to conduct. Every member of the population is listed with a number, but instead of randomly generating numbers, individuals are chosen at regular intervals.
If you use this technique, it is important to make sure that there is no hidden pattern in the list that might skew the sample. For example, if the HR database groups employees by team, and team members are listed in order of seniority, there is a risk that your interval might skip over people in junior roles, resulting in a sample that is skewed towards senior employees.
3. Stratified sampling
Stratified sampling involves dividing the population into subpopulations that may differ in important ways. It allows you draw more precise conclusions by ensuring that every subgroup is properly represented in the sample.
To use this sampling method, you divide the population into subgroups (called strata) based on the relevant characteristic (e.g., gender identity, age range, income bracket, job role).
Based on the overall proportions of the population, you calculate how many people should be sampled from each subgroup. Then you use random or systematic sampling to select a sample from each subgroup.
4. Cluster sampling
Cluster sampling also involves dividing the population into subgroups, but each subgroup should have similar characteristics to the whole sample. Instead of sampling individuals from each subgroup, you randomly select entire subgroups.
If it is practically possible, you might include every individual from each sampled cluster. If the clusters themselves are large, you can also sample individuals from within each cluster using one of the techniques above. This is called multistage sampling.
This method is good for dealing with large and dispersed populations, but there is more risk of error in the sample, as there could be substantial differences between clusters. It’s difficult to guarantee that the sampled clusters are really representative of the whole population.
Non-probability sampling methods
In a non-probability sample, individuals are selected based on non-random criteria, and not every individual has a chance of being included.
This type of sample is easier and cheaper to access, but it has a higher risk of sampling bias. That means the inferences you can make about the population are weaker than with probability samples, and your conclusions may be more limited. If you use a non-probability sample, you should still aim to make it as representative of the population as possible.
Non-probability sampling techniques are often used in exploratory and qualitative research. In these types of research, the aim is not to test a hypothesis about a broad population, but to develop an initial understanding of a small or under-researched population.
1. Convenience sampling
A convenience sample simply includes the individuals who happen to be most accessible to the researcher.
This is an easy and inexpensive way to gather initial data, but there is no way to tell if the sample is representative of the population, so it can’t produce generalizable results. Convenience samples are at risk for both sampling bias and selection bias.
2. Voluntary response sampling
Similar to a convenience sample, a voluntary response sample is mainly based on ease of access. Instead of the researcher choosing participants and directly contacting them, people volunteer themselves (e.g. by responding to a public online survey).
Voluntary response samples are always at least somewhat biased, as some people will inherently be more likely to volunteer than others, leading to self-selection bias.
3. Purposive sampling
This type of sampling, also known as judgement sampling, involves the researcher using their expertise to select a sample that is most useful to the purposes of the research.
It is often used in qualitative research, where the researcher wants to gain detailed knowledge about a specific phenomenon rather than make statistical inferences, or where the population is very small and specific. An effective purposive sample must have clear criteria and rationale for inclusion. Always make sure to describe your inclusion and exclusion criteria and beware of observer bias affecting your arguments.
4. Snowball sampling
If the population is hard to access, snowball sampling can be used to recruit participants via other participants. The number of people you have access to “snowballs” as you get in contact with more people. The downside here is also representativeness, as you have no way of knowing how representative your sample is due to the reliance on participants recruiting others. This can lead to sampling bias.
5. Quota sampling
Quota sampling relies on the non-random selection of a predetermined number or proportion of units. This is called a quota.
You first divide the population into mutually exclusive subgroups (called strata) and then recruit sample units until you reach your quota. These units share specific characteristics, determined by you prior to forming your strata. The aim of quota sampling is to control what or who makes up your sample.
Frequently asked questions about sampling
- What is sampling?
A sample is a subset of individuals from a larger population. Sampling means selecting the group that you will actually collect data from in your research. For example, if you are researching the opinions of students in your university, you could survey a sample of 100 students.
In statistics, sampling allows you to test a hypothesis about the characteristics of a population.
- Why are samples used in research?
Samples are used to make inferences about populations. Samples are easier to collect data from because they are practical, cost-effective, convenient, and manageable.
- What is probability sampling?
Probability sampling means that every member of the target population has a known chance of being included in the sample.
Probability sampling methods include simple random sampling, systematic sampling, stratified sampling, and cluster sampling.
- What is non-probability sampling?
In non-probability sampling, the sample is selected based on non-random criteria, and not every member of the population has a chance of being included.
Common non-probability sampling methods include convenience sampling, voluntary response sampling, purposive sampling, snowball sampling, and quota sampling.
- What is multistage sampling?
In multistage sampling, or multistage cluster sampling, you draw a sample from a population using smaller and smaller groups at each stage.
This method is often used to collect data from a large, geographically spread group of people in national surveys, for example. You take advantage of hierarchical groupings (e.g., from state to city to neighborhood) to create a sample that’s less expensive and time-consuming to collect data from.
- What is sampling bias?
Sampling bias occurs when some members of a population are systematically more likely to be selected in a sample than others.
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