Sampling International Journal of Social Research Methodology

International Journal of Social Research Methodology

Virtual Issue: Sampling

The etymology of the word ‘sample’ originates with the Latin ‘exemplum’, or example, meaning, ‘that which is taken out or removed’. Sampling designs and the procedures define research activities involved in accessing and collecting parts from a whole, which are then studied. Borrowing from the Natural and Life Sciences, the Social Sciences have traditionally pursued and taught sampling procedures within the framework of large scale random sampling designs, where representativeness is emphasized.

With the turn to qualitative research in the 1980s, new approaches to sampling designs and procedures emerged. Within the qualitative paradigm, sampling need not produce generalizability that rests on large numbers (populations) or on random sampling designs (systematic, stratified, and so on). Taking its lead from ethnography, qualitative research tends to focus on cases that are the most culturally and symbolically revealing, rather than on the most representative ones. In this context, sampling is often addressed as ‘analytic’, ‘theoretical’ or ‘purposive’, as the researcher seeks an intensive analysis of a small body of empirical materials. Another shift that the turn to qualitative research propelled concerns the organic connection between sampling and processes of analysis and interpretation. One implication is that it is difficult to know in advance whether the cases that have been sampled are indeed the most informative ones or whether the sample size suffices. In other words, sampling designs cannot be fully formed ahead of interpretation, and a recurring pendulum movement between collecting data and interpreting it characterizes this type of research.

In line with these shifts, articles published in IJSRM pursue creative ways of engaging sampling. One of these innovations is ‘respondent-driven’ types of sampling (Bryant, 2014; Górny & Napierała, 2015). The point with this orientation to sampling is that researchers acknowledge the fact that the information sampling can reveal does not lie only with its design. Sampling design and related procedures need to be attuned to, and to some degree also determined by, the subjects themselves. In this way sampling can produce surprising data, tapping on social structures and even social dynamics (as studies on snowball sampling show. See Browne, 2005; Noy, 2008; Waters, 2014). A second and related orientation to sampling focusses on accessing ‘hidden populations’ (Harwood et al., 2012). In these studies the question isn’t how sampling represents large populations, but how research can reach populations that are difficult to study, and that are often ‘off the radar’ (Bryant, 2014; Waters, 2014). This orientation, and to some degree also respondent-driven sampling, bring the sampling facet closer to the politics of research and funding. Which populations are studied, and if and how they are accessed, is not a technical issues, but an essential part of the research and of its moral and political commitments.

Looking forward, sampling is suited to be enriched by different paradigms, and both qualitative and quantitative approaches inspire new sensibilities and sensitivities (Fugard & Potts, 2016). Furthermore, the intersection of sampling and critical research is of interest as well, because sampling allows researchers to explore oppressed and marginalized communities. A third development in sampling lies in its intersection with emerging New Media Studies (Tijdens & Steinmetz, 2015). Here sampling designs and practices make use of digital technologies for accessing, collecting and recording data. In this way, they are themselves telling in terms of how new media is used, by whom, and what can be learned about those populations through their participation is sampling procedures mediated by digital media and technologies.

The papers below present a handful of highlights, chosen (sampled!) from dozens of papers that explore the subject of sampling on the pages of IJSRM. They address the points mentioned above, with the hope is that the reader will enjoy the dialogue that the papers offer, as well as the new and exciting developments and intersections that they point at. All included papers are free to access until the end of 2016.

International Journal of Social Research Methodology