Theoretical Sampling


Theoretical sampling involves anticipation of the likely differences in responses of research participants. Such tentative hypotheses are then utilized by the researcher in order to select respondents, groups, or research settings/sites with a view to affording a basis for comparison, once the data have been generated. Although theoretical sampling choices are often made at the outset of a study, it is also possible to retrospectively carry out further comparisons. Analysis involves interrogating initial hypotheses, and other potentially important criteria or attributes may well be identified as data generation and analysis unfold. Reflecting the iterative nature of qualitative research, this entry stresses that sampling, data elicitation, and preliminary analysis proceed hand in hand. This means that it is not possible to give a definitive set of guidelines with regard to how to carry out theoretical sampling. Rather, this entry seeks to provide an overview of the variants involved in theoretical sampling practice, with differing levels of sophistication in terms of hypotheses that inform researchers’ decision-making. The use of structured approaches (involving sampling grids and screening questionnaires) is examined, as is the often overlooked theorizing that informs ethnographies or case study research. Finally, the role of spontaneity and the potential for more creative approaches is explored.

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