sample design

Qualitative Research Participants: Gaining Access & Cooperation

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, p. 28).

Gaining cooperationWhen developing the sample design, including the sample size for a qualitative study, careful attention needs to be paid to how the researcher will gain access to individuals in the sample and then gain their cooperation to participate in the research.

In doing a company-sponsored in-depth interview study of employees, for example, gaining access to the employees who have been sampled may be as simple as sending each of them a notification that their employer has authorized the researcher to contact them to request their participation in the research study. Or it may be as challenging as gaining permission from “gatekeepers” who have the right to deny access to the individuals the researcher wants to study — e.g., parents of the children who will be studied, presidents of the professional organizations whose members will be studied, wardens of prisons whose inmates will be studied, etc. The challenge of gaining access from gatekeepers is essentially finding successful strategies that (a) provide guarantees to the gatekeepers that no harm will come to the participants, (b) communicate the worthiness of the research study, and (c) offer some benefit to the gatekeeper or the organization.

Once access to the sampled participants has been granted, the researcher must use strategies to gain cooperation from those who have been chosen. Ideally a very large portion of those who have been sampled will agree to participate. Gaining cooperation is important. This is because, from a Total Quality Framework standpoint, individuals who are chosen to be included in the study but do not participate (e.g., because they refused to cooperate) may differ in important ways from those who do participate, jeopardizing the integrity of the data  which can lower or even undermine the credibility of the qualitative study. If, for example, a disproportionately greater number of males, compared to females, who have been sampled from a list of college freshmen can never be contacted or refuse to participate, and if these sampled males would have provided data that are materially different from the data provided by the other freshmen on the list who did participate in the study, then the research findings will be biased because of the data missing from a major subgroup of the population.

To avoid these problems, qualitative researchers need to utilize strategies meant to overcome the reason(s) that causes some people who are sampled to not cooperate and fail to participate. Such strategies include:

  • Building rapport early with the participants, thereby gaining their trust.
  • Assuring the participants of complete confidentiality.
  • Explaining the non-material benefits to be gained by participating (e.g., helping to raise the quality of life in the neighborhood).
  • Explaining the material benefits, if any, to be gained by participating (e.g., the offer of an Amazon gift card).

Whichever strategies the researchers choose to deploy, ideally they will be tailored (at the individual level) to appeal to the particular types of participants in the sample in order to overcome reluctance or unequivocal refusal during the recruiting process.

A TQF Approach to Choosing a Sample Design

The Total Quality Framework (TQF) offers qualitative researchers a way to think critically about their research Credibility TQF componentdesigns and helps to guide their decision making. The TQF consists of four components, with each component devoted to the critical thinking considerations associated with a phase in the research process. The first component of the TQF is Credibility which is focused on data collection; specifically, Scope and Data Gathering. One of the many considerations related to Scope has to do with the sample design.

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 25-26) on the different aspects of sampling that researchers might want to think about as they develop their qualitative research designs.


Once the researcher has identified the list (or lists) that will be used to select the sample, a decision must be made about which sampling approach will be used. If the decision is to gather data from each member of the population on the list (e.g., all 20 students enrolled in an honors science class), then there is nothing more for the researcher to consider. But for those studies where something less than the entire population will be chosen for study, additional Total Quality Framework (TQF) decisions need to be made about sampling.

Here, qualitative researchers may needlessly lessen the quality of their studies by not giving these decisions sufficient consideration. In fact, some qualitative researchers may think that how they create a sample of the population is unimportant. Qualitative researchers may proceed in this manner because they mistakenly believe that systematic sampling is too hard to carry out (i.e., too complex, too expensive, and too time-consuming) and that it is “too quantitative” a concern. Yet, in the vast majority of qualitative studies, systematic sampling is neither complex, expensive, nor time-consuming, and should not only be a quantitative issue. And by using an organized approach for choosing which members of their key population to study, as opposed to merely using a convenient and disorderly approach to sampling, qualitative researchers avoid a major threat to the credibility of the data they gather. That threat is the possibility that those from whom they gather data are not, in fact, representative (do not share defining characteristics) of the population being studied.

Take, for example, a focus group researcher that has a list of men and women who completed a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training class in the past year. The researcher can choose one of two basic approaches to selecting those who will be invited to participate in a group discussion. The often-used but misguided approach is to start at the top of the list and contact people, one after another, until the focus groups have been filled with ostensibly willing attendees. The rigorous and correct approach is to use an organized scheme to sample CPR class graduates from across the entire list (i.e., stratifying the list and taking an ‘nth’ name approach). The second approach is preferred because it avoids the possible problem that the names on the list are ordered in a way that is not representative of the entire population of CPR graduates that the researcher wants to study.

A final TQF issue related to choosing a sample applies to qualitative studies that utilize observations of naturally occurring human behavior to gather data, such as in ethnographic research. In these studies, sampling considerations need to be applied to the times and the locations during which the behaviors of interest will be observed. By systematically choosing which locations and which times to conduct the observations—among all possible locations and times in which the behaviors of interest will be taking place—the qualitative researcher is greatly raising the likelihood that the observations included in the study are a representative subset of all the possible behaviors of interest to the study.

Roller, M. R., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2015). Applied qualitative research design: A total quality framework approach. New York: Guilford Press.