ROUTE #1: Getting Started
ROUTE #1: Chapter-by-Chapter

The sampling strategy that you select

The sampling strategy that you are following can raise a number of ethical issues that must be understood and overcome. When thinking about the impact of sampling strategies on research ethics, you need to take into account: (a) the sampling techniques that you use; (b) the sample size you select; and (c) the role of gatekeepers that influence access to your sample:

Sampling techniques

When sampling, you need to decide what units (i.e., what people, organisations, data, etc.) to include in your sample and which ones to exclude. As you'll know by now, sampling techniques act as a guide to help you select these units, and you will have chosen a specific probability or non-probability sampling technique:

Sample size

Whether you are using a probability sampling or non-probability sampling technique to help you create your sample, you will need to decide how large your sample should be (i.e., your sample size). Your sample size becomes an ethical issue for two reasons: (a) over-sized samples and (b) under-sized samples.

Over-sized samples

A sample is over-sized when there are more units (e.g., people, organisations) in the sample than are needed to achieve you goals (i.e., to answer your research questions robustly). An over-sized sample is considered to be an ethical issue because it potentially exposes an excessive number of people (or other units) to your research. Let's look at where this may or may not be a problem:

Under-sized samples

A sample is under-sized when you are unable to achieve your goals (i.e., to answer your research questions robustly) because you insufficient units in your sample. The important point is that you fail to answer your research questions not because a potential answer did not exist, but because your sample size was too small for such an answer to be discovered (or interpreted). Let's look where this may or may not be a problem:

As a researcher, even when you're an undergraduate or master's level student, you have a duty not to expose an excessive number of people to unnecessary distress or harm. This is one of the basic principles of research ethics. At the same time, you have a duty not to fail to achieve what you set out to achieve. This is not just a duty to yourself or the sponsors of your dissertation (if you have any), but more importantly, to the people that take part in your research (i.e., your sample). To try and minimise the potential ethical issues that come with over-sized and under-sized samples, there are instances where you can make sample size calculations to estimate the required sample size to achieve your goals.


Gatekeepers can often control access to the participants you are interested in (e.g., a manager's control over access to employees within an organisation). This has ethical implications because of the power that such gatekeepers can exercise over those individuals. For example, they may control what access is (and is not) granted to which individuals, coerce individuals into taking part in your research, and influence the nature of responses. This may affect the level of consent that a participant gives (or is believed to have given) you. Ask yourself: Do I think that participants are taking part voluntarily? How did the way that I gained access to participants affect not only the voluntary nature of individuals? participation, and how will it affect the data?

Problems with gatekeepers can also affect the representativeness of the sample. Whilst qualitative research designs are more likely to use non-probability sampling techniques, even quantitative research designs that use probability sampling can suffer from issues of reliability associated with gatekeepers. In the case of quantitative research designs using probability sampling, are gatekeepers providing an accurate list of the population without missing out potential participants (e.g., employees that may give a negative view of an organisation)? If non-probability sampling is being used, are gatekeepers coercing participants to take part or influencing their responses?

Final thoughts

Before moving on to STEP SEVEN: Data analysis techniques, make sure that you have taken into account: (a) your dissertation and university ethics guidelines; (b) your chosen research method, the way that the research method is used, and the specific measures that are selected; and (c) your chosen sampling strategy, including the type of sampling technique used, your sample size, and the use of gatekeepers when selecting your sample. On this basis, assess whether you think you will need to get ethical approval for your dissertation research (something we address in STAGE SEVEN: Assessment point).

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15