Friday, October 19, 2007

From the Annals of Empirical Research: The Sampling Frame

It's something I'm working on. I could do the "snowball" sampling method, relying on certain contacts I have to alert me to other organizations and contacts--playing the six-degrees game within a particular industry and geographic area.

That, however, is not very random, systematic, or rigorous.

I have to figure out a way to get organizations to take my survey--I might just go through the phone book, go by industry, and am probably going to stay limited to my geographic area of Awesome Part of the Country (paying attention to the differences in compliance to federal FMLA law and Awesome State FML law). I don't have an NSF grant--no nationwide survey will be really possible, and I can't afford to hire a statistician anyway if I wanted to do a large-N survey.

My N will be small (under 50), because I will be writing all the questions myself, administering the surveys myself, and collecting and analyzing the data myself. Plus, this is a dissertation--my department expects me to finish and produce something publishable, not write the definitive nationwide study. If I do decide to code the scaled variables and turn this project quantitative, I think I can do all of the analysis myself using SPSS or STATA. Or hire some undergraduate monkey to do it for me. Not likely though.

Anyway, empirical concept of the day: The Sampling Frame:

The major question that motivates sampling in the first place is: "Who do you want to generalize to?" Or should it be: "To whom do you want to generalize?" In most social research we are interested in more than just the people who directly participate in our study. We would like to be able to talk in general terms and not be confined only to the people who are in our study. Now, there are times when we aren't very concerned about generalizing. Maybe we're just evaluating a program in a local agency and we don't care whether the program would work with other people in other places and at other times. In that case, sampling and generalizing might not be of interest. In other cases, we would really like to be able to generalize almost universally. When psychologists do research, they are often interested in developing theories that would hold for all humans. But in most applied social research, we are interested in generalizing to specific groups. The group you wish to generalize to is often called the population in your study. This is the group you would like to sample from because this is the group you are interested in generalizing to.

Once you've identified the theoretical and accessible populations, you have to do one more thing before you can actually draw a sample -- you have to get a list of the members of the accessible population. (Or, you have to spell out in detail how you will contact them to assure representativeness). The listing of the accessible population from which you'll draw your sample is called the sampling frame. If you were doing a phone survey and selecting names from the telephone book, the book would be your sampling frame. That wouldn't be a great way to sample because significant subportions of the population either don't have a phone or have moved in or out of the area since the last book was printed. Notice that in this case, you might identify the area code and all three-digit prefixes within that area code and draw a sample simply by randomly dialing numbers (cleverly known as random-digit-dialing). In this case, the sampling frame is not a list per se, but is rather a procedure that you follow as the actual basis for sampling. Finally, you actually draw your sample (using one of the many sampling procedures). The sample is the group of people who you select to be in your study. Notice that I didn't say that the sample was the group of people who are actually in your study. You may not be able to contact or recruit all of the people you actually sample, or some could drop out over the course of the study. The group that actually completes your study is a subsample of the sample -- it doesn't include nonrespondents or dropouts.