Sampling is one of the most important steps in conducting research and analyzing data. Sampling is the process of selecting elements and units to study. Elements are the entities that the study is about, and units provide information about these elements. For example, suppose you want to study the characteristics of super-max prisons. Given that a researcher cannot interview prisons (element), he or she may instead interview prison staff (unit). In this example, the elements and units are different. Keep in mind that in some cases, the elements and units may be the same.
The topic and population being studied help determine which sampling method to use. For example, suppose you wanted to study the predictors of violent criminal behavior, and suppose you were able to generate a numbered list of violent offenders in the United States. You could use simple random sampling, in which a subset of a population is chosen randomly or by chance. On the other hand, suppose you wanted to study a relatively rare behavior, such as heroin use among pregnant teenagers. You could use a specialized sampling method, such as snowball sampling, in which you rely on subjects or participants in a study to identify other subjects or participants. Using snowball sampling in this case is appropriate because the population you are looking at is small. It is also appropriate because it might be difficult to find pregnant teenagers willing to admit that they use heroin. In this Discussion, as you consider different sampling methods, you become familiar with how they are used and aware of their strengths and limitations.
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