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Advantages and disadvantages of snowball sampling

Advantages and disadvantages of snowball sampling

This article explores some of the key advantages and disadvantages of snowball sampling. Snowball sampling is a non-probability sampling technique that is particularly useful when studying hard-to-reach population. It is also known as chain referral sampling.


Definition and concept of snowball sampling

According to Oregon State University (2023) snowball sampling refers to a recruitment technique in which research respondents are asked to assist researchers in identifying other potential participants.  The idea here is that researchers locate their initial participants, and these initial participants identify further potential participants themselves (Jones & Gratton, 2009).


According to Cambridge Dictionary (2023) snowball sampling is a way of finding a large number of people so that researchers can get and study their opinions about something, by finding a few and then asking them to find others.


According to Saunders et el. (2007), researchers wishing to use snowball sampling technique need to do the following:


1 Contacting one or two cases (research participants) in the population.

2 Asking these cases to identify further cases.

3 Asking these new cases to identify further new cases (and so on).

4 Stopping when either no new cases are given, or the sample is as large as is manageable.


Process of snowball sampling

As shown above, the process of snowball sampling typically begins with the identification of a few initial participants, also known as ‘seeds’ or ‘gatekeepers.   These seeds are selected based on their relevance to the research topic and their ability to provide valuable insights.


After interviewing initial participants, researchers then ask them to refer others who fit the criteria for taking part in the research. This process continues iteratively until the desired sample size is reached or until data saturation occurs, meaning that new participants no longer provide additional information.


Advantages of snowball sampling


Access to hard-to-reach populations

Snowball sampling allows researchers to reach populations that are otherwise challenging to access, such as marginalised or hidden communities. By leveraging existing connections, researchers can tap into the trust and rapport established within these communities, thereby increasing the likelihood of participation.



One of the key advantages of snowball sampling is cost-effectiveness. Traditional sampling techniques often require substantial resources to identify and recruit participants. In contrast, snowball sampling relies on the networks and referrals of existing participants, making it a more efficient and economical approach.


Diverse data

Snowball sampling can also yield rich and diverse data. As participants recommend others, the sample size grows and becomes more varied in terms of demographics, experiences, and perspectives. This allows for a deeper understanding of the research topic.


Disadvantages of snowball sampling


Sample bias

One of the primary disadvantages of snowball sampling is the potential for sample bias. Since participants are recruited through referrals, the sample may not be representative of the entire population of interest. This can lead to skewed results and limit the generalisability of the findings. Researchers should be aware of this limitation and interpret the results accordingly.


Over reliance on existing social networks

Another challenge is the over reliance on existing social networks. If the initial seeds do not have diverse connections, the sample may be homogeneous and lack variability. To mitigate this challenge, researchers should carefully select the initial seeds to ensure a diverse range of participants.


Lack of statistical sense

According to Parker et al. (2019) random sampling is a network-based convenience form of sampling. It is often viewed negatively for not generating samples that meet the criteria of random samples in the statistical sense. Therefore, this sampling technique is frequently advocated and used by qualitative social researchers. Quantitative researchers do not usually employ it.


Alternatives to snowball sampling

While snowball sampling can be a valuable research method in specific contexts, it is essential to consider alternative sampling techniques depending on the research objectives. Convenience sampling can be an alternative when time and resources are limited. It involves selecting participants based on their availability and accessibility, which may introduce bias, but can be useful for exploratory research or pilot studies.



Ethical considerations in snowball sampling

Ethics play a crucial role in conducting research, and snowball sampling is no exception. Researchers must ensure that the rights and well-being of participants are protected throughout the data collection process. Here are some ethical considerations to keep in mind when employing snowball sampling:


Informed consent

Researchers must obtain informed consent from all participants, clearly explaining the purpose of the study, the data collection procedures, and the potential risks and benefits involved. Participants should have the right to withdraw from the study at any time without facing consequences.


Confidentiality and anonymity

Researchers must assure participants that their identities and responses will remain confidential and anonymous. The former needs to use coding systems to protect the latter’s privacy and avoid any unintended disclosure of sensitive information.


Minimisation of harm

Researchers must take measures to minimise any potential harm or distress that participants may experience during the research process.


Conclusion: Advantages and disadvantages of snowball sampling

In conclusion, snowball sampling is a valuable method for data collection, particularly when studying hard-to-reach or hidden populations. Its advantages include the ability to access marginalized communities, cost-effectiveness, and the potential for diverse and rich data. However, researchers must also be aware of the limitations and challenges associated with it, such as sample bias and over reliance on social networks.


Snowball sampling has gained popularity in social science and qualitative research over the years. However, when deciding whether to use it, researchers should carefully evaluate the research objectives, the target population, and the specific context of the study. By assessing the strengths and limitations of snowball sampling in relation to the research goals, they can determine if it is the right method for their research.


Hope you like this article: Advantages and disadvantages of snowball sampling? You may also like:


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Last updated: O5 December 2023


Cambridge Dictionary (2023) Snowball sampling, available at: (accessed 04 December 2023)

Jones, I., & Gratton, C. (2009) Research Methods for Sports Studies, 2nd edition, London: Routledge

Oregon State University (2023) Snowball sampling, available at: (accessed 05 December 2023)

Parker, C , Scott, S  and Geddes, A (2019) Snowball Sampling, SAGE Research Methods Foundations

Saunders, M., Lewis, P., & Thornhill, A. (2007) Research Methods for Business Students, 4th edition, UK: Pearson Education Limited

Author: M Rahman

M Rahman writes extensively online and offline with an emphasis on business management, marketing, and tourism. He is a lecturer in Management and Marketing. He holds an MSc in Tourism & Hospitality from the University of Sunderland. Also, graduated from Leeds Metropolitan University with a BA in Business & Management Studies and completed a DTLLS (Diploma in Teaching in the Life-Long Learning Sector) from London South Bank University.

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