Best Practice

Purposive Sampling in Qualitative Research

Research methods such as interviews or surveys often target a particular subset of a population to identify and generate rich knowledge about specific aspects of a context. The process of purposive sampling is crucial to transparently identifying and collecting data in a targeted and intentional manner. Learn more about purposive sampling in this article.
Lauren Stewart
Qualitative Data Analysis Expert & ATLAS.ti Professional
  1. Introduction
  2. What is the purposive sampling method?
  3. What is purposive sampling used to identify?
  4. When to use purposive sampling
  5. Types of sampling methods
  6. Advantages of purposive sampling
  7. Disadvantages of purposive sampling
  8. How to conduct purposive sampling


In qualitative research studies that involve methods such as interviews, focus groups, and surveys, purposive sampling is useful when the researcher wants to collect qualitative data from a specific population with particular characteristics.

Purposive sampling or judgmental sampling stands in contrast to random sampling or probability sampling, which aims to collect data randomly to ensure the generalization of findings across an entire population. Instead, the objective in purposive sampling is to target a specific subset of people to more deeply understand the unique or diverse variations in a culture or context.

In this article, we'll examine the different kinds of purposive sampling and the considerations involved with conducting research through purposive sampling.

Purposive sampling relies on the researcher's judgment to target a particular subset of a population for data collection.

What is the purposive sampling method?

Purposive sampling, also known as judgmental or selective sampling, is a non-probabilistic sampling technique used extensively in qualitative research. This method involves deliberately choosing participants based on the characteristics of a population and the objectives of the study. Unlike random probability sampling, where every member of the population has an equal chance of being selected, purposive sampling allows researchers to use their judgment to select cases that will best contribute to the data collection and the objectives of the research.

The essence of purposive sampling lies in selecting information-rich cases. These can be individuals, groups, or occurrences that are relevant to the issue being studied. For example, if a study aims to understand the experiences of cancer survivors, purposive sampling would involve selecting individuals who have lived through cancer, as they can provide depth and insight into the research question.

This method is widely preferred in exploratory studies, where detailed understanding rather than generalization is the goal. It enables researchers to focus on specific characteristics, conditions, or phenomena that are central to the research question. The idea is not to randomly select cases in a way that mirrors the population, but rather to select cases that will illuminate the topic of interest more richly and in depth.

Ultimately, purposive sampling is a strategic choice by researchers to select participants who can provide the most informative data, rather than aiming for a broad representation of the entire population. This approach is crucial when the researcher aims to explore specific themes, patterns, or phenomena within a subset of a population, which requires detailed and nuanced insights.

Random sampling selects participants randomly to maximize representativeness of the whole population while purposive sampling collects data from a specific subset. Photo by CHUTTERSNAP.

What is purposive sampling used to identify?

Purposive sampling is primarily used to identify specific characteristics, trends, or insights within a targeted subset of a population. This method is particularly effective in identifying unique or exceptional cases that are not readily observable in the broader population. By focusing on particular characteristics or experiences, purposive sampling allows researchers to delve into the depth and complexity of the subject matter, providing rich, detailed insights.

The key objective of purposive sampling is to gain a deep understanding of phenomena from a specific perspective or within a specific context. For instance, in a study about educational practices, researchers might use purposive sampling to select teachers who are implementing innovative teaching methods. Here, the focus is not on how common these practices are, but on understanding the nature, challenges, and impacts of these innovations in depth.

Furthermore, purposive sampling is instrumental in identifying and exploring patterns or themes that emerge within a particular group. This can include exploring the experiences of a minority group, understanding behaviors in a specific cultural setting, or examining the impacts of a policy on a targeted demographic. The method ensures that the sample provides the necessary information to answer the research questions, even if it does not statistically represent the larger population.

In essence, purposive sampling is used to extract meaningful and in-depth information from a selected group of participants, providing qualitative insights that are often unattainable through more generalized sampling methods.

The goal of purposive sampling is to identify patterns or themes within a particular group. Photo by Tolga Ulkan.

When to use purposive sampling

Purposive sampling is most appropriate in qualitative research when the aim is to gain detailed and nuanced understanding of specific phenomena, rather than to generalize findings to a larger population. This approach is particularly useful in several scenarios:

Exploratory research

When little is known about a phenomenon and the goal is to develop propositions or theories, purposive sampling helps in selecting cases rich in information. It is ideal for initial explorations where specific insights are needed to form a basis for further study.

Studying unique or specific cases

In cases where the research focuses on specific types of individuals, events, or phenomena, purposive sampling allows researchers to deliberately target these instances. For example, studying the experiences of a particular professional group or examining rare events can be realized through purposive sampling.

Context-dependent knowledge

When the research question requires deep understanding of the context or the environment, purposive sampling enables the selection of participants who have experienced or are immersed in that context.

Resource constraints

In situations where resources, such as time and money, are limited, purposive sampling offers a practical approach to focus on key informants or critical cases that provide the most valuable data.

Theory or concept testing

When testing theories or concepts, purposive sampling can be used to select cases that are most likely to challenge or support these theories.

Types of sampling methods

Purposive sampling encompasses various methods, each tailored to specific research objectives and contexts. These methods allow researchers to strategically select participants based on particular criteria, ensuring the collected data is most relevant to the study.

Below is an overview of the different types of purposive sampling methods. Each of these purposive sampling methods offers unique advantages and is suited to specific research scenarios, enabling researchers to gather rich, targeted data for their qualitative studies.

Convenience sampling

This method involves selecting participants who are easily accessible to the researcher. It's often used for preliminary or exploratory studies where convenience and speed are prioritized over representativeness.

Snowball sampling

Snowball sampling is used when potential participants are hard to locate. Researchers start with a few known subjects who then refer others, creating a 'snowball' effect in participant recruitment.

Cluster sampling

In cluster sampling, the population is divided into clusters, and then a few clusters are chosen at random for research. This method is beneficial when studying a large population dispersed over a wide area.

Heterogeneous sampling

Also known as maximum variation sampling, this approach focuses on capturing a wide range of perspectives by selecting participants with varied characteristics. It's ideal for exploring the breadth of a phenomenon.

Homogeneous sampling

In contrast to heterogeneous sampling, this method selects participants with similar characteristics or experiences, facilitating an in-depth study of a particular subgroup.

Typical case sampling

Researchers select 'typical' cases that are average or representative of the population. This method is useful for providing an illustrative snapshot of the norm.

Critical case sampling

This method involves selecting cases that are crucial for the research question, often because they can make or break a theory or hypothesis.

Extreme case sampling

This approach focuses on unusual or rare cases that are different from the norm, providing insights into atypical phenomena.

Stratified sampling

Stratified sampling involves dividing the population into subgroups and selecting samples from each subgroup. This can ensure representation across key characteristics or variables.

Advantages of purposive sampling

Purposive sampling offers several significant advantages in qualitative research, particularly when the focus is on gaining deep, contextualized insights rather than generalizable data. Let's look at some of the key advantages.

Purposive sampling allows for the selection of participants who are most relevant to the research question. This targeted approach ensures that the data collected is rich and directly pertinent to the study's objectives, leading to more meaningful and focused findings.

Since this method often involves selecting participants with specific experiences or knowledge, it facilitates the collection of in-depth information. Researchers can delve into complex topics with participants who offer detailed insights, making it possible to explore nuances and subtleties that might be missed with a more generalized approach.

Purposive sampling is highly adaptable to the needs of a study. Researchers can adjust their sampling strategy as they learn more about their subject, allowing for a responsive and evolving research process. This flexibility is particularly valuable in exploratory studies or when new themes emerge during the research.

By focusing on specific individuals or groups, purposive sampling can be more time and resource-efficient compared to probability sampling methods. It reduces the need for a large sample size while still providing rich, valuable data.

This method is especially advantageous when studying hard-to-reach, specialized, or vulnerable populations. Purposive sampling allows researchers to carefully select participants who can provide insights into these unique groups, which might be difficult to achieve with random sampling.

Finally, purposive sampling is conducive to theory development. By selecting cases that are particularly informative for understanding the research question, this method can significantly contribute to theoretical insights and advancements.

Disadvantages of purposive sampling

While purposive sampling is highly beneficial for certain qualitative research studies, it also has several disadvantages that researchers must consider.

The most significant drawback of purposive sampling is the limited ability to generalize findings to the broader population. Since samples are specifically selected based on certain criteria or characteristics, they may not adequately represent the diversity and variability present in the larger population.

This method relies heavily on the researcher's judgment in selecting participants. This inherent subjectivity can introduce bias, as the researcher's perspectives and preconceptions may influence the choice of sample, potentially leading to skewed or one-sided data.

The subjective nature of sample selection in purposive sampling also makes it challenging to replicate studies. Different researchers might choose different participants, which can result in varying findings and conclusions, potentially limiting the reliability of the research.

In purposive sampling, there is a risk of overemphasizing particular viewpoints, especially those of more vocal or articulate participants, while underrepresenting less prominent perspectives. This can skew the research outcomes and reduce the depth of understanding.

Finally, the non-random selection process increases the risk of sampling errors. The sample might not adequately capture the complexity or nuances of the broader population, leading to partial or incomplete findings.

How to conduct purposive sampling

Conducting purposive sampling in qualitative research demands a structured and thoughtful approach that closely aligns with the study's objectives. The process begins with a clear articulation of these objectives and the establishment of criteria for participant selection. This crucial first step involves identifying specific characteristics, experiences, or knowledge that the participants need to possess to provide relevant insights into the research question.

Once the research goals and criteria are defined, the next task is to identify the broader population relevant to the study. From this larger group, participants who meet the established criteria are selected. The selection of the appropriate purposive sampling method is a critical decision that should be based on the specific aims of the research. Various methods, such as homogeneous sampling for in-depth exploration of a specific group or critical case sampling for testing a theory, can be chosen depending on what aligns best with the study's goals.

The recruitment of participants is a dynamic process. It may involve directly reaching out to specific individuals, employing snowball techniques to find suitable participants, or collaborating with organizations or communities. While focusing on specific criteria, it's important to ensure a diverse range of participants within those parameters to provide a comprehensive understanding of the topic.

Throughout the sampling process, continually evaluating the adequacy of the sample size and composition is essential. The focus should be on the richness of the data, which often dictates the adequacy of the sample size, rather than merely the number of participants.

Lastly, documenting every decision and rationale throughout the process is vital for the credibility of the research. This transparency allows others to understand the hows and whys of participant selection, reinforcing the integrity of the study.

By meticulously following these guidelines, researchers can effectively implement purposive sampling, ensuring that their sample provides rich, targeted data that is in line with the study's objectives.

Thorough documentation of the purposive sampling process is critical to research transparency. Photo by Aaron Burden.