Best Practice

Snowball Sampling Method in Research

Explore the snowball sampling method in research, including how it works, its various types, and its key advantages and limitations. Learn about its effective application for studying specific, hard-to-reach populations and gain insights on when to use this approach to gather meaningful data.
Lauren Stewart
Qualitative Data Analysis Expert & ATLAS.ti Professional
  1. Introduction
  2. How does the snowball method work in research?
  3. What are examples of snowball sampling?
  4. Types of snowball sampling
  5. Advantages of snowball sampling
  6. Limitations of snowball sampling
  7. Best practices for conducting snowball sampling


Snowball sampling is a non-probability sampling method used in qualitative and social science research to gather data from hard-to-reach or specialized populations. It begins with a small sample group of known research participants who fit the study's criteria and then expands by asking those initial participants to recommend others who also qualify.

Snowball sampling helps when a sampling frame is not clearly defined, making traditional sampling methods challenging to implement. The snowball sampling method relies on the networks and connections within a community to identify potential study participants.

This article outlines the mechanics of snowball sampling, explores its various types, and discusses its significance, advantages, and limitations. Additionally, we will provide guidance on when snowball sampling is most appropriately employed in qualitative research methods.

Snowball sampling helps collect data that random sampling may not easily access.

How does the snowball method work in research?

The snowball sampling method operates on the principle of chain referral. Initially, a small group of participants who meet the research criteria is identified and recruited by the researcher. These initial participants are then asked to recommend others they know who also meet the criteria and might be interested in participating in the study.

The process continues as new participants also recommend further contacts. This method creates a growing network of participants, much like a snowball increasing in size as it rolls downhill, hence the name.

In practice, snowball sampling involves several key steps. First, snowball sampling begins by identifying and selecting the initial subjects, often called "seed" members, who have a strong connection or central role in the community of interest. These seeds are crucial for gaining access to and the trust of subsequent participants.

After interviewing the seed members, the researcher asks them for referrals to other potential participants. This referral process is repeated with each new participant, expanding the sample size progressively.

The iterative nature of snowball sampling allows researchers to reach individuals who are difficult to locate through conventional means due to their rare characteristics, privacy concerns, or membership in a closed community. As the sample grows, the researcher collects data from a broader segment of the target population, enhancing the depth and richness of the research findings.

What are examples of snowball sampling?

Snowball sampling has been utilized in various fields to study populations that are difficult to access through traditional sampling methods. Below are three examples illustrating how snowball sampling can be applied in different research contexts.

Studying rare diseases in the medical field

Researchers often employ snowball sampling to study rare diseases. For example, when investigating a specific rare genetic disorder, researchers might start with a small group of diagnosed patients.

These enrolled research participants are then asked to refer others they know with the same condition, perhaps through patient support groups or online communities. This approach helps in gathering a significant sample size for a condition that otherwise has a very low prevalence in the general population.

Understanding social networks in sociology

Sociologists use snowball sampling to understand how individuals are interconnected within social networks, especially in hard-to-reach communities. A study might begin with a few key informants within a specific social group, such as a subculture or a marginalized community.

These informants then refer the researcher to other members of the community, allowing the study to map out social connections and understand the group's dynamics, norms, and behaviors.

Researching migration patterns

Snowball sampling is beneficial for studying migration patterns, especially among undocumented migrants or refugees who might be reluctant to participate in research due to legal or personal safety concerns. Researchers might start with a small group of migrants willing to share their experiences and then ask them to refer others in their network.

Researchers can rely on multiple referrals to gather valuable insights from enough participants regarding the migration process, challenges faced during migration, and the social networks that support migrants.

Social research on marginalized groups like undocumented migrants can benefit from snowball sampling. Photo by Barbara Zandoval.

Types of snowball sampling

Snowball sampling is a flexible approach that adapts to various research needs. Below are the key types, each facilitating access to specific populations and insights.

Linear snowball sampling

Linear snowball sampling is the simplest form where the process starts with one or a few individuals who then refer a single contact each. This method ensures a controlled, steady growth of the sample, making it easier to manage and analyze.

It's particularly useful for qualitative research where in-depth data from each participant is vital, but it can limit the sample diversity since it grows incrementally.

Exponential non-discriminative snowball sampling

This approach allows each participant to refer multiple new subjects, with no restrictions on who can be referred. The sample size increases rapidly, providing a broad dataset in a short amount of time.

Exponential non-discriminative snowball sampling is ideal for exploratory studies where a wide range of perspectives is desired, though it may include a more heterogeneous group, potentially complicating analysis.

Exponential discriminative snowball sampling

Similar to its non-discriminative counterpart, this method involves participants referring several contacts. However, the key difference is the application of specific criteria to select among the referred individuals.

This selective approach helps in focusing the research on a more targeted subset of the population, enhancing the relevance and depth of the data collected.

Respondent-driven sampling (RDS)

Respondent-driven sampling is a more sophisticated variant that combines the referral method with statistical techniques to create a sample that can represent the broader population, for example by giving more weight to responses of participants from marginalized groups. This method compensates for the biases inherent in the referral process, allowing researchers to make population-level inferences from the sampled data.

RDS is particularly valuable in studies involving hard-to-reach populations, such as marginalized or hidden groups.

Chain referral sampling

Acting as the backbone for all snowball sampling techniques, chain referral sampling emphasizes the process of participants referring others within their network.

This foundational strategy leverages existing social connections to reach individuals who are otherwise difficult to access, making it an effective method for qualitative research aiming to explore complex social phenomena or behaviors within specific communities.

Chain sampling relies on initial participants referring new participants to the researchers. Photo by Cytonn Photography.

Advantages of snowball sampling

Snowball sampling offers several benefits that make it a valuable method for researchers, especially when studying hard-to-reach populations. Below are three key advantages of employing this sampling strategy.

Access to hidden populations

One of the most significant advantages of snowball sampling is its ability to penetrate hidden or hard-to-reach populations. Traditional sampling methods often fail to reach individuals who are part of closed communities, such as undocumented immigrants, drug users, people with rare diseases, or members of underground subcultures. Snowball sampling leverages existing social networks to access these groups, enabling researchers to collect data that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to obtain.


Snowball sampling is notably cost-effective, particularly when resources are limited. By relying on participants to identify future subjects, researchers can minimize the expenses related to locating and recruiting participants. This method reduces the need for extensive outreach efforts and allows for the efficient allocation of resources, making it an attractive option for studies with limited funding.

Richness of data

This sampling method often results in a richness of data that is hard to achieve through other methods. As participants refer individuals within their networks, they tend to recommend contacts who share deep, nuanced experiences relevant to the research topic. This insider perspective can uncover detailed insights and complex dynamics within the population of interest, contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter.

Snowball sampling is a useful recruitment technique for collecting rich data from potential subjects. Photo by Clay LeConey.

Limitations of snowball sampling

While snowball sampling is a powerful tool for accessing specific populations, it comes with several limitations that researchers must consider. Below are three notable drawbacks of this sampling method.

Potential for bias

One of the primary limitations of snowball sampling is the potential for bias. Since the sample grows based on participants' referrals, it is heavily influenced by their social networks and preferences. This can lead to a sample that is not representative of the broader population, as it may over-represent certain groups or opinions while under-representing others. Such bias can limit the generalizability of the research findings to the wider population.

Lack of randomness

The very nature of snowball sampling means it lacks randomness, a cornerstone of many traditional sampling methods aimed at ensuring representativeness. Participants are chosen based on their connections within a network rather than being randomly selected. This lack of randomness can further contribute to bias, making it challenging to make definitive conclusions about the population beyond the sample.

Difficulty in estimating sample size

Another challenge with snowball sampling is the difficulty in estimating the final sample size beforehand. The method's reliance on participants' willingness and ability to refer others introduces uncertainty into the research process. This unpredictability can complicate research planning and resource allocation, especially in studies where a specific sample size is crucial for statistical analysis or validity.

Best practices for conducting snowball sampling

Effective snowball sampling hinges on meticulous planning and execution. By adhering to a set of best practices, researchers can navigate the method's complexities, ensuring the collection of rich and meaningful data. Below are crucial strategies to enhance the reliability and depth of research conducted through snowball sampling.

Define the target population clearly

A precise definition of the target population is foundational. It shapes the direction of the sampling process, guiding the selection of initial participants who are central to the networks of interest. This clarity is essential for reaching the most relevant and informative individuals, ensuring that the research effectively addresses its objectives.

Build trust and ensure confidentiality

Trust is paramount in snowball sampling, particularly when dealing with sensitive subjects or hard-to-reach populations. Researchers must establish a rapport with participants, emphasizing the confidentiality of their responses and the significance of their contribution. Clear communication about the study's goals and the protection of participants' information encourages cooperation and facilitates the referral process.

Recognize data saturation

Identifying when additional data no longer contributes new insights — data saturation — is key to determining the study's scope. This assessment aids in optimizing resource use, avoiding redundant data collection, and ensuring the research is both thorough and focused.

Implement a systematic referral process

A structured approach to managing referrals ensures efficiency and thoroughness. This involves organizing information on potential participants, tracking progress, and following up on leads promptly. Such a system helps maintain momentum in the sampling process and supports a comprehensive exploration of the population.

Monitor diversity and bias

Given snowball sampling's vulnerability to homogeneity and selection bias, continuous monitoring of the sample's composition is critical. Researchers should strive for diversity among participants to capture a wide range of perspectives within the target population. Adjusting recruitment strategies to include varied subgroups or using targeted referrals can help mitigate bias and enhance the representativeness of the sample.

Researchers employing snowball sampling should address issues of sample bias. Photo by Tigran Hambardzumyan.