# 7.1: Populations Versus Samples

• Anonymous
• LibreTexts
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Learning Objectives

• Understand the difference between populations and samples.

## Who or What?

When I teach research methods, my students are sometimes disheartened to discover that the research projects they complete during the course will not make it possible for them to make sweeping claims about “all” of whomever it is that they’re interested in studying. What they fail to realize, however, is that they are not alone. One of the most surprising and frustrating lessons research methods students learn is that there is a difference between one’s population of interest and one’s study sample. While there are certainly exceptions, more often than not a researcher’s population and her or his sample are not the same.

In social scientific research, a population is the cluster of people, events, things, or other phenomena that you are most interested in; it is often the “who” or “what” that you want to be able to say something about at the end of your study. Populations in research may be rather large, such as “the American people,” but they are more typically a little less vague than that. For example, a large study for which the population of interest really is the American people will likely specify which American people, such as adults over the age of 18 or citizens or legal residents. A sample, on the other hand, is the cluster of people or events, for example, from or about which you will actually gather data. Some sampling strategies allow researchers to make claims about populations that are much larger than their actually sample with a fair amount of confidence. Other sampling strategies are designed to allow researchers to make theoretical contributions rather than to make sweeping claims about large populations. We’ll discuss both types of strategies later in this chapter.

Sampling is the process of selecting observations that will be analyzed for research purposes. Both qualitative and quantitative researchers use sampling techniques to help them identify the what or whom from which they will collect their observations. Because the goals of qualitative and quantitative research differ, however, so, too, do the sampling procedures of the researchers employing these methods. First, we examine sampling types and techniques used in qualitative research. After that, we’ll look at how sampling typically works in quantitative research.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

• A population is the group that is the main focus of a researcher’s interest; a sample is the group from whom the researcher actually collects data.
• Populations and samples might be one and the same, but more often they are not.
• Sampling involves selecting the observations that you will analyze.

Exercises

1. Read through the methods section of a couple of scholarly articles describing empirical research. How do the authors talk about their populations and samples, if at all? What do the articles’ abstracts suggest in terms of whom conclusions are being drawn about?
2. Think of a research project you have envisioned conducting as you’ve read this text. Would your population and sample be one and the same, or would they differ somehow? Explain.

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