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THE SAMPLE SIZE

A question that often plagues novice researchers is just how large their samples for the research should be. There is no clear-cut answer,
for the correct sample size depends on the purpose of the study and the nature of the population under scrutiny. However it is possible to
give some advice on this matter. Thus, a sample
size of thirty is held by many to be the minimum number of cases if researchers plan to use
some form of statistical analysis on their data.
Of more import to researchers is the need to
think out in advance of any data collection the
sorts of relationships that they wish to explore
within subgroups of their eventual sample. The
number of variables researchers set out to control in their analysis and the types of statistical
tests that they wish to make must inform their
decisions about sample size prior to the actual
research undertaking.
As well as the requirement of a minimum
number of cases in order to examine relationships between subgroups, researchers must obtain the minimum sample size that will accurately represent the population being targeted.
With respect to size, will a large one guarantee
representativeness? Surely not! In the example
above the researcher could have interviewed a
total sample of 450 females and still not have
represented the male population. Will a small
size guarantee representativeness? Again, surely
not! The latter falls into the trap of saying that
50 per cent of those who expressed an opinion
said that they enjoyed science, when the 50 per
cent was only one student, a researcher having
interviewed only two students in all. Furthermore, too large a sample might become unwieldy
and too small a sample might be unrepresentative (e.g. in the first example, the researcher
might have wished to interview 450 students but
this would have been unworkable in practice or
the researcher might have interviewed only ten
students, which would have been unrepresentative of the total population of 900 students).
Where simple random sampling is used, the
sample size needed to reflect the population

value of a particular variable depends both on


the size of the population and the amount of
heterogeneity in the population (Bailey, 1978).
Generally, for populations of equal heterogeneity, the larger the population, the larger the
sam- ple that must be drawn. For populations of
equal size, the greater the heterogeneity on a
particu- lar variable, the larger the sample that
is needed. To the extent that a sample fails to
represent accurately the population involved,
there is sam- pling error, discussed below.
Sample size is also determined to some extent
by the style of the research. For example, a survey style usually requires a large sample, particularly if inferential statistics are to be calculated.
In an ethnographic or qualitative style of
research it is more likely that the sample size will
be small. Sample size might also be constrained
by cost in terms of time, money, stress,
administrative support, the number
of
researchers, and resources. Borg and Gall
(1979:1945) suggest that corre- lational
research requires a sample size of no fewer than
thirty cases, that causal-comparative and
experimental methodologies require a sample
size of no fewer than fifteen cases, and that
survey research should have no fewer than 100
cases in each major subgroup and twenty to
fifty in each minor subgroup.
They advise (ibid.: 186) that sample size has
to begin with an estimation of the smallest
number of cases in the smallest subgroup of the
sample, and work up from that, rather than
vice versa. So, for example, if 5 per cent of the
sample must be teenage boys, and this sub-sample must be thirty cases (e.g. for correlational
research), then the total sample will be
300.05=600; if 15 per cent of the sample must
be teenage girls and the sub-sample must be
forty-five cases, then the total sample must be
450.15=300 cases.
The size of a probability (random) sample
can be determined in two ways, either by the
re- searcher exercising prudence and ensuring
that the sample represents the wider features
of the population with the minimum number
of cases or by using a table which, from a
mathematical formula,
indicates
the
appropriate size of a

Chapter 4

The sample size

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