Recruiting participants for a qualitative research study

How do qualitative researchers locate potential participants for a study? What approaches might be used to recruit people? Clearly the easiest way to recruit people is to ask people you already know to participate in your study. This is potentially fraught with difficulty, however, since this is known as “convenience sampling”, which is typically perceived to be the weakest form of sampling. Of course there are exceptions to this. For example, if a researcher is doing an autoethnographic study, this would involve talking to people within the researcher’s friendship, family and professional circles (Chang, 2008). Yet, qualitative researchers use a variety of strategies to recruit people. Let’s look at some of these.

Recruiting via personal and professional connections

When researchers are “insiders” to the group that they are examining, then a first place to begin is to start with people who are known. This might mean seeking recommendations for potential participant from known others, and even asking for “expert recommendations”. It might be worthwhile to set up preliminary meetings with people who have a good deal of expertise in a field to ask for recommendations. For example, in my very first qualitative study which examined how music teachers dealt with inaccurate singers, I began by getting in touch with music advisors, and asking them for recommendations for exemplary teachers. I was able to interview music advisors as well as the teachers who they recommended to me. I also arranged visits to these schools for observations. In the same study, I was also able to talk to recognized experts in the field of music education. I was very fortunate at the time to be working with an adviser who was organizing an international conference. She acted as a gate-keeper, in that she introduced me to many of these experts whom I was able to interview during the conference.

Gatekeepers – people who have administrative positions, or in-depth information about a particular setting — can be incredibly helpful, if not crucial, to gain access to a particular community of setting. Sometimes, although people who serve as “formal gatekeepers” to a particular setting may provide access for a research study, those who serve as “informal gatekeepers” may withhold access (Wanat, 2008). Rugkåsa and Canvin (2011) discuss issues that they found to have impacted gatekeepers’ attitudes towards allowing researchers access to a particular community (in their study, they were working with Black and minority ethnic communities in the UK). These included (non)payment of participants and reciprocal arrangements with local community groups. These researchers recommend that researchers use flexible recruitment strategies that attend to the local contexts in which research is being conducted. Let’s look further at the kinds of recruitment strategies used by researchers.

Recruiting via fliers, newspaper advertisements, emails and letters

As anyone who has spent time on a university campus will know, researchers frequently recruit participants via fliers and advertisements. Sometimes, but not always, payment for participation is included as an incentive. Another frequently used approach is to send email or letter requests to people thought to meet sampling criteria. Here, a researcher might purchase a mailing list, and locate people via the information provided with the mailing list, and send letters or emails. Similarly, recruitment notices can be sent via established listservs. It is useful to get in touch with the list-owner first, however, to check if these sorts of notice might be allowed on a listserv.

Recruiting through face-to-face interactions

Sometimes researchers uses face-to-face interactions as a primary method,  recruiting  in neighborhoods through knocking on doors (Freeman, 2000), standing on street corners (McCormack et al., 2013), or visiting boarding houses and airline terminals (Thomas, Bloor, & Frankland, 2007). Here, participants are not known to them, but are recruited on the spot. Putting oneself forward in these kinds of ways as a researcher may entail feelings of “relief, despair, embarrassment, hilarity and even hysteria” (Thomas et al., 2007, p. 435). What they refer to here is the emotional labor entailed in seeking people to participate in studies, yet experiencing repeated refusals.

Yet sometimes, even though researchers might use multiple recruitment methods, efforts appear to be futile. There are few, if any, volunteers. What is happening here?

Difficulties in recruitment for research studies

Researchers have written about some of the problems entailed in recruiting participants for research on sensitive topics (Butera, 2006; Culley, Hudson, & Rapport, 2007), private topics (McCormack, Adams, & Anderson, 2013),and  stigmatized or illegal activities such as prostitution or drug-dealing (Dietze, 2002; Roth, 2012). Further, because of historical abuses perpetrated by researchers, some populations are rightly suspicious of becoming involved in research studies (Reverby, 2009; Skloot, 2010). To address some of these concerns, researchers have worked in participatory ways with community groups (Anthony, Lee, Barry, & Kappesser, 2010), and include members of the populations in which they are engaging with as co-researchers (Shelton & Rianon, 2004). They have also worked with bicultural recruiters (Rugkåsa & Canvin, 2011). Developing relationships with communities will likely take extended time in order to build relationships that will lead to successful recruitment of participants through information sharing and face-to-face interactions (Sixsmith, Boneham, & Goldring, 2003).

Although it is not possible to project a path to recruitment of participants that will always prove successful, researchers have been generous in sharing their recruitment challenges and the strategies that they have used. If you run into challenges with recruiting participants, take a look at what others have done. With more time, and through using a variety of recruitment methods, you will likely be successful. All the best with these efforts.

Kathy Roulston

NB: This post draws on information included in (Roulston & Martinez, 2015). For more information on sampling and selection, see LeCompte and Preissle (1993).


Anthony, J. S., Lee, R. C., Barry, D. G., & Kappesser, M. (2010). Recruiting and Keeping African American Women in an Ethnographic Study of Pregnancy: The Community-Based Partnership Model. Field Methods, 22(2), 125-132. doi:10.1177/1525822×09358645

Butera, K. J. (2006). Manhunt The Challenge of Enticing Men to Participate in a Study on Friendship. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(6), 1262-1282.

Chang, H. (2008). Autoethnography as method. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Culley, L., Hudson, N., & Rapport, F. (2007). Using Focus Groups With Minority Ethnic Communities: Researching Infertility in British South Asian Communities. Qualitative Health Research, 17(1), 102-112. doi:10.1177/1049732306296506

Dietze, P. (2002). Using ambulance attendances to recruit people who have experienced non-fatal heroin overdose. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 67(1), 99.

Freeman, M. (2000). Knocking on Doors: On Constructing Culture. Qualitative Inquiry, 6(3), 359.

LeCompte, M. D., & Preissle, J. (1993). Ethnography and qualitative design in educational research (2nd ed.). San Diego: Academic Press.

McCormack, M., Adams, A., & Anderson, E. (2013). Taking to the streets: the benefits of spontaneous methodological innovation in participant recruitment. Qualitative Research, 13(2), 228-241.

Reverby, S. (2009). Examining Tuskegee : the infamous syphilis study and its legacy. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill.

Roth, A. M. (2012). A methodological approach to improve the sexual health of vulnerable female Populations: incentivized peer-recruitment and field-based STD testing. Journal of health care for the poor and underserved, 23(1), 367.

Roulston, K., & Martinez, B. (2015). Recruitment and sampling in consumer research. In P. Hackett (Ed.), Consumer ethnography: Qualitative and cultural approaches to consumer research. New York & London Routledge.

Rugkåsa, J., & Canvin, K. (2011). Researching Mental Health in Minority Ethnic Communities: Reflections on Recruitment. Qualitative Health Research, 21(1), 132-143. doi:10.1177/1049732310379115

Shelton, A. J., & Rianon, N. J. (2004). Recruiting Participants from a Community of Bangladeshi Immigrants for a Study of Spousal Abuse: An Appropriate Cultural Approach. Qualitative Health Research, 14(3), 369-380. doi:10.1177/1049732303261957

Sixsmith, J., Boneham, M., & Goldring, J. E. (2003). Accessing the Community: Gaining Insider Perspectives From the Outside. Qualitative Health Research, 13(4), 578-589. doi:10.1177/1049732302250759

Skloot, R. (2010). The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers.

Thomas, M., Bloor, M., & Frankland, J. (2007). The process of sample recruitment: an ethnostatistical perspective. Qualitative Research, 7(4), 429-446.

Wanat, C. L. (2008). Getting Past the Gatekeepers: Differences Between Access and Cooperation in Public School Research. Field Methods, 20(2), 191-208. doi:10.1177/1525822×07313811


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