Closets and Classrooms: Sampling

I’ve always been more interested in the findings of studies than in the methods, but I can’t in good conscience neglect methods forever. So let’s talk about sampling, shall we?


I know hard science folks tend to favor random sampling, but with studies like mine, that just isn’t feasible. I can’t compile a list of every queer K-12 teacher between Williamsburg and Richmond and generate random numbers until I have enough people to interview. And frankly, even if I could, the odds that those individuals would agree to be interviewed aren’t great. I’m asking people to trust me with extremely sensitive details about their careers and personal lives. Most people wouldn’t be willing to doing that with a complete stranger.


This is where snowball sampling comes in. Back when I first started thinking about this project, I did a pilot interview with a teacher of mine from high school who I have stayed fairly close with. During her interview, she mentioned Jacob, a high school chorus teacher, who she believed might be interested in being interviewed. I talked to Jacob and, in addition to agreeing to an interview himself, he suggested that I talk to Olivia, a middle school band teacher, as well.


This is how much of my sampling went. I would talk to someone I knew who would then put me in touch with someone they knew who might be willing to participate in the study, which could then lead to other interviewees as well. Having these initial points of contact was invaluable to my study. Their ability to vouch for me to possible interviewees in their social network, assuring them that I could be trusted to keep their information confidential and that I wasn’t doing this to gawk or judge, is the only reason I have a study at all.


The main critique people have regarding snowball sampling is that it does not yield generalizable data. But I firmly believe that “not generalizable” is not inherently “not good.” The interviews I’ve conducted for this study delve into the details of real people’s lives. And yes, these experiences can’t be assumed to be universal to all queer teachers. But they’re still experiences that deserve to be acknowledged and understood, even if just for the sake of the individuals’ who experienced them.


  1. lcwaddill says:

    Hi Melissa, this topic seems really interesting, and I just went to read your Abstract blog post to understand it better. I’m a humanities person myself, so I don’t have much experience with sampling and was curious to hear your approach. It certainly seems that in a topic so private snowball sampling is best, but I’m curious about what personal reservations you have about the method.
    I think you justified it well in your last paragraph, but I’m not sure if you’ve experienced any inconveniences from snowball sampling. For example, from the few people you mentioned, you had one middle and two high school teachers, and two were music teachers of some sort. I’m wondering if your interviews all tend to be people of similar teaching backgrounds or age groups, since people (I imagine) would be most likely to recommend colleagues or peers they know from such overlapping environments. Have you been able to interview any elementary school teachers? Or someone teaching in a religious school perhaps? For instance, I know Walsingham is a nearby PK-12 Catholic school, so it might be an especially difficult environment for LGBTIQ educators. Of course, maybe for that reason there aren’t many or any queer people working at such a place, so that would naturally restrict your research. Hopefully you’ve been able to achieve the scope of research that you wanted to, and I’m interested to see where this leads. It seems like the final product is an oral history of LGBTIQ teachers’ experiences, but I’m wondering how that will be shared. Is it all anonymous? Is there any sort of community you aim to foster by connecting the various people you’ve interviewed who are several “snowballs” apart?

  2. oliviavandewoude says:

    Hello Melissa,

    I applaud you for the meaningful work you have been doing on compiling the oral histories of LGBTIQ teachers in Virginia. In doing brief research on LGBTIQ oral history, it appears that projects are prevalent in California, the Midwest, and in some parts of the Mid-Atlantic, but not as much in Virginia. I commend you for helping to fill that gap in oral history.

    Your discussion on methods fascinates me, especially as you had to navigate recording the sensitive details of people’s lives. It appears that snowball sampling was successful for you, given that one conversation with Jacob led to another with Olivia, and so on. It also appears that with snowball sampling, you struck the perfect balance of gathering both quantitative and qualitative information to make conclusions about the experiences of LGBTIQ educators. Considering that you have found snowball sampling to be a successful method of surveying, I am interested to hear your thoughts on the different types of snowball sampling. Did you find that you were mostly completing linear snowball sampling, or exponential non-discriminative snowball sampling? And do you have any ideas about how to prevent exponential discriminative snowball sampling?

    On another note, you mentioned that snowball sampling does not lead to “generalizable data.” Based on your experience, do you have any suggestions about how to best conduct snowball sampling, by minimizing sampling bias and ensuring that a very diverse set of subjects is tested— not just a narrow subset of the population?

    Thank you for sharing your interesting work, and good luck with the finishing your project.

    Best, Olivia

  3. cemaciashentze says:

    Hi Melissa,
    I loved reading about your sampling technique! I recognize how difficult it is to access certain populations especially when sexual orientation comes into play. How many interviews are you going to be conducting for the study? Your results may be able to be “more” generablizable the larger the sample.

  4. I do not think your sampling technique is an issue. For a complex social topic like this, each individuals experience can vary dramatically. Sometimes getting caught up in numbers can dehumanize individuals and marginalize their experience. I think your research is very worthwhile!