Choosing Sampling and Data Collection Methods

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Disaster researchers use most of the same techniques employed in other types of research (e.g., surveys, interviews). However, there are many unique challenges they confront with regards to timing and access.​1,2​

Timing in disaster research tends to be constrained, as disaster events unfold suddenly, leaving little time for scholars to plan and deploy for fieldwork. A fundamental assumption of field research is that researchers are as familiar as possible with the local people and setting prior to entering the field.​1​ This helps ensure culturally competent research practices, which are important for ethical engagement with study participants. In the context of quick response disaster research, however, limited time to plan ahead can make it challenging to follow these ethical protocols and may constrain the ability to collect high quality data.

Researchers may also may have limited access to disaster-affected populations. Access to study participants influences who is included in the study sample, and has the potential to impact equitable sampling of the population.

Accessing Participants in a Disaster

Image of a parking barrier.

If certain members of a population were able to evacuate in advance of a disaster while others sought refuge at a local shelter following the event, then sampling among shelter residents would not produce generalizable findings and may bias the sample toward lower-income populations who are more likely to use public shelters. Factors that affect access include limitations due to disaster constraints (like dangerous conditions due to flooding or disease spread), local conditions (such as political conditions, violence, or weather), mass displacement of populations, the inability to enter certain affected areas, and gaining buy-in or permissions from local leaders, organizations, or others who may be in a position to facilitate access to the study population of interest.​1​

When there are access constraints, researchers may rely on already engaged participants to recruit other participants. This is known as snowballing or snowball sampling. Snowballing is a useful sampling approach to access hard-to-reach populations that may otherwise be difficult to recruit. Despite this benefit, there are certain drawbacks to sampling within a network, such as an increased risk of revealing confidential and potentially damaging information to members of a network because participants know each other.​3​ For example, if using snowballing to sample a group of participants for a focus group discussion, personal information of members of a network may be divulged during data collection. Relying on social networks to locate a study sample may also exploit a community’s social capital during a particularly stressful time.​4​ Due to the magnitude of the devastation of disasters, it may take perseverance to recruit certain hard-to-reach participants. Participants may also expect to receive something in return for their time, placing researchers in a potentially compromising position.​4​ 

Choosing which data collection methods to use also requires careful consideration of the ethical implications of each approach. The slider below presents some of the ethical challenges associated with different methods commonly used in disaster research.

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  1. 1.
    Donner W, Diaz W, H. Rodríguez, W. Donner, J. E. Trainor. Methodological issues in disaster research. In: Handbook of  Disaster Research. Springer, Cham; 2018:289-309.

  2. 2.
    Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Research in Global Health Emergencies. Nuffield Council on Bioethics; 2020:1-308. https://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/publications/research-in-global-health-emergencies

  3. 3.
    Jacobsen K, Landau LB. The dual imperative in refugee research: Some methodological and ethical considerations in social science research on forced migration. Disasters. 2003;27(3). doi:10.1111/1467-7717.00228

  4. 4.
    Van Brown BL. Disaster research “methics”: Ethical and methodological considerations of researching disaster-affected populations. American Behavioral Scientist. 2020;64(8). doi:10.1177/0002764220938115

  5. 5.
    Allmark P, Boote J, Chambers E, et al. Ethical issues in the use of in-depth interviews: Literature review and discussion. Research Ethics. 2009;5(2):48-54. doi:10.1177/174701610900500203

  6. 6.
    Sim J, Waterfield J. Focus group methodology: Some ethical challenges. Quality & Quantity. 2019;53(6). doi:10.1007/s11135-019-00914-5

  7. 7.
    Peek L, Fothergill A. Using focus groups: Lessons from studying daycare centers, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. Qualitative Research. Published online February 2009:31-59. doi:10.1177/1468794108098029

  8. 8.
    Legerski J-P, Bunnell SL. The risks, benefits, and ethics of trauma-focused research participation. Ethics & Behavior. 2010;20(6). doi:10.1080/10508422.2010.521443

  9. 9.
    Dilillo D, Degue S, Kras A, Di Loreto-Colgan AR, Nash C. Participant responses to retrospective surveys of child Participant responses to retrospective surveys of child maltreatment: Does mode of assessment matter? Violence and Victims. 2006;21(4):410-424.

  10. 10.
    Buchanan EA, Hvizdak EE. Online survey tools: Ethical and methodological concerns of human research ethics committees. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics. 2009;4(2). doi:10.1525/jer.2009.4.2.37

  11. 11.
    Resnik DB, Elliott KC, Miller AK. A framework for addressing ethical issues in citizen science. Environmental Science & Policy. 2015;54. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2015.05.008