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Respondent-Driven Sampling: A New Approach to the Study of Hidden Populations

Douglas D. Heckathorn
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3096941 174-199 First published online: 1 May 1997

Abstract

A population is “hidden” when no sampling frame exists and public acknowledgment of membership in the population is potentially threatening. Accessing such populations is difficult because standard probability sampling methods produce low response rates and responses that lack candor. Existing procedures for sampling these populations, including snowball and other chain-referral samples, the key-informant approach, and targeted sampling, introduce well-documented biases into their samples. This paper introduces a new variant of chain-referral sampling, respondent-driven sampling, that employs a dual system of structured incentives to overcome some of the deficiencies of such samples. A theoretic analysis, drawing on both Markov-chain theory and the theory of biased networks, shows that this procedure can reduce the biases generally associated with chain-referral methods. The analysis includes a proof showing that even though sampling begins with an arbitrarily chosen set of initial subjects, as do most chain-referral samples, the composition of the ultimate sample is wholly independent of those initial subjects. The analysis also includes a theoretic specification of the conditions under which the procedure yields unbiased samples. Empirical results, based on surveys of 277 active drug injectors in Connecticut, support these conclusions. Finally, the conclusion discusses how respondent- driven sampling can improve both network sampling and ethnographic 44 investigation.

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