saturation and qualitative sample sizes

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    There seems to be a bit of confusion about the concept of saturation in qualitative research so my colleague and I have written a paper that may be of use to people. It is due to be published in Qualitative Research shorty:


    O’Reilly, M and Parker, N. (2011 – in press). Unsatisfactory Saturation’: A critical exploration of the notion of saturated sample sizes in qualitative research. Qualitative Research X XX


    This complements papers on the subject by


    Bowen, G. (2008). Naturalistic inquiry and the saturation concept: a research note. Qualitative Research, 8 (1), 137-142.


    Guest, G. Bruce, A. & Johnson, L. (2006). How many interviews are enough? An experiment with data saturation and variability. Field Methods, 18 (1), 59-82.


    Not enough people are transparent about what they mean by saturation and yet some journals are building it into their review criteria.


    It would be interesting to see what people think


    Is there anyway we can see the paper or another version?


    Hi Michelle,

    Interesting!! I will read your paper. A small note- are not we again trying to bring the legacy of positivism or quantitative paradigm when we start talking about sample sizes in qualitative research. 

    Lynne Livsey

    If it’s not possible to publish draft paper ahead of publication, could you post a short summary of the points you make in the article to stimulate some debate on this?

    Thanks Lynne


    That’s really an important issue Michelle especially as qualitative research is growing in popularity and is accessing a more mainstream audience. I look forward to your article and thanks for these citations on the topic.

    Lynne Livsey

    Ref return to positivism – Only if sample size is used as the criteria for judging saturation in qualitative research, rather than seeing saturation as the point when no new themes are emerging from the data etc in relation to the research questions. Would be very interested in reading this article when published


    Hi It is not about positivism per se in qualitative sample sizes, more about quality and sample size adequacy. Our issue in the paper is that there are different definitions of saturation, that authors are rarely transparent about it and that some journals now seem to expect it even when it is not an appropriate marker for all types of qualitative research. Hopefully it will be published in Qualitative Research shortly …. thank you everyone for your interest, we feel it is important to generate discussions before the journals insist on it


    The abstract is posted here:


    Measuring quality in qualitative research is a contentious issue with diverse opinions and various frameworks available within the evidence base. One important and somewhat neglected argument within this field relates to the increasingly ubiquitous discourse of data saturation. While originally developed within grounded theory, theoretical saturation, and later termed data/thematic saturation for other qualitative methods, the meaning has evolved and become transformed. Problematically this temporal drift has been treated as unproblematic and saturation as a marker for sampling adequacy has becoming increasingly accepted and expected. In this paper we challenge the unquestioned acceptance of the concept of saturation and consider its plausibility and transferability across all qualitative approaches. By considering issues of transparency and epistemology we argue that adopting saturation as a generic quality marker is inappropriate. The aim of this paper is to highlight the pertinent issues and encourage the research community to engage with and contribute to this important area.  



     how do we distinguish transparent respondent from the non transparent and the % of interviews that are enough? Hoping to read the paper soon


    Hi Rachel


    Determining the number of interviews that are enough will be contingent upon the methodology and the perspective and which form, if any, of saturation you are using as your quality marker. It will also depend on your research question and your objectives, for some research one case is enough, for others you need lots of examples.


    When I say transparent, I mean in dissemination practice. In other words, if an author claims to have saturated the sample then they should provide some desciription of how they determined that marker. This often does not happen though, usually authors just say saturation was reached without any indication of how. As a reader you are left with no idea of how true that is. The paper does mark out the differences between different types of saturation, why transparency is important and the fact that sometimes it is not appropriate to use it as a marker of sample adequacy.

    Isabel Pinho


    can you send me

    draft / article??

    thanks a lot

    Isabel Pinho


    If you send me your e-mail address I am happy to send you the draft



    Hi all,


    Im looking forward to see the draft paper & discussion soon!

    Ashika Simhadri

    Looking forward to reading about types of saturation and how a saturation marker can be defended. Thanks for the abstract!


    my email address is






    Hi Michelle


    just in case, my e-mail:




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