In a previous blog, we began a discussion on selecting participants in qualitative research studies, including the initial steps you should take to determine who should participate in your study. Here, we will explain the importance of inclusion and exclusion criteria and how such criteria are used to guide participant selection.
Inclusion criteria refer to characteristics that your potential participants must have in order to participate in the study. For example, if you are conducting a study on the experiences and perceptions of high school principals, one of your inclusion criterion might be that participants must have served as a principal at a high school for at least three years. Another common inclusion criterion is age; unless you are specifically studying minors or some other age group, you should require that participants are old enough to provide legal consent (typically 18 years old). Establishing specific inclusion criteria is especially important in qualitative research because it helps ensure that the individuals who participate can provide you the information necessary to address your research questions.
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Exclusion criteria are any characteristics that potential participants might have that would disqualify them from participating in the study. For example, you might exclude participants if they are considered part of a vulnerable population (e.g., incarcerated individuals or pregnant women) or if they have an illness or disability that might affect their ability to give consent or would otherwise make it dangerous for them to participate in the study. Note that your exclusion criteria are not simply the opposite of your inclusion criteria. Exclusion criteria are put in place to protect potential participants and to maintain proper ethical standards, in addition to ensuring that your sample is appropriate for addressing your research questions. When considering exclusion criteria, you need to be aware of your role as the researcher and your relationship to potential participants. For instance, if you were a medical or mental health professional, you would probably want to exclude your own patients from participating, as this would present a conflict of interest. Your exclusion criteria need to be carefully considered so that you conduct your study ethically and only interview participants who will give you relevant information; but at the same time, you do not want to unnecessarily exclude individuals from populations that might benefit from your research.
In the next installment of this blog series, we will describe some methods you can use to select participants who meet your inclusion and exclusion criteria.