Impact of small group size on neighbourhood influences in multilevel models

Katherine P. Theall, Richard Scribner, Stephanie Broyles, Qingzhao Yu, Jigar Chotalia, Neal Simonsen, Matthias Schonlau, Bradley P. Carlin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


Background Given the growing availability of multilevel data from national surveys, researchers interested in contextual effects may find themselves with a small number of individuals per group. Although there is a growing body of literature on sample size in multilevel modelling, few have explored the impact of group sizes of less than five. Methods In a simulated analysis of real data, the impact of a group size of less than five was examined on both a continuous and dichotomous outcome in a simple twolevel multilevel model. Models with group sizes one to five were compared with models with complete data. Four different linear and logistic models were examined: empty models; models with a group-level covariate; models with an individual-level covariate and models with an aggregated group-level covariate. The study evaluated further whether the impact of small group size differed depending on the total number of groups. Results When the number of groups was large (N=459), neither fixed nor random components were affected by small group size, even when 90% of tracts had only one individual per tract and even when an aggregated group-level covariate was examined. As the number of groups decreased, the SE estimates of both fixed and random effects were inflated. Furthermore, group-level variance estimates were more affected than were fixed components. Conclusions Datasets in which there is a small to moderate number of groups, with the majority of very small group size (n<5), size may fail to find or even consider a group-level effect when one may exist and also may be underpowered to detect fixed effects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)688-695
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of epidemiology and community health
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2011


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