What Is Generalizability? | Definition & Examples
Generalizability is the degree to which you can apply the results of your study to a broader context. Research results are considered generalizable when the findings can be applied to most contexts, most people, most of the time.
What is generalizability?
The goal of research is to produce knowledge that can be applied as widely as possible. However, since it usually isn’t possible to analyze every member of a population, researchers make do by analyzing a portion of it, making statements about that portion.
To be able to apply these statements to larger groups, researchers must ensure that the sample accurately resembles the broader population.
In other words, the sample and the population must share the characteristics relevant to the research being conducted. When this happens, the sample is considered representative, and by extension, the study’s results are considered generalizable.
In general, a study has good generalizability when the results apply to many different types of people or different situations. In contrast, if the results can only be applied to a subgroup of the population or in a very specific situation, the study has poor generalizability.
Why is generalizability important?
Obtaining a representative sample is crucial for probability sampling. In contrast, studies using non-probability sampling designs are more concerned with investigating a few cases in depth, rather than generalizing their findings. As such, generalizability is the main difference between probability and non-probability samples.
There are three factors that determine the generalizability of your study in a probability sampling design:
- The randomness of the sample, with each research unit (e.g., person, business, or organization in your population) having an equal chance of being selected.
- How representative the sample is of your population.
- The size of your sample, with larger samples more likely to yield statistically significant results.
Generalizability is one of the three criteria (along with validity and reliability) that researchers use to assess the quality of both quantitative and qualitative research. However, depending on the type of research, generalizability is interpreted and evaluated differently.
- In quantitative research, generalizability helps to make inferences about the population.
- In qualitative research, generalizability helps to compare the results to other results from similar situations.
Examples of generalizability
Generalizability is crucial for establishing the validity and reliability of your study. In most cases, a lack of generalizability significantly narrows down the scope of your research—i.e., to whom the results can be applied.
However, research results that cannot be generalized can still have value. It all depends on your research objectives.
Types of generalizability
There are two broad types of generalizability:
- Statistical generalizability, which applies to quantitative research
- Theoretical generalizability (also referred to as transferability), which applies to qualitative research
Statistical generalizability is critical for quantitative research. The goal of quantitative research is to develop general knowledge that applies to all the units of a population while studying only a subset of these units (sample). Statistical generalization is achieved when you study a sample that accurately mirrors characteristics of the population. The sample needs to be sufficiently large and unbiased.
In qualitative research, statistical generalizability is not relevant. This is because qualitative research is primarily concerned with obtaining insights on some aspect of human experience, rather than data with solid statistical basis. By studying individual cases, researchers will try to get results that they can extend to similar cases. This is known as theoretical generalizability or transferability.
How do you ensure generalizability in research?
In order to apply your findings on a larger scale, you should take the following steps to ensure your research has sufficient generalizability.
- Define your population in detail. By doing so, you will establish what it is that you intend to make generalizations about. For example, are you going to discuss students in general, or students on your campus?
- Use random sampling. If the sample is truly random (i.e., everyone in the population is equally likely to be chosen for the sample), then you can avoid sampling bias and ensure that the sample will be representative of the population.
- Consider the size of your sample. The sample size must be large enough to support the generalization being made. If the sample represents a smaller group within that population, then the conclusions have to be downsized in scope.
- If you’re conducting qualitative research, try to reach a saturation point of important themes and categories. This way, you will have sufficient information to account for all aspects of the phenomenon under study.
After completing your research, take a moment to reflect on the generalizability of your findings. What didn’t go as planned and could impact your generalizability? For example, selection biases such as nonresponse bias can affect your results. Explain how generalizable your results are, as well as possible limitations, in the discussion section of your research paper.
Other types of research bias
Frequently asked questions about generalizability
- Why is generalizability important in research?
- What is the difference between internal and external validity?
The validity of your experiment depends on your experimental design.
- What goes in the discussion chapter of a dissertation?
- How do I determine scope of research?
Scope of research is determined at the beginning of your research process, prior to the data collection stage. Sometimes called “scope of study,” your scope delineates what will and will not be covered in your project. It helps you focus your work and your time, ensuring that you’ll be able to achieve your goals and outcomes.
Defining a scope can be very useful in any research project, from a research proposal to a thesis or dissertation. A scope is needed for all types of research: quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods.
To define your scope of research, consider the following:
- Budget constraints or any specifics of grant funding
- Your proposed timeline and duration
- Specifics about your population of study, your proposed sample size, and the research methodology you’ll pursue
- Any inclusion and exclusion criteria
- Any anticipated control, extraneous, or confounding variables that could bias your research if not accounted for properly.
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