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* Types of generalization in qualitative research

Posted By: Joseph Maxwell on May 8, 2007
This article identifies a serious problem in how qualitative research is evaluated, one that most of us have encountered at some point. However, it gives the impression that because qualitative research is based on a different paradigm than quantitative, the number of participants or settings in a study is unimportant, and not a valid criterion for judging a study. I think this overlooks the WAY in which qualitative research can be generalized, and issues for which the number of participants is important.

First, qualitative research is generalizable (many qualitative researchers would prefer the term "transferable") by a quite different logic from that of a sample survey. Robert Yin (2003, pp. 31-33) describes these as "analytic generalization" and "statistical generalization," respectively. Analytic generalization is not generalization to some defined population that has been sampled, but to a theory of the phenomenon being studied, a theory that may have much wider applicability than the particular case studied. In this, it resembles experiments in the physical sciences, which make no claim to statistical representativeness (physicists don't draw random samples of atoms), but instead assume that their results contribute to a general theory of the phenomenon. An excellent description of how this process operates is Howard Becker's paper Generalizing from Case Studies (1990). Qualitative researchers need to make this argument for the generalizability of their research; failing to do this leads to limiting the value of their work (as in Vander Putten's article) to "exploratory" studies that can prepare the way for more "rigorous" surveys.

Second, a small number of participants severely limits the ability of the researcher to understand the diversity and heterogeneity, across individuals or sites, of the phenomenon studied, and can lead to simplistic or partial accounts that exaggerate the uniformity of the phenomenon or impose a single model that only fits a part of the population (Maxwell, 1995, 2005).

Becker, H. S. (1990). Generalizing from case studies. In Eisner, E. W. & Peshkin, A., Qualitative inquiry in education: The continuing debate, pp. 233-242. New York: Teachers College Press.

Maxwell, J. A. (1995). Diversity and methodology in a changing world. Pedagogía 30:32–40.

Maxwell, J. A. (2005). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Yin. R. (2003). Case study research, 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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