What is qualitative research? This question demands an answer before any discussion pertaining to the relation between qualitative research and generalizability could be expounded. The term qualitative research has been defined as, “a situated activity that locates the observer in the world. It consists of a set of interpretative, material practices that makes the world visible. These practices… turn the world into a series of representations including field notes, interviews, conversations, photographs, recordings and memos to the self.
It involves an interpretative, naturalistic approach to the world. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or to interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them” (Ritchie and Lewis 2003, p. 2). Based on this definition, it appears that there is no single right or accepted way of doing qualitative research. What is important is that research should be able to interpret data gathered in terms of the meaning that can be commonly understood.
Karen Whalley Hammell stated that qualitative research is “based on an interpretative epistemology”(p 9), which means that knowledge is generated “and shaped through interaction between those involved in the research process” (p. 9). However, research findings should be corroborated by correctness in the context of the general condition in which the research was conducted. The condition involves the community and their culture. It is in this area that the issue of generalizability pertains to the qualitative research study.
How the issue of generalizability pertains to qualitative research The relation of the issue of generalizability in qualitative research is that it guarantees the external validity of research findings to a certain large segment of society as generalizability refers to the acceptability of the research to a larger population to that population it self. Judith Green and Nicki Thorogood (2004) aptly stated that “generalizability refers to the extent to which “findings from a study apply to a wider population or to different context” (p. 197).
It means that a qualitative research holds truth if its findings were valid to the majority of the population in which the research was conducted. However, the idea of generalizability may also mean generalization of the result of study conducted among few individuals with the same behavioral patterns and habit. This means that the simple findings taken from a few individuals will be generalized through the entire community with the same behavioral patterns and habit. In this case, generalizability pertaining to the qualitative research study is questionable.
It put the issue of generalizability in less salient position because it does not follow that the study done among a few individuals are true to the majority of the community. The question therefore that should be asked is to what extent that generalizability pertaining to qualitative research findings can be reliable and acceptable? Citing the study done by Campbell and Stanley (1963), Martyn Hammersley (1993) points out that the role of the concept of external validity of the research “has received the lion’s share of attention in text book and other treatment of the concept” (200).
Hammersley explained that because of advances in sampling theory in survey research, “it is possible to draw samples from even a large and heterogeneous population using the logic of probability statistic” (p. 200). While it may not be so clear, the issue of generalizability pertains to the qualitative research study on the ground of validation of its findings in the context of the community in which the study was conducted. Generalizability in the qualitative study, therefore, means the factor by which the validity of the research is determined.