Generalizability and Transferability


Transferability describes the process of applying the results of research in one situation to other similar situations. In this section, we establish a practical working definition of transferability as it's applied within and outside of academic research. We also outline important considerations researchers must be aware of in order to make their results potentially transferable, as well as the critical role the reader plays in this process. Finally, we discuss possible shortcomings and limitations of transferability that researchers must be aware of when planning and conducting a study that will yield potentially transferable results.


Transferability is a process performed by readers of research. Readers note the specifics of the research situation and compare them to the specifics of an environment or situation with which they are familiar. If there are enough similarities between the two situations, readers may be able to infer that the results of the research would be the same or similar in their own situation. In other words, they "transfer" the results of a study to another context. To do this effectively, readers need to know as much as possible about the original research situation in order to determine whether it is similar to their own. Therefore, researchers must supply a highly detailed description of their research situation and methods.

Results of any type of research method can be applied to other situations, but transferability is most relevant to qualitative research methods such as ethnography and case studies. Reports based on these research methods are detailed and specific. However, because they often consider only one subject or one group, researchers who conduct such studies seldom generalize the results to other populations. The detailed nature of the results, however, makes them ideal for transferability.


Transferability is easy to understand when you consider that we are constantly applying this concept to aspects of our daily lives. If, for example, you are an inexperienced composition instructor and you read a study in which a veteran writing instructor discovered that extensive prewriting exercises helped students in her classes come up with much more narrowly defined paper topics, you could ask yourself how much the instructor's classroom resembled your own. If there were many similarities, you might try to draw conclusions about how increasing the amount of prewriting your students do would impact their ability to arrive at sufficiently narrow paper topics. In doing so, you would be attempting to transfer the composition researcher's techniques to your own classroom.

An example of transferable research in the field of English studies is Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman's (1988) study of a graduate student in a rhetoric Ph.D. program. In this case study, the researchers describe in detail a graduate student's entrance into the language community of his academic program, and particularly his struggle learning the writing conventions of this community. They make conclusions as to why certain things might have affected the graduate student, "Nate," in certain ways, but they are unable to generalize their findings to all graduate students in rhetoric Ph.D. programs. It is simply one study of one person in one program. However, from the level of detail the researchers provide, readers can take certain aspects of Nate's experience and apply them to other contexts and situations. This is transferability. First-year graduate students who read the Berkenhotter, Huckin, and Ackerman study may recognize similarities in their own situation while professors may recognize difficulties their students are having and understand these difficulties a bit better. The researchers do not claim that their results apply to other situations. Instead, they report their findings and make suggestions about possible causes for Nate's difficulties and eventual success. Readers then look at their own situation and decide if these causes may or may not be relevant.


When designing a study researchers have to consider their goals: Do they want to provide limited information about a broad group in order to indicate trends or patterns? Or do they want to provide detailed information about one person or small group that might suggest reasons for a particular behavior? The method they choose will determine the extent to which their results can be transferred since transferability is more applicable to certain kinds of research methods than others.

Thick Description: When writing up the results of a study, it is important that the researcher provide specific information about and a detailed description of her subject(s), location, methods, role in the study, etc. This is commonly referred to as "thick description" of methods and findings; it is important because it allows readers to make an informed judgment about whether they can transfer the findings to their own situation. For example, if an educator conducts an ethnography of her writing classroom, and finds that her students' writing improved dramatically after a series of student-teacher writing conferences, she must describe in detail the classroom setting, the students she observed, and her own participation. If the researcher does not provide enough detail, it will be difficult for readers to try the same strategy in their own classrooms. If the researcher fails to mention that she conducted this research in a small, upper-class private school, readers may transfer the results to a large, inner-city public school expecting a similar outcome.

The Reader's Role: The role of readers in transferability is to apply the methods or results of a study to their own situation. In doing so, readers must take into account differences between the situation outlined by the researcher and their own. If readers of the Berkenhotter, Huckin, and Ackerman study are aware that the research was conducted in a small, upper-class private school, but decide to test the method in a large inner-city public school, they must make adjustments for the different setting and be prepared for different results.

Likewise, readers may decide that the results of a study are not transferable to their own situation. For example, if a study found that watching more than 30 hours of television a week resulted in a worse GPA for graduate students in physics, graduate students in broadcast journalism may conclude that these results do not apply to them.

Readers may also transfer only certain aspects of the study and not the entire conclusion. For example, in the Berkenhotter, Huckin, and Ackerman study, the researchers suggest a variety of reasons for why the graduate student studied experienced difficulties adjusting to his Ph.D. program. Although composition instructors cannot compare "Nate" to first-year college students in their composition class, they could ask some of the same questions about their own class, offering them insight into some of the writing difficulties the first-year undergraduates are experiencing. It is up to readers to decide what findings are important and which may apply to their own situation; if researchers fulfill their responsibility to provide "thick description," this decision is much easier to make.

Potential Limitations

Understanding research results can help us understand why and how something happens. However, many researchers believe that such understanding is difficult to achieve in relation to human behaviors which they contend are too difficult to understand and often impossible to predict. "Because of the many and varied ways in which individuals differ from each other and because these differences change over time, comprehensive and definitive experiments in the social sciences are not possible...the most we can ever realistically hope to achieve in educational research is not prediction and control but rather only temporary understanding" (Cziko, 1993, p. 10).

Cziko's point is important because transferability allows for "temporary understanding." Instead of applying research results to every situation that may occur in the future, we can apply a similar method to another, similar situation, observe the new results, apply a modified version to another situation, and so on. Transferability takes into account the fact that there are no absolute answers to given situations; rather, every individual must determine their own best practices. Transferring the results of research performed by others can help us develop and modify these practices. However, it is important for readers of research to be aware that results cannot always be transferred; a result that occurs in one situation will not necessarily occur in a similar situation. Therefore, it is critical to take into account differences between situations and modify the research process accordingly.

Although transferability seems to be an obvious, natural, and important method for applying research results and conclusions, it is not perceived as a valid research approach in some academic circles. Perhaps partly in response to critics, in many modern research articles, researchers refer to their results as generalizable or externally valid. Therefore, it seems as though they are not talking about transferability. However, in many cases those same researchers provide direction about what points readers may want to consider, but hesitate to make any broad conclusions or statements. These are characteristics of transferable results.

Generalizability is actually, as we have seen, quite different from transferability. Unfortunately, confusion surrounding these two terms can lead to misinterpretation of research results. Emphasis on the value of transferable results -- as well as a clear understanding among researchers in the field of English of critical differences between the conditions under which research can be generalized, transferred, or, in some cases, both generalized and transferred -- could help qualitative researchers avoid some of the criticisms launched by skeptics who question the value of qualitative research methods.

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