Generalizability and Transferability

Controversy, Worth, and Function

Research in the natural sciences has a long tradition of valuing empirical studies; experimental investigation has been considered "the" way to perform research. As social scientists adapted the methods of natural science research to their own needs, they adopted this preference for empirical research. Therefore, studies that are generalizable have long been thought to be more worthwhile; the value of research was often determined by whether a study was generalizable to a population as a whole. However, more and more social scientists are realizing the value of using a variety of methods of inquiry, and the value of transferability is being recognized.

It is important to recognize that generalizability and transferability do not alone determine a study's worth. They perform different functions in research, depending on the topic and goals of the researcher. Where generalizable studies often indicate phenomena that apply to broad categories such as gender or age, transferability can provide some of the how and why behind these results.

However, there are weaknesses that must be considered. Researchers can study a small group that is representative of a larger group and claim that it is likely that their results are applicable to the larger group, but it is impossible for them to test every single person in the larger group. Their conclusions, therefore, are only valid in relation to their own studies. Another problem is that a non-representative group can lead to a faulty generalization. For example, a study of composition students'; revision capabilities which compared students' progress made during a semester in a computer classroom with progress exhibited by students in a traditional classroom might show that computers do aid students in the overall composing process. However, if it were discovered later that an unusually high number of students in the traditional classrooms suffered from substance abuse problems outside of the classroom, the population studied would not be considered representative of the student population as a whole. Therefore, it would be problematic to generalize the results of the study to a larger student population.

In the case of transferability, readers need to know as much detail as possible about a research situation in order to accurately transfer the results to their own. However, it is impossible to provide an absolutely complete description of a situation, and missing details may lead a reader to transfer results to a situation that is not entirely similar to the original one.

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