Generalization in quantitative and qualitative research: myths and strategies

Int J Nurs Stud. 2010 Nov;47(11):1451-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2010.06.004. Epub 2010 Jul 3.


Generalization, which is an act of reasoning that involves drawing broad inferences from particular observations, is widely-acknowledged as a quality standard in quantitative research, but is more controversial in qualitative research. The goal of most qualitative studies is not to generalize but rather to provide a rich, contextualized understanding of some aspect of human experience through the intensive study of particular cases. Yet, in an environment where evidence for improving practice is held in high esteem, generalization in relation to knowledge claims merits careful attention by both qualitative and quantitative researchers. Issues relating to generalization are, however, often ignored or misrepresented by both groups of researchers. Three models of generalization, as proposed in a seminal article by Firestone, are discussed in this paper: classic sample-to-population (statistical) generalization, analytic generalization, and case-to-case transfer (transferability). Suggestions for enhancing the capacity for generalization in terms of all three models are offered. The suggestions cover such issues as planned replication, sampling strategies, systematic reviews, reflexivity and higher-order conceptualization, thick description, mixed methods research, and the RE-AIM framework within pragmatic trials.

MeSH terms

  • Evidence-Based Nursing
  • Models, Nursing
  • Nursing Research*