What is transferability in qualitative research and how do we establish it?

Qualitative Methodology

Transferability in qualitative research is synonymous with generalizability, or external validity, in quantitative research. Transferability is established by providing readers with evidence that the research study’s findings could be applicable to other contexts, situations, times, and populations. It is important to note that you as the researcher cannot prove that the research study’s findings will be applicable. Instead, your job as the researcher is to provide the evidence that it could be applicable. This may sound tricky and wish-washy, but Lincoln & Guba (1985) said it best on p. 316. “It is, in summary, not the naturalist’s task to provide an index of transferability, it is his or her responsibility to provide the data base that makes transferability judgements possible on the part of potential appliers.”

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Each school is different in terms of what techniques they allow to establish transferability, but here we will stick to Lincoln and Guba’s (1985) recommendation of providing thick description of the phenomenon. Thick description may sound familiar to those who have taken a methodology course that included a review of ethnography, and good for you for remembering that! It is actually a technique that ethnographic researchers use extensively, but it is a technique that other qualitative researchers can use as well. Specifically, thick description is a technique in which a qualitative researcher provides a robust and detailed account of their experiences during data collection. A qualitative researcher makes explicit connections to the cultural and social contexts that surround data collection. This means talking about where the interviews occurred, the possibility of participants conducting the interview after work (which can be exhausting), and other aspects of data collection that help provide a richer and fuller understanding of the research setting.

This information helps the reader construct the scene that surrounds the research study, from the daily lives of participants to the way that implicit biases may affect their responses. It is helpful to put what participants express to the researcher into the context of the surrounding social and cultural environments that the research study is framed around. This allows outside researchers and readers to make the transferability judgements themselves.