Qualitative research is considered by some researchers to b…

Qualitative research is considered by some researchers to be less externally valid than quantitative research. Specifically, because of the nature of the data and the way the data is collected (conducting interviews to examine the participant’s beliefs about the world), the results that are obtained using this research approach may not apply (generalize) to other members of the population. Do you think that this a methodological or ethical problem? Why?


The question of whether the perceived lack of external validity in qualitative research is a methodological or ethical problem raises an important debate in the field of research methodology. This essay will argue that the issue is primarily methodological, with ethical considerations being secondary. To support this argument, the essay will begin by defining qualitative research and discussing the nature of data and data collection methods used in this approach. Next, it will examine the concept of external validity and explore the reasons behind the perceived limitations of qualitative research in generalizing findings to a wider population. Finally, the essay will address the potential ethical implications of these limitations.

Defining Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is an approach in which researchers aim to understand and explore the richness, complexity, and diversity of a phenomenon. It is characterized by the collection of non-numerical data, such as interviews, observations, and documents, which are analyzed through an interpretive and context-dependent lens. This type of research often involves studying a smaller sample size in order to gain a deep understanding of the underlying factors and processes at play.

Nature of Data and Data Collection in Qualitative Research

In qualitative research, data is collected through various methods, such as interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic observations. These methods allow researchers to gather rich, descriptive data that capture the perspectives, experiences, and beliefs of participants. Interviews, in particular, provide a platform for participants to articulate their own understandings and interpretations of the world, creating a unique insight into their thoughts and feelings.

Perceived Lack of External Validity

External validity refers to the extent to which the findings of a study can be generalized to other populations, settings, or contexts. Some researchers argue that qualitative research lacks external validity, suggesting that the findings obtained from a study may not apply to a broader population. This perceived limitation stems from the distinct characteristics of qualitative research, including the non-numerical data, the context-specific nature of the findings, and the small sample sizes often used.

One reason for the perceived lack of external validity is the use of non-numerical data in qualitative research. Unlike quantitative research, which provides numerical data that can be analyzed statistically, qualitative research relies on rich textual or visual data. The interpretation and contextualization of such data limit the ability to draw precise and generalizable conclusions, as the findings are often dependent on the unique characteristics of the participants and the specific research context.

Another reason is the context-specific nature of qualitative research. Qualitative researchers often emphasize the importance of understanding the social, cultural, and historical contexts within which a phenomenon occurs. This focus on context means that the findings may not be applicable in other settings or contexts that have different social, cultural, or historical dynamics. The unique circumstances of one population may not be representative of a larger population, further limiting the external generalizability of qualitative findings.

The use of small sample sizes in qualitative research is also a contributing factor. Qualitative researchers typically prioritize depth over breadth, aiming to understand the underlying factors and processes in-depth rather than seeking a representative sample. The limited sample size restricts the statistical power of the findings and hinders the ability to generalize the results to larger populations. As such, the external validity of qualitative research is often perceived to be compromised.

Methodological vs. Ethical Problem

The limitations discussed above primarily pertain to the methodological aspect of qualitative research. The distinctive nature of data and the context-specific considerations contribute to the perceived lack of external validity. While this does raise ethical implications, such as potentially misinforming policymakers or making assumptions about individuals or groups that may not be warranted, these ethical concerns are secondary to the methodological problem at hand.

The primary goal of qualitative research is to generate rich, context-specific knowledge that contributes to the understanding of a particular phenomenon. It does not aim to produce statistically generalizable findings in the same way as quantitative research. The methodological limitations in external validity are inherent to the nature of qualitative research and should be understood and accepted as such.


In conclusion, the perceived lack of external validity in qualitative research is primarily a methodological problem. The use of non-numerical data, the context-specific nature of findings, and the small sample sizes often employed contribute to this perception. While there may be ethical implications associated with limited generalizability, the primary focus of qualitative research is to provide rich, context-dependent understanding rather than statistically generalizable findings. Researchers should therefore acknowledge and communicate the unique strengths and limitations of qualitative research, rather than viewing this as a fundamental ethical dilemma.