How much to generalize

With regard to the issue of generalizing, it is so easy to offer the broad and rather unhelpful guideline: Do not over generalize! However, research in most cases is all about the need to produce generalizable findings. After all, with the exception of 'action research,' researchers in the L2 field rarely investigate a sample with the sole purpose of wanting to know more only about the particular people under investigation. Instead, what we normally want to do is find out more about the population (cf. Section 3.1), that is, about all the similar people in the world. This means that the crucial question to decide is what 'over' means in the term 'overgeneralization.'

It would again be easy to give a less-than-useful, though technically correct, definition of 'overgeneralization,' namely that it occurs when we generalize the findings to a population that our sample is not representative of. This states, in effect, that if we examine, say, primary school pupils, we should not generalize our findings to secondary or university students. There is no question about the validity of this claim, and yet it avoids the crux of the problem, which is that if we were to observe this guideline too closely, few (if any) studies in the educational psychological literature could speak about 'students' in general. It is clear that hardly any investigations are sufficiently large-scale to include representatives of every main age group, ethnicity, school type, and subject matter in a single study (just to list four key factors) - yet the discussions of the findings are rarely restricted to the particular subpopulation in question.

Having said this, I still believe that we should beware of overgen-eralizations, but in the absence of hard and fast rules about what constitutes 'over '-generalization, we need to strive to find a delicate balance between the following two considerations:

• On the one hand, we may wish to be able to say something of a broader relevance (since it may severely reduce our audience if we limit our discussion to very specific subgroups).

• On the other hand, big claims can usually be made only on the basis of big studies.

Having said these, some classic studies in the research literature did confine their focus to extremely limited target issues, and some famous big claims were indeed made based on small studies... So, the only conclusion I can offer is that researchers need to exercise great caution when pitching the level of generalization in their research reports.

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