Diving Deeper into Limitations and Delimitations

If you are working on a thesis, dissertation, or other formal research project, chances are your advisor or committee will ask you to address the delimitations of your study. When faced with this request, many students respond with a puzzled look and then go on to address what are actually the study’s limitations.

If you’re wondering what the difference between these two terms is, don’t worry—you’re not alone!

In a previous article , we covered what goes into the limitations, delimitations, and assumptions sections of your thesis or dissertation. Here, we will dive a bit deeper into the differences between limitations and delimitations and provide some helpful tips for addressing them in your research project—whether you are working on a quantitative or qualitative study.

Acknowledging Weaknesses vs. Defining Boundaries

These concepts are easy to get confused because both limitations and delimitations restrict (or limit) the questions you’ll be able to answer with your study, most notably in terms of generalizability.

However, the biggest difference between limitations and delimitations is the degree of control you have over them—that is, how much they are based in conscious, intentional choices you made in designing your study.

Limitations occur in all types of research and are, for the most part, outside the researcher’s control (given practical constraints, such as time, funding, and access to populations of interest). They are threats to the study’s internal or external validity.

Limitations may include things such as participant drop-out, a sample that isn’t entirely representative of the desired population, violations to the assumptions of parametric analysis (e.g., normality, homogeneity of variance), the limits of self-report, or the absence of reliability and validity data for some of your survey measures.

Some limitations are inherent to your research design itself. For example, you won’t be able to infer causality from a correlational study or generalize to an entire population from a case study. Likewise, while an experimental study allows you to draw causal conclusions, it may require a level of experimental control that looks very different from the real world (thus lowering external validity). Of course, your choice of research design is within your control; however, the limitations of the design refer to those aspects that may restrict your ability to answer the questions you might like to answer.

Limitations can get in the way of your being able to answer certain questions or draw certain types of inferences from your findings. Therefore, it’s important to acknowledge them upfront and make note of how they restrict the conclusions you’ll be able to draw from your study. Frequently, limitations can get in the way of our ability to generalize our findings to the larger populations or to draw causal conclusions, so be sure to consider these issues when you’re thinking about the potential limitations of your study.

Delimitations are also factors that can restrict the questions you can answer or the inferences you can draw from your findings. However, they are based on intentional choices you make a priori (i.e., as you’re designing the study) about where you’re going to draw the boundaries of your project. In other words, they define the project’s scope.

Like limitations, delimitations are a part of every research project, and this is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s very important! You can’t study everything at once. If you try to do so, your project is bound to get huge and unwieldy, and it will become a lot more difficult to interpret your results or come to meaningful conclusions with so many moving parts. You have to draw the line somewhere, and the delimitations are where you choose to draw these lines.

One of the clearest examples of a delimitation that applies to almost every research project is participant exclusion criteria. In conducting either a quantitative or a qualitative study, you will have to define your population of interest. Defining this population of interest means that you will need to articulate the boundaries of that population (i.e., who is not included). Those boundaries are delimitations.

For example, if you’re interested in understanding the experiences of elementary school teachers who have been implementing a new curriculum into their classrooms, you probably won’t be interviewing or sending a survey to any of the following people: non-teachers, high-school teachers, college professors, principals, parents of elementary school children, or the children themselves. Furthermore, you probably won’t be talking to elementary school teachers who have not yet had the experience of implementing the curriculum in question. You would probably only choose to gather data from elementary school teachers who have had this experience because that is who you’re interested in for the purposes of your study. Perhaps you’ll narrow your focus even more to elementary school teachers in a particular school district who have been teaching for a particular length of time. The possibilities can go on. These are choices you will need to make, both for practical reasons (i.e., the population you have access to) and for the questions you are trying to answer.

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