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Idiographic versus nomothetic approaches to psychology
|Nomothetic approach||Idiographic approach|
|Definitions||The approach of investigating large groups of people in order to find general laws of behaviour that apply to everyone||The approach of investigating individuals in personal, in-depth detail to achieve a unique understanding of them.|
|Assumptions||Nomos= laws in ancient Greek; this approach assumes that an individual is a complex combination of many universal laws; it is best to study people on a large scale.||Idios= ‘private’ or ‘personal’ in ancient Greek; this approach assumes that humans are unique.|
|Methodology||Quantitative Experimental methods are best to identify the universal laws governing behaviour.
The individual will be classified with others and measured as a score upon a dimension, or be a statistic supporting a general principle (‘averaging’).
|Qualitative methods are best; case study method will provide a more complete and global understanding of the individual who should be studied using flexible, long terms and detailed procedures in order to put them in a ‘class of their own’.|
|Examples from psychology||The nomothetic approach is the main approach within scientifically oriented psychology.
• Behaviourism: experiments with
animals (rats, cats and pigeons) _establish laws of learning (B.F. Skinner e.g.).
• Social psychology: Milgram e.g. used the nomothetic approach and made general conclusions on the basis of his research.
• Psychological theories that propose generalised principles of behaviour have nomothetic assumptions (e.g. intelligence theory of IQ)
• Classification manuals like the DSM-IV classify people according to particular types of disorders.
|• Freud (1909) the clinical case study method (patients interviewed over a long period of time, notes of his interpretations, unstructured techniques (free association), and he wrote up his notes at the end of the day to allow a more free and natural expression of the patients’ thoughts and feelings.
• Piaget (1953) longitudinal studies of cognitive development of his children, keeping frequent notes and using the flexible clinical interview method and informal experiments to gain detailed and ecologically valid understanding.
• Gardner and Gardner (1969) spent
long time interacting with and observing the chimpanzee Washoe as they tried to teach him sign language.
|Advantages||In line with the deterministic, law abiding nature of science, useful in predicting and controlling behaviour; nomothetic findings on prejudice and discrimination perhaps helpful (_reduce discrimination)||More complete and global understanding of an individual; sometimes the most efficient; often lead to results that spark off experimental investigation of behaviour.|
|Disadvantages||Superficial understanding of any one person; even if two persons have same IQ they may have answered different questions in the test; a person may have
1% chance of developing depression
(but is he among the 1%?); classification manuals are not accurate and does not help people.
|Difficult to generalise findings; Freud and Piaget created universal theories on the basis of a limited and unrepresentative sample;
Idiographic research tends to be more unreliable and unscientific (subjective, long term and unstandardised procedures)