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Discuss the idiographic and nomothetic debate within psychology. Refer to topics that you have
studied in psychology to illustrate your answer.
An idiographic approach is any approach or method in psychology that is concerned with the
individual rather than in the development of general laws of behaviour. An idiographic view takes the
position that everyone is unique and therefore everyone must be studied in an individual way to
capture the richness of human individuality. No general laws are possible because of chance, free will
and the uniqueness of individuals. This approach is normally contrasted with the nomothetic
approach. Nomothetic refers to any approach or method that deals with the establishment of
general patterns of behaviour. The traditional experimental methods are generally referred to as
being nomothetic as they attempt to establish common forms of functioning that would apply to all
members of a population. A nomothetic view focuses on general laws of behaviour, typified by
behaviourism. It involves studying a large number of people, trying to understand why they behave
in similar ways in certain situations.
The debate as to which is more appropriate, however, is not just restricted to the types of
laws about behaviour that should be developed. It is fundamental in psychology because of the
implications for how psychologists should carry out research and how it affects psychology's standing
as a scientific discipline.
The key feature of the idiographic approach is the individual and the recognition of their
uniqueness. This includes numerous aspects of individuality: for example, private, subjective and
conscious experiences; feelings; beliefs and values. This approach also involves investigating
individuals in a personal and detailed way. Methods of investigation tend to be qualitative. The case
study method, which can provide a complete and global understanding of the individual, is favoured.
Other methods include unstructured interviews as well as the use of autobiographies and personal
documents such as diaries and letters. In psychoanalysis, free association and dream analysis are
acceptable investigating tools. However, it is important to note that numerical measurement is not
excluded in the idiographic approach: it is just that the main form of data collected is description
rather than measurement.
The main problem with the idiographic approach is that generalisations cannot reasonably be
made to a wider population. This is one of the criticisms levelled at Freud. His case study method is
clearly idiographic, yet he provided a theory of personality that, he argued, is applicable to all
humans. The methods of research tend to be subjective, flexible and unstandardised, making
replication of research findings, prediction and control of behaviour very difficult. The use of
statistical analysis is problematic in small-scale research using mainly qualitative data. Therefore the
idiographic approach is regarded as unscientific.
However, the goals of science are not simply prediction and control of behaviour. Other
goals are to describe and understand behaviour and these are best served by the idiographic
approach. In fulfilling these criteria, it could be argued that the idiographic approach compliments the
nomothetic approach, satisfying some of the aims of science. Thus some scientific principles can be
applied to the study of the individual.
The idiographic approach also provides a global and more complete understanding of the
individual than the nomothetic approach. For example, Freud's case study of Little Hans provides a
detailed account of the origin and development of Hans' unconscious fear. The study illustrates the
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Freud's more contentious concepts to behaviour: castration anxiety and the
Oedipal complex. In addition, because the idiographic approach investigates individuals, it is possible
to explore naturally occurring but unusual cases. Blakemore's case study of Clive Wearing gives a
very rich account of the effects of selective impairments to memory function as a result of damage to
certain parts of the brain.
A further strength of the idiographic approach is that findings can serve as a source of ideas
or hypotheses for later study.…read more