For more than a century, two forms of explanation have been used in the social sciences: nomothetic and idiographic. These two types of explanation incorporate great differences in scientific logic, research methods, and even in the understanding of how the world is constituted
What are the differences between Nomothetic and Idiographic Science?
The differences are so marked that some scholars find them insurmountable, threatening the prospect of achieving unity in the sciences. However, other scholars welcome both approaches, seeing them as complementary ways to study and evaluate the same phenomena.
At the heart of the nomothetic/idiographic debates is the question of whether the social sciences require different modes of explanation than the natural sciences. These debates persist to this day, although with less intensity than before and with greater sophistication in the terms of the argument.
Approach of the methods of the Nomothetic and Idiographic Science
An idiographic approach is one that focuses specifically on a particular case, place or phenomenon. This approach is designed to derive particular meanings from the research objective, and is not necessarily designed to extrapolate generalizations.
Windelband, a nineteenth-century German philosopher, used nomothetic to describe an approach to producing knowledge that seeks to make generalizations on a large scale.
We could think of them as scientific laws or general truths coming from social science research.
The nomothetic explanation in communication research and other social sciences is based on the natural sciences, especially the exact sciences of physics and chemistry. Other natural sciences, such as evolutionary biology and geology, are concerned with undetermined processes and their theories lack the predictive power of physics. In addition, biologists and geologists often focus on the historical record. Consequently, they tend to operate more on the idiographic side of the continuum.
The nomothetic scientist seeks to explain human phenomena by means of a general law, often called a “hedge law. Also, the structure of nomothetic research is deductive, so that the explanandum (the event to be explained) is the logical result of a covering law and some initiating event or condition, which are the explanans (the propositions that explain).
The strong form of a nomothetic explanation is deterministic: given the law, “if event A occurs, then event B must occur,” the appearance of A will always make B appear (Porpora 1983). Because a law is universal in scope, the causal relationships it specifies must be maintained everywhere and at all times. Experiments and controlled observations are the main methods to discover and validate these relationships.
The idiographic explanation refers to the details of a case, whether it is an individual, a dyad, a group, an organization or a cultural system. The idea that no two lives are the same is one of its fundamental assumptions. This is not exactly the same as saying that the individual is the most important thing.
Rather, idiographic analysts study the contexts in which the individual finds meaning for his or her actions (Anderson 1987). Another important assumption is that human action does not arise from particular causes. Unlike the world described by the physical sciences, humans create their own cultural environments and can become objects in conscious thought.
The process of giving meaning is neither individualized nor abstract, but arises through the situated use of language and other types of symbolization. Thus, idiographic analysts treat behavior as a semiotic act that must be interpreted. If causal statements arise in idiographic research, they are likely to be specific to the social rules and codes of the case itself.
Application in Sociology of Nomothetic and Idiographic Sciences
Sociology is a discipline that unites and combines these two approaches, which is similar to the important micro/macro distinction of the discipline.
Sociologists study the relationships between people and society, both at the micro and macro level. People and their interactions and daily experiences make up the micro level. The macro consists of the larger social patterns, trends, and structures that make up society.
In this sense, the idiographic approach often focuses on the micro, while the nomothetic approach is used to understand the macro.
Methodologically speaking, this means that these two different approaches to conducting social science research are often also in the qualitative/quantitative division.
However, many sociologists believe that the best research will combine both nomothetic and idiographic approaches, as well as quantitative and qualitative research methods. Doing so is effective because it allows a deep understanding of how large-scale social forces, trends, and problems influence people’s daily lives.
Laws may be out of reach, but communications researchers continue to strive to produce findings that can be generalized to a population with a known probability. As a result, the propositions ceteris paribus, that is, establishing a predictive relationship between events, with the qualifier “on equal terms,” are quite widespread in communications research. Of course, all things are never equal.
The use of statistical models, such as inductive-statistical and deductive-statistical, allows nomothetic science to continue, subject to certain conditions. This approach to empirical research has led over the decades to the construction of communication theories of considerable scope, precision and complexity. Advocates of the idiographic approach respond to these criticisms with various arguments. The understanding of a complete entity, it is claimed, has its own inherent value.
Together, the idiographic studies reveal part of the great diversity of customs, morals and ideologies of humanity, which serves to correct cultural misunderstandings. The problem of non-generalization, some argue, can be solved within the logic of idiographic explanation. For example, a densely described case can sometimes allow people to decide whether the findings apply in their own contexts.
In addition, a number of analytical tools, such as negative case analysis and cross-case analysis (Eisenhardt 1989), are used to expand knowledge claims. However, a recent review of the issue of generalization in ethnography concludes that moderate claims about “cultural consistency” in a social world are as far as one can go in the idiographic dimension. Ultimately, the idiographic explanation provides the kind of holistic, “near-experience” knowledge normally lacking in nomothetic research.
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Eisenhardt, K. M. (1989). Building theories from case study research. Academy of Management Review, 14, 532 –550.
Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
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