For more than a century, two forms of explanation have been used in the social sciences: nomothetic and idiographic. These two kinds of explanation embody major differences in scientific logic, research methods, and even understandings of how the world is constituted. The differences are so stark that they appear to some scholars to be unbridgeable, thereby threatening the prospect of achieving unity in the sciences. However, other scholars welcome both approaches, viewing them as complementary ways of studying and evaluating 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 the present day, albeit at lesser intensity than before and with greater sophistication in the terms of the argument.
Historical Development of the Concepts
While the roots of the duality reach back to Aristotle (Nagel 1961), the neo-Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband is credited with creating and defining the terms. In a public address given at the University of Strasbourg, entitled “History and Natural Science” (1894/1998), Windelband set out to explore the question of where psychology fits as a discipline in relation to the natural sciences on the one hand, and the humanities on the other. Explanations in the humanities, he noted, take the form of an in-depth, descriptive account of “a unique, temporally circumscribed reality” (1998, 12). These explanations he called idiographic. In contrast, explanations in the sciences take the characteristic form of law-like statements about the mechanism for patterned, everrepeating classes of events. These explanations, which enable one to predict the future occurrence of events, were called nomothetic. Importantly, Windelband characterized both types of explanation as empirical. Thus, psychology could use either the idiographic approach to interpret a person in all of his or her singular complexity, or the nomothetic approach to explain the regularities of behavior observed across many people.
Other contributions to the discussion followed in the early decades of the twentieth century. Max Weber argued that the nomothetic and idiographic did not necessarily correspond to scientific and nonscientific approaches, respectively. Rather, he viewed subjective meaning (or verstehen) as a unique object of study, with both nomothetic and idiographic approaches playing parts in advancing knowledge (Williams 2000). Gordon Allport’s Personality: A psychological interpretation (1937) reintroduced the idiographic/nomothetic distinction to modern psychology, where it had a significant influence on personality theory and research. Meanwhile, the social sciences at mid-century moved in two directions at once. The dominant movement was broadly positivist, and embraced the nomothetic goal of explaining behavioral and attitudinal regularities. A smaller movement of social inquiry began crafting idiographic strategies for studying self, society, and culture. Especially in anthropology, developments in ethnography elevated the importance of cultural interpretation (Geertz 1973).
By the 1970s, communication scholars began engaging in foundational debates about the theories, methods, and identity of the discipline. The nomothetic/idiographic distinction was often a main axis of these debates. Idiographic research in particular was vigorously championed – especially by scholars doing research under the broad umbrella of cultural communication studies – as an alternative to the then dominant paradigms of behaviorism and functionalism. By the twenty-first century, a spirit of methodological pluralism in communication was ascendant, and open conflicts between proponents of nomothetic and idiographic approaches subsided. However, issues remain about the knowledge claims they produce, and how each relates to the other.
Nomothetic explanation in communication research and other social sciences is modeled on the natural sciences, especially the exact sciences of physics and chemistry. Other natural sciences, such as evolutionary biology and geology, are concerned with indeterminate processes and their theories lack the predictive power of physics. In addition, biologists and geologists often focus on historical records. Consequently, they tend to operate further to the idiographic side of the continuum. The nomothetic scientist seeks to explain human phenomena by means of a general law, often called a “covering law.” The structure of nomothetic inquiry is deductive, such that the explanandum (the event to be explained) is the logical outcome of a covering law and some initiating event or condition, which are the explanans (the propositions that do the explaining). 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 cause B to appear (Porpora 1983). Because a law has universal scope, the causal relationships it specifies should hold everywhere and at all times. Experiments and controlled observations are the primary methods of discovering and validating these relationships.
For a variety of reasons, scholars in communication and other social sciences have failed to discover covering laws. For one thing, the causes of human behavior tend to be indeterminate. Unlike the world of physics, in which events occur invariantly in closed, homogeneous environments, human action occurs in open systems (Monge 1973). The effects that arise in open systems are often due to multiple causal paths that vary from moment to moment, making it nearly impossible to adopt the strong form of nomothetic explanation (Bernstein et al. 2000). Related to this point, people’s reasons for acting often have to be taken into account; as Porpora (1983) noted, there is no limit to the reasons that an actor can produce. Epistemological issues also undercut the ability of social scientists to develop law-like statements. Couched as they are in natural language, social science theories lack point-to-point correspondence with the phenomena they try to explain. In addition, theoretical statements can be meaningful apart from any operational definitions that might be devised (O’Keefe 1975). Consequently, human behavior can be explained through many different types of scientific account.
Laws may be beyond their reach, but communication researchers continue to strive to produce findings that can be generalized to a population with a known probability. As a result, ceteris paribus propositions – i.e., stating a predictive relationship between events, with the qualifier “all things being equal” – are fairly widespread in communication research. Of course, all things are never equal. The use of statistical models, such as the inductive-statistical and the deductive-statistical models (Bostrom & Donohew 1992), allows nomothetic science to go on, 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.
Idiographic explanation concerns the particulars of one case, be it 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 bedrock assumptions. This is not exactly the same as saying that the individual is of ultimate importance. Rather, idiographic analysts study the contexts in which the individual finds meaning for his or her actions (Anderson 1987). Another major assumption is that human action does not arise from determinate causes. Unlike the world described by the physical sciences, humans create their own cultural environments and are able to make themselves objects in conscious thought. Human action emerges in large part from the motivation to “make sense” of social and physical circumstances. The process of making sense is not individualized or abstract, but comes into being through the situated use of language and other kinds of symbolization. Thus, idiographic analysts treat behavior as a semiotic act that must be interpreted. If causal claims arise at all in idiographic research, they are likely to be specific to the social rules and codes of the case itself.
Idiographic explanation is closely aligned with verstehen, a method that stresses empathetic understanding with others. To carry out this kind of project, the researcher often follows a long-term, participatory path which may culminate in an ethnography, case study, or life history. Like its counterparts in history and other humanities, the value of such studies depends in large part on their insightful descriptions of local scenes. It should be noted, however, that idiographic studies are not exclusively qualitative. For example, inferences about just one person or one group can be drawn from multi-method studies, or through the use of ipsative techniques like Q methodology. Regardless of the methods chosen, the process of idiographic research unfolds inductively, moving from closely observed particulars toward an interpretation.
Whereas the application of the nomothetic approach in the social sciences faces both logical and practical challenges, the idiographic approach mostly encounters questions about its value. Case studies, for example, are sometimes thought to be “pre-scientific”. That is, they are seen as a preliminary (or formative) step in the design of controlled experiments or surveys, or a pedagogical aid for learning how to conceptualize research problems. Idiographic studies are also criticized for focusing on rare or “deviant” cases, and for not being sufficiently concerned with the frequency of behavior. The most common criticism, however, is that idiographic research cannot generalize to a larger population. The utility of knowing a lot about one case seems questionable to scholars who prefer knowledge of wide, if not universal, scope.
Advocates of the idiographic approach answer these criticisms with several arguments. The understanding of a whole entity, it is claimed, has its own inherent value. Collectively, idiographic studies reveal some of the great diversity of humanity’s customs, moralities, and ideologies, thus serving as a corrective to cultural misunderstandings. The problem of nongeneralizability, some argue, can be solved within the logic of idiographic explanation. For example, a thickly described case can sometimes enable people to decide whether the findings apply in their own contexts (Lincoln & Guba 1985). Moreover, a number of analytic tools, such as negative case analysis (Lincoln & Guba 1985) and cross-case analysis (Eisenhardt 1989), are used to extend knowledge claims. However, a recent review of the generalizability issue in ethnography (Williams 2000) concludes that moderatum claims about the “cultural consistency” in a social world is as far as one can go in the idiographic dimension. Ultimately, idiographic explanation provides the kind of holistic, “experience-near” knowledge that is typically missing from nomothetic research.
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