A Short Note on Idiographic and Nomothetic approach with Examples

 Idiographic and Nomothetic approach: A subject like sociology requires intense research to be done in order to fin put trends, to be able to compare societies and form case studies for the same. There are various types of studies such as ethnographies- these are extensive field studies that are conducted by researchers to understand and study a group of people or a society better- and other field studies based on the quantitative analysis in order to study trends, e.g. that whether people living in rural areas are more prone to health issues or are those living in the urban areas.

In order to conduct such research, we can understand two approaches which are the idiographic approach and the nomothetic approach. Wilhelm Windelband used the terms, idiographic and nomothetic and described them as two approaches to knowledge.

The idiographic approach is focused on an individual case and aims at finding out details about the individual case, this may be a person, as in the case of psychology where it is used to understand the behavior and personality attributes of the individual, or a society, as in sociology. Ethnographers usually carry out such research, they use the methods such as participant observation, interviews. The ethnographers typically go to the field/society or the group of people that they wish to study and spend years at a stretch trying to observe the most intricate details of their everyday life- such as their patterns of interaction, their rituals, and their kinship ties, etc. thus one can say that the ideological approach studies the society at a micro-level. The study of Trobriand Islanders by Malinowski thus uses the idiographic approach as it is the detailed study of the life of the people there, the results derived from this study are specific to the field and generalizations can not be applied to other societies.

The nomothetic approach, on the other hand, is an approach typical to the natural sciences, where broad generalizations are to be made. Sociologists also have come to use this approach; in this, the research is carefully conducted to bring out results that one can apply to the broader society, e.g. the concept of ideal types as given by Max Weber, which he said to be common to all societies and thus a broad generalization. This approach aims to study society at a more macro level, using quantitative methods, such as objective questionnaires that are easier to analyze and help us make generalizations. The aim is to be able to apply such generalizations even outside the field of study, thus generalizations which are universal, such as those of the scientific laws.

In order to get a detailed study a sociologist must employ both the idiographic as well as the nomothetic approach, this will give a better understanding of the field or concept being studied. E.g. while studying gender bias in the workplace, while the nomothetic approach will give us the result that the gender wage gap is prominent, the idiographic research on the other hand will require us to spend time with the respondents and conduct personal interviews through which we can see other problems that exist such as those of unequal treatment of women, or harassment at the workplace or preventing women to come to a position of power.

Thus using the two approaches together will give us a thorough understanding of the field being studied, especially in the case of sociology where despite generalizations there are always exceptions in the society.




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Aishani Menon, a sociologist, communicates her thoughts through words. She values learning, seeing it as the catalyst for growth, and believes that the best writing stems from continuous knowledge