Definition of Idiographic and Nomothetic

An Overview of Two Approaches to Sociological Research

A yin and yang symbol made of black and white rice symbolizes the differing yet complimentary styles of nomothetic and idiographic approaches to sociology research.
Grove Pashley/Getty Images

Idiographic and nomothetic methods represent two different approaches to understanding social life. An idiographic method focuses on individual cases or events. Ethnographers, for example, observe the minute details of everyday life to construct an overall portrait of a specific group of people or community. A nomothetic method, on the other hand, seeks to produce general statements that account for larger social patterns, which form the context of single events, individual behaviors, and experience. Sociologists who practice nomothetic research are likely to work with large survey data sets or other forms of statistical data, and to conduct quantitative statistical analysis as their method of study.

Key Takeaways: Idiographic and Nomothetic Research

  • The nomothetic approach involves trying to make generalizations about the world and understand large-scale social patterns.
  • The idiographic approach involves trying to uncover a great deal of detailed information about a narrower subject of study.
  • Sociologists can combine both idiographic and nomothetic approaches in order to develop a more comprehensive understanding of society.

Historical Background

Nineteenth century German philosopher Wilhelm Windelband, a neo-Kantian, introduced these terms and defined their distinctions. Windelband used nomothetic to describe an approach to producing knowledge that seeks to make large-scale generalizations. This approach is common in the natural sciences, and is considered by many to be the true paradigm and goal of the scientific approach.

With a nomothetic approach, one conducts careful and systemic observation and experimentation in order to derive results that can be applied more broadly outside the realm of study. We might think of them as scientific laws, or general truths that have come from social science research. In fact, we can see this approach present in the work of early German sociologist Max Weber, who wrote about the processes of creating ideal types and concepts meant to serve as general rules.

On the other hand, an idiographic approach is one that is specifically focused on a particular case, place, or phenomenon. This approach is designed to derive meanings particular to the research target, and it is not necessarily designed for extrapolating generalizations.

Application in Sociology

Sociology is a discipline that bridges and combines these two approaches, which is akin to the discipline's important micro/macro distinction. Sociologists study the relationships between people and society, both at the micro and macro level. People and their everyday interactions and experiences make up the micro. The macro consists of the larger patterns, trends, and social 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 also often fall along the qualitative/quantitative divide. One would typically use qualitative methods like ethnographic research, participant observation, interviews, and focus groups to conduct idiographic research. Quantitative methods such as large-scale surveys and statistical analysis of demographic or historical data would be used to conduct nomothetic research.

However, many sociologists believe that the best research will combine both nomothetic and idiographic approaches, as well as both quantitative and qualitative research methods. Doing so is effective because it allows for a deep understanding of how large-scale social forces, trends, and problems influence the everyday lives of individual people.

For example, if one wanted to develop a robust understanding of the many and varied effects of racism on Black people, one would be wise to take a nomothetic approach to studying the prevalence of police killings and the health impacts of structural inequalities, among other things that can be quantified and measured in large number. But one would also be wise to conduct ethnography and interviews to understand the experiential realities and effects of living in a racist society, from the standpoint of those who experience it.

Similarly, if one were conducting a sociological study of gender bias, one could combine both nomothetic and idiographic approaches. A nomothetic approach could include gathering statistics, such as the number of women in political office or data on the gender pay gap. However, researchers would be wise to also talk to women (for example, through interviews or focus groups) about their own experiences with sexism and discrimination.

In other words, by combining statistics with information about the lived experiences of individuals, sociologists can develop a more comprehensive understanding of topics such as racism and sexism.