Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Nomothetic versus Idiographic Research

Originally posted on July 9, 2011

A group of professional friends gathered to discuss some research—the topic being those factors that were correlated with a longer life. Although the content was a little interesting, some elements more so than others, what interested me more was my own reaction of feeling slightly annoyed with the whole enterprise of psychological research. I have increasing doubts as to the underlying assumptions of conventional “nomothetic” research—that approach that seeks to discern valid conclusions from examining statistical trends among larger numbers of subjects. Perhaps I find it to be of dubious merit considering the authority we tend to give to “Science.” In this case, so many of the terms were vague and as a whole the research generated more questions than it answered. What accounted for this correlation? Why do you think they found that? How much of this research ignored the fact that most of the subjects lived in the early to mid 20th century and that many of the variables, many of the ways they are formed and enacted, have changed substantially in the last few decades?

It supported my preference for the “case study” approach to science rather than the glumping hundreds or thousands of people’s responses together and trying to come up with meaningful correlates. The former “idiographic” approach acknowledges the thousands of factors that come together to make a single life be what it is; the latter, “nomothetic” approach, as mentioned before, relies on statistics and is bound by the circumstances of class, age, ethnicity, time, and other circumstances of the research. We are invited to make inferences, to draw conclusions about wider groups or other groups based on this.

One confounding factor in the authority of much psychological research in the last century is that it was based on the testing of college students! That’s hardly representative of the population, and this criticism has been raised lately. I rarely find results in nomothetic research that are counter-intuitive—which means that while most often the trends seem obvious, occasionally they run against the grain. Now that might be a real breakthrough! We need to question assumptions and our tendencies to think things that turn out not to be so. Still, often those results can be explained away or aren’t replicated with further research. I want to allow that a small percentage of true progress is made through nomothetic research, though, and this approach seems to the authorities to be “hard” research.

Perhaps because I’m a bit of a journalist, romantic, and bit of a comedian in spirit, I prefer stories. I like stories of health more than illness—not why did you crack up, but what took so long? Or what worked to get your better? Or why didn’t you get sick when you were raised in a family or society that would and does make most people sick? What are the sources of strength in life and how can we do more of it with and for each other? I like that approach.

So I prefer idiographic “research,” case histories, and really thinking about them. I’m not terribly interested in slapping on a label, though on occasion that can be very helpful for the patient. And I do care about finding the right medicines—ones that work best with the least side effects—but I’m aware that in ten years there well may be better drugs. What interests me more is the story of how they came to a point where they sought help. What took so long? What helped? What made it worse? What can we do to increase the motivation to try again, to have some hope? Questions like this apply not just for mental illness, but for all role transitions—retirement, bereavement, a change in spiritual direction, vocational guidance, etc.

Life is the greatest show in town, and doctors get to have front row seats. And psychiatrists get to go into the locker room and interview the players before and after the game. It’s rich!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *