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Idiographic vs Nomothetic Science

Thomas R. Lindlof


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. 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 ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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