Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

A nomothetic approach proposes or prescribes law like relationships in the positivist sense of scientific causal laws.

explanatory context

Crane offers a side-by-side comparison of nomothetic and idiographic, available here, accessed 16 March 2013.

analytical review

Crossman (2013) says that a nomothetic method:

focuses on general statements that account for larger social patterns that form the context of single events or individual behavior and experience.

The updated version (Crossman 2019) states:

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 this form of 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.

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 is not designed for extrapolating generalizations, necessarily....


Discussing psychological methods, Nichols (2011) stated:

Nomothetic research is about attempting to establish general laws and generalisations. The focus of the nomothetic approach is to obtain objective knowledge through scientific methods. Hence quantitive methods of investigation are used, to try and produce statistically significant results. The subsequent laws that are created can be categorised into three kinds: classifying people into groups, establishing principles and establishing dimensions. An example of this from the world of psychology is the ‘Diagnostic and statistical Manuals of Mental Disorders’ (DSM), which provides the classifications for mental disorders, hence classifying people into groups.

The methods of investigation used by the nomothetic approach collects scientific and quantitive data. To do this, experiments and observations are used, and group averages are statistically analysed to create predictions about people in general. An example of this is Milgrim’s experiments on obedience. From his scientific experiments he found that 65% of his participants would harm another person, (via a 450v electric shock) potentially killing them, within the presence of an authority figure. Although there were many ethical issues with his experiment including the deception involved and potential harm to the participant, this is an example of nomothetic research. Milgrim repeated his experiments many times and as a result created his laws of obedience.

The nomothetic approach is considered scientific due to its’ precise measurement, prediction and control of behaviour, investigations of large groups, objective and controlled methods allowing for replication and generalisation. Due to this, it has helped psychology become more scientific by developing theories that can be empirically tested. Which is one of the key criteria of a science.

However the nomothetic approach does have its limitations. It has been accused of losing sight of the ‘whole person’, due to its extensive use of group averages. It also may give a superficial understanding, as people may display the same behaviour, but for different reasons. For example in the Milgrim study, can we be sure that all the behaviour displayed was for the same reasons?

Another limitation of this approach is that predictions can be made about groups, but not the individual. Telling someone that that they have a 3 in 100 chance of schizophrenia probably isn’t of much use to that individual.

There is also a potential underlying confounding variable with some of the research done following the nomothetic approach. Due to the extensive use of laboratory studies, the experiments often lack ecological validity, which means we cannot generalise the results to everyday life.

associated issues


related areas

See also



scientific method



Crossman, A., 2013 and 2019, 'Ideographic and nomothetic', available at, accessed 16 March 2013, updated 1 November 2016, accessed 24 December 2016, updated 22 January 2019, accessed 11 June 2019.

Nichols, L., 2011, 'Nomothetic research vs. idiographic research', available at, accessed 16 March 2013, still available 24 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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