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Study Notes

Issues & Debates: Evaluating the Idiographic Approach


Last updated 22 Mar 2021

The idiographic approach is unable to produce general laws or predictions about human behaviour, and that severely limits its usefulness as a source of practical knowledge about the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders. For a discipline so dedicated to the application of its scientific understanding, this is a devastating limitation. Furthermore, many psychologists criticise the idiographic approach for its essentially unscientific nature. The emphasis on in-depth data collection and the difficulties in arriving at justifiable generalisations contradicts the central purpose of any mature science: to explain the most variation in the fewest possible terms so that phenomena can be predicted and ultimately controlled. Research practices that do not address these goals can seem scientifically pointless.

However, idiographic researchers respond to these criticisms by emphasising the evidence-based nature of their descriptions and conclusions, and the critical awareness embedded in research techniques like reflexivity, and often claim that the validity of their findings is more secure than that which rests entirely on statistical analysis. As Allport noted when introducing the terms into American psychology in 1937, it is only through the understanding of single individuals that psychologists can hope to predict how such individuals will behave in a given situation.

While case studies can highlight a flaw in psychological theories and prompt further research, the case study method and other qualitative methods are extremely time-consuming. Freud’s case study of Little Hans consists of almost 150 pages of verbatim quotes from Little Han’s father, as well as detailed descriptions of the events in Little Han’s life. Freud did go on to create universal theories of personality development during childhood; however, these were based on limited and unrepresentative case studies that many psychologists would discredit.

However, there are numerous strengths of taking an idiographic approach, and a case study method is a powerful tool for evaluating psychological theories. The case of Patient KF (Shallice and Warrington, 1970) exposed a limitation of the Multi-Store Model of Memory, by providing evidence that our STM comprises of at least two components (auditory and visual memory) and not one, as stipulated by Atkinson and Shiffrin. Consequently, a single case study can generate further research into a particular phenomenon (e.g. memory) which contributes to the development of new theories that further our understanding of human behaviour.

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