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Study Notes

Issues & Debates: The Idiographic Approach


Last updated 22 Mar 2021

The term ‘idiographic’ comes from the Greek word ‘idios’, which means ‘own’ or ‘private’. Psychologists who take an idiographic approach focus on the individual and emphasise the unique personal experience of human nature. This means they favour qualitative research methods, such as the case study, unstructured interviews and thematic analysis which allow an in-depth insight into individual behaviour. The idiographic approach does not seek to formulate laws or generalise results to others.

Case studies provide an interesting example of an idiographic approach, as they provide an in-depth insight into an individual or small group which can be used to evaluate a theory. For example, Shallice and Warrington (1970) examined the case of Patient KF, who experienced a motorbike accident. KF’s short-term forgetting of auditory information was greater than his forgetting of visual information, suggesting that short-term memory (STM) consists of multiple components. Consequently, Patient KF undermines the Multi-Store Model of Memory suggesting that STM is not one unitary component. Therefore, an individual case study can highlight flaws within a theory and significantly undermine other research.

Another example of an idiographic approach comes from Freud’s use of case studies. Freud conducted very detailed investigations into the lives of his patients in an attempt to understand and help them overcome their psychological disorders. His most famous case studies include Little Hans and The Rat Man. While Freud did try to produce generalisations from his case studies, they are still viewed as an idiographic approach because each person’s psychological disorder derived from their unique childhood experiences.

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