Idiographic goals and methods in the study of lives


Requests for reprints should be sent to Wm. McKinley Runyan, School of Social Welfare, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720.


The goal of psychology is “the development of generalizations of ever increasing scope, so that greater and greater varieties of phenomena may be explained by them, larger and larger numbers of questions answered by them, and broader and broader reaching predictions and decisions based upon them.”

Leon Levy (1970, p. 5)

“To generalize is to be an idiot.”

William Blake


Learning what is true of persons-in-general and of groups of people often has severe limitations in enabling us to understand and predict the behavior of individuals. There are many important problems in describing, explaining, making predictions about, and intentionally changing the course of experience in individual lives that cannot be adequately addressed without the use of idiographic methods. The purposes of this paper are to contribute to a conceptual clarification of the idiographic approach and its place within psychology, to review and respond to a number of common criticisms of the idiographic approach, and finally, to update and extend Allport's survey of available idiographic methods.