The Research Approach: Psychobiography as a Case Study Method

In the research paradigm of hermeneutics, the research approach is defined as a psychobiographical case study method. Many of the psychobiographies of the late twentieth century use idiographic (defined as the “unit of analysis being a single case” or event according to Fouche and Van Niekerk (2010, p. 496) within a holistic context (Carlson, 1988)),[1] hermeneutic perspectives, life story analysis and case study approaches. Currently, psychobiography falls into the hermeneutic traditions in which the author of a text is seen as a “real phenomenon who can be explored and interpreted psychologically” (Kovary, 2011, p. 765). Psychobiography is viewed as a “method of idiographic approach in personality psychology” that originally sought the analysis and understanding of “the dynamic and developmental determinants of artistic creativity” (Kovary, 2011, p. 764). The idiographic approach is strongly connected to the concept of idio-dynamics, which focuses on the life history and life events in cultural contexts (Duncan, 2002).

The case study was originally used in psychology to explore in-depth questions regarding a phenomenon in terms of why and how (Yin, 2009). According to Biggs (2007, p. 10), case studies are used to “study psychological phenomena within the natural context that utilises qualitative tools and techniques for data collection and analysis.” Psychobiography usually employs a single in-depth case study design (Denzin, 1989; Fouche, 1999; Smith, 1994) to describe an individual in depth in the context of a selected psychological theory and socio-cultural historic context. These case studies are described as psychobiographically informed biographies (Biggs, 2007). They are person-centred, focusing on the uniqueness of a person and providing a holistic description of a selected individual (Carlson, 1988; Gronn, 1993; Stroud, 2004). Influential models of personal psychology, such as the models of Maslow, Piaget, Erikson, Freud, Murray and Allport, have mainly used single cases of individuals to build their well-recognised models (Schultz, 2005d).

According to the basic morphogenic approach of psychobiographical research, the case study is designed to distinguish it from nomethic approaches, which are essentially normative and comparative (Perry, 2012). Complying with psychobiography as idiographic research (Green, 2006), Howe (1997) states that psychobiography is primarily defined through the vast amount of biographical data used in psychological research to analyse extraordinary individuals, their original thinking, creativity, productivity and growth. Psychobiographical research is morphogenic and qualitative, since psychobiographies focus on the individualised patterns and processes of a person as a “whole”, an entire unit, rather than to analyse specific fragmented parts and aspects of a personality (Elms, 1994). Behavioural patterns and processes of an individual’s human development over a life continuum can be traced through psychobiographical case study research to provide a view on the whole person (Fouche & Van Niekerk, 2005a).

This study is based on a single and holistic case study approach that is concerned with the analysis of a single unit of analysis (Yin, 2009) and can be usefully employed in psychobiographical research. The single, holistic case study offers the opportunity to study a unique phenomenon in depth, to test a well-formulated theory while aiming to explore, understand and explain the complexities of a social phenomenon (Yin, 2009). Areflection on the theoretical and methodological approaches on the basis of the findings of this study will be provided in Sect. 9.6.

It needs to be mentioned that case study research has been criticised as a research approach for being based on a small amount of data or single cases (Babbie & Mouton, 2006), not being generalisable and rather generating hypotheses than testing them (Hagg & Hedlund, 1978). However, this criticism is not relevant with regard to this study, since this psychobiographical study does not aim at producing generalisable results in quantitative terms, but rather aims at creating an in-depth understanding, according to Dilthey (1996, 2002). The creation of such an in-depth understanding is aligned with the qualitative quality criteria for judging qualitative studies and the markers of (good) psychobiographical research as described in the following chapters.

  • [1] According to Kovary (2011), Dilthey influenced Allport strongly to become the pioneer of idio- graphic approaches in personality psychology and Murray became a scholar emphasising the idio-graphic, in-depth approaches at Harvard, focusing in research on a single individual from alongitudinal perspective.
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