Idiographic Versus Nomothetic

Originally articulated during the German Methodenstreit of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Weber 1949), the second conceptual pairing informing critical sociology is that opposing idio- graphic to nomothetic methodologies in the social sciences. Critical sociology is idiographic in its aforementioned commitment to social contextualism and its recognition of the singularity of analytical objects, which are produced and function within particular historical and sociocultural circumstances that may not be replicated in other instances; this acknowledgement of particularity and situatedness is epistemologically vital. Consequently, each phenomenon is approached on its own terms via a deep historicism and cultural contextualism, in order to explain it through interpretively thick description. In other words, analysis of the singular case is valued for its own sake, not because it contributes to the building of general laws or universal principles through induction or extrapolation.

The idiographic components of critical sociology do not imply that it celebrates radical analytical contingency or undiluted nominalism, since the latter is tempered by nomothetic insights signifying less a dedication to the discovery of universally valid principles or social laws than a comparativism gauging similarities and differences between cases for the purpose of creating taxonomies of constants and variables, explanatory mechanisms, and models of regularities in social life. This nomothetic identification of consistent patterns and conventions of thought and action, as well as of institutional configurations and narrative or visual tropes, is exemplified by three recent and highly significant sociological approaches: the contentious politics framework studying repertoires of political struggle in different historical and geographical settings (McAdam et al. 2001; Tilly 2006), the strong programmes in cultural sociology locating binary discursive codes within the civil sphere (Alexander 2006; Smith 2010), and the pragmatist sociology of critique focused on morally inflected orders of worth and justification that actors utilize (Boltanski and Thevenot 2006).

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