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By nature, Comparativists engage in explanations of why educational systems and processes vary and how education relates to wider social factors and forces. The comparativists’ interest in explanations leads to the use of epistemologies in order to study issues and the comparativists’ preference of a particular epistemology over another lead to distinctions between the methodological schools of comparative education.

In academia, the common distinctions in methodology are the dichotomies of qualitative and quantitative under which fall all sorts of methods or research designs, i.e., historical analysis, content analysis, discourse analysis, phenomenological, hermeneutical, case study, statistical analysis, ethnographic, grounded theory, survey research, experimental studies, etc. While acknowledging the distinctions qualitative and quantitative, Comparative education adds distinctions based on mode of reasoning that are unique to its field; these distinctions cannot pin-pointedly be matched with qualitative and quantitative, i.e., nomothetic and ideographic. The tendency of equating ideographic with qualitative and nomothetic with quantitative is to be avoided because a study can be ideographic and use quantitative elements or nomothetic yet use qualitative elements. Therefore, while appropriate to use qualitative and quantitative, comparative education approach is better characterized as ideographic or nomothetic. The word nomothetic is rooted in the Latin nomo, which means law or rule; while the word ideographic is rooted in the Latin ideo, which means individual or particular unit.

Nomothetic approach isolates a few social factors to identify underlying trends and patterns and apply these trends and patterns to schooling in order to arrive at a general explanation of a class of educational actions or events. It depends on the idea of regularity and that if phenomena are regular then there is a possibility of prediction, and in the assumption that phenomena are related (or correlated) and influence each other. Here the researcher uses the scientific method to test hypothesis cross-culturally (cross-nationally), an instrument developed by Durkheim in the late nineteenth century. In short, nomothetic epistemology seeks to find a predicting stream of social phenomena by hinging on hypothesis testing and generating cross-national generalizations.

Ideographic approach analyzes the special social and cultural circumstances that differentiate schooling in one society from another. It seeks to yield (deep) understanding or verstehen of issues related to education, an acquisition of a special insight deriving from intensive study of school-society relationships. Ideographic studies do not necessitate hypothesis testing to legitimize their claim, but hinge on socio-cultural expertise. Sadler went beyond the cross-national generalizations by introducing the concept of spiritual force, which he viewed as the force that upholds the school system and accounts for its efficiency. His major discontent with nomothetic generalizations was embodied in the metaphor of a child strolling through a garden and picking off flowers form one bush and leaves from another with hope of planting a tree from the gathered ingredients.

Nomothetic scholars advocate that everything is related independent of context. For example, studies of returns to investments in education are strictly based on numeric indicators (e.g., statistical comparison of level of education between men and women) of various countries across the world; uniqueness of context is not a concern in describing why returns in education are higher in some countries and low in others nor why are they different within one country and between men and women in view of cultural and historical considerations.

On the other hand, ideographic scholars advocate that everything is relative to context, particularly cultural context. This school comes close to relativism, phenomenology, postmodernism, hermeneutics, etc.

[I am of the opinion that when combined, both approaches generate a formidable study. When we manage to back up our socio-cultural versthen with hypothesis testing (not necessarily testing a complex relationship between independent and dependent variables), our findings not only become less susceptible to criticism by one camp or another, but they become enhanced with a cross-field appreciation and respect.]