Let’s look briefly at the three main methods of modern psychological research—descriptive studies, correlational studies, and experimental studies—and consider whether Freud’s techniques would fit.
Descriptive studies use observation or survey techniques to gather information about a person or group. Case studies, a research method involving only one participant (one person,...
one group, one event, etc.), are a form of descriptive study. Like other descriptive studies, case studies should not be extrapolated to other situations—their data level does not support scientific inference.
Correlational studies identify the strength of the relationship between two variables. The variables are not treated as dependent or independent because neither is in any way manipulated for the purpose of the study. Remember, even a strong statistical correlation does not imply causation in either direction. Correlational studies are most appropriate in situations where manipulating a variable would be impossible, or unethical.
Experiments are empirically-founded controlled studies where a variable is manipulated and the effect is measured. In a blind study, participants do not know if they are in the control or experimental group. Researchers can choose to reduce the potential effects of their own biases by performing a double-blind experiment where they are also unaware of the participants’ assignments. Outcomes can imply causation, but only if the experiment’s design is valid, accurate, and reliable.
Whether or not it’s fair to hold early researchers to modern standards, it’s pretty clear that Freud earned much of his criticism. Modern psychologists have argued that Freud’s case studies led highly suggestible patients toward his own foregone conclusions. He implied a causal relationship between body concept in early childhood and mental illness in adulthood, but he didn’t do any experimental research with children. Not only were his theories untested, many are untestable, either for ethical or practical reasons. Consider a Freud study you are familiar with. What is the source of its data (is it descriptive, correlational, or experimental)? What claims does Freud make about the data? As you write your own response to your instructor’s prompt, refer to your findings as an example of your argument.
The value of unscientific research is a more subjective question. Case studies, by their nature, cannot be replicated. They are still valuable to the field, even if they are often extended beyond their scientific limits (remember: descriptive studies are not valid foundations for inference beyond the original subject. But tell that to primetime crime dramas). Freud’s theories are also valuable, even if they suffer from inductive reasoning. Most people would concede that there is a difference between conscious and unconscious behavior and that human interaction is largely dependent upon social constructs that our conscience (or superego) can sense. It probably has less to do with anal and phallic stuff than Freud believed, though.