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. Holistic Method

Fuente Oxford University Press
Nick Hopwood

‘My body is not a machine!’ ‘Treat the whole person!’ ‘The whole is different from the sum of the parts.’ ‘Reductionism is wrong, because organisms possess properties at a certain level of organization that cannot be explained in terms of properties at lower levels.’ ‘How people work, love, or vote is not determined by our genes!’ These are holist views.


ho·lism ('lĭz'əm)
The theory that living matter or reality is made up of organic or unified wholes that are greater than the simple sum of their parts.

2. A holistic investigation or system of treatment.

The term ‘holism’ was coined in 1926, from the Greek holos (whole), by the South African statesman General Jan Smuts. But whilst the period between the World Wars was a heyday of holist creativity in biology and medicine, approaches that we can identify as holist are much older. Holism was the unquestioned orthodoxy of the Western tradition of practising medicine and investigating nature for the two millennia before the nineteenth century. The body was a complex system, in dynamic equilibrium with its environment, and disease a state of imbalance. Mechanistic approaches were canvassed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but they left this ancient model largely intact. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, it could be taken for granted no longer. From palatial new laboratories, mechanistic science reigned increasingly triumphant. Living organisms, once models for the entire cosmos, were now themselves modelled on industrial machines. The nervous system functioned like the telegraph, the eye like a photometer.

As the ‘century of science’ drew to a close, and especially after World War I, various scientists and intellectuals, professionals, and cultural critics pronounced a crisis of scientific confidence. They began to question the achievements of a science that was not just mechanistic but increasingly specialized and fragmented, industrialized and bureaucratic, and to express scepticism, unease, and even horror at its methods. Whilst the scientific factories efficiently probed and shocked, dissected and sliced, crushed and ground bodies into new facts, the most important problems of life, and of living, appeared to cry out for solution in vain. In reaction against ‘machine science’ holists produced new ways of knowing and healing, approaches that sought to respect rather than take apart and analyze the whole. This holism was a collection of self-consciously defensive or oppositional interventions by a wide variety of people, united — if at all — only by what they were against.

Many of the leading holists were themselves scientists. In answer to the general fragmentation of knowledge about the body, they preached synthesis and interdependence. Opposing the claims of mechanistic reductionism, they asked what kind of science could do justice to the complexity of living organisms and their purposiveness. Relativity and quantum theory were beating the old mechanistic physics on its own ground, they observed; surely it was passé still to be modelling animals on locomotives? Some embryologists, for example, followed Hans Driesch in arguing that no machine could compensate for loss of parts in the ways that embryos did. He embraced vitalism, teaching that the development of a harmonious whole embryo was guided by a non-spatial and immaterial ‘entelechy’ — but other biologists came up with organicist approaches that gave the whole embryo priority over its parts whilst remaining safely within materialist bounds. In academic psychology the Gestalt theorists, Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler, claimed that not atomistic sensations but structured wholes are the primary units of mental life. And, like many holists, they were not content to reform scientific theories but also took up the challenge of finding appropriate paths to knowledge in science. Gestalt experimentation in Weimar Germany investigated the variation among perceptions not between but within individual subjects, and so opposed the administrative, classifying style of science embodied in intelligence testing that was becoming dominant in the US. The Gestalt psychologists prided themselves on doing rigorous science, but some holists explored alternative ways of knowing, such as intuition, that to most scientists smacked of the irrational, of the frankly unscientific.

Especially in medicine, holists concentrated on setting acceptable terms for the relations between the new laboratory sciences and their professional practice. Early-twentieth-century medical élites, for example, cultivated the clinical art as a mark of a gentleman. It would temper the cold precision of scientific medicine — and prevent the physician becoming a mere technician. Against the spectre of specialized and bureaucratic state medicine they defended traditional doctor-patient relationships and a medicine of the whole person. In many ways from the other side but also holistic, the mid-twentieth-century ‘social medicine’ of Oxford professor John Ryle criticized the dominant anti-bacterial and surgical strategies as narrow and blinkered. The social medicine movement showed the dependence of sickness on the social variables of lifestyle and environment, and called for medicine to move beyond the hospital and the laboratory. More widely, as people confronted the extension of mechanistic science and technology into their lives, many were moved to ask how they could avoid becoming mere cogs in its machines, and to wonder what new insights might re-enchant a world that science appeared to be emptying of meaning.

The political geography of twentieth-century holism was extremely complex. Conservatives and liberals, fascists and communists, feminists and male chauvinists, racists and internationalists were all known to help themselves to holist rhetoric. Variously opposing alienation, atheism, bureaucracy, democracy, free-market capitalism, industrialism, mass culture, and metropolitan life, some holists have sought to defend human individuality as an absolute, whilst others have subsumed individuals into groups, be they classes, nations or — as most notoriously in Nazi Germany — races. Holists have traditionally opposed the treatment of human beings as machines, but historian Jeffrey Herf has shown that in Weimar and Nazi Germany some reactionaries succeeded in reconciling their ‘hunger for wholeness’ with a cult of technology.

Holism was marginalized after World War II, but since the late 1960s holist approaches have attracted renewed interest. Many holists are outside and opposed to official science and medicine, especially in the alternative health, environmentalist, feminist, animal rights, and New Age movements. But, though generally elusive, much more holism can be found in mainstream science and medicine than their dominant reductionism would suggest. Scientists continue to model bodies on machines, but in the age of digital computers machines can do things of which turn-of-the-century holists never even dreamed. The language of DNA is among the most reductionist ever invented, but the intricacies of gene regulation can warm the cockles of a holist heart. Just as hard-headed reductionists have pragmatically factored in some complexity, so holists have typically had to accept some reductionist means. The very terms are treacherous — but the opposition endures.


Lawrence, C. and Weisz, G. (ed.) (1998). Greater than the parts: holism in biomedicine, 1920-1950. Oxford University Press, New York.

Holistic Method - Charles K. Wilber - University of Notre Dame

Holism is a term originally coined by the South African Scholar Jan Christiaan Smuts from the Greek word holos, which means whole. He applied the term in categorizing the new type of theories in the physical sciences that were gaining widespread recognition in his time. These new evolutionary or dynamic theories (Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, 1859; Henri Becquerel's theory of radioactivity, 1895; Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, 1915) had finally displaced the old inherited mechanistic scientific theories of Newton and the pre-Darwin world. This post-Darwinian type of scientific theory conceived of the physical world as an evolving dynamic whole, as opposed to the "atomistic" theories, which held a static or deterministic view of the world. These holistic theories are essentially couched in the belief that the whole is not only greater than the sum of the parts, but that the parts are related in such a way that their functioning is conditioned by their relationship to each other.

For the holist, then, explanations of reality cannot be done by the application of universal laws, with successful predictions the only form of verification. Rather, an event or action is explained by identifying its place in a pattern that characterizes the ongoing processes of change in the whole system. The formal methods utilized by mainstream economists produce models that are capable of yielding lawlike statements. These formal laws are not empirical generalizations but are logical deductions that make a priori statements about necessary connections between abstract entities. Holists recognize that formal methods often fail to explain the nature of social reality. Thus they engage in the task of developing their own explanations of social phenomena, the nature of which has ruled out other than incidental use of formal methods.

Their approach looks behind such abstract variables of mainstream economics as savings, investment, competition, utility/ profit maximization and efficiency to the attitudes and behaviors of real economic actors and to the institutional environment in which they must operate. They focus on what in their circumstances leads people or firms to save or invest. For example, traditional growth theory talks about the effect on output of changes in capital/output ratios or saving rates. Holists want to know what causes the mobilization of savings, capital, and labor. Thus they are necessarily drawn to look at social, political, and cultural factors as well as purely economic variables.

THORSTEIN VEBLEN, the recognized founder of the institutionalist tradition, brought this holist philosophical orientation to the study of the U.S economy. He conceived of the economic order as an evolving scheme of things or cultural process. His approach has remained the point of reference from which later institutionalists and other political economists have criticized the narrow "market economics of choice" espoused by mainstream economics.

Although the holistic intellectual orientation has been part of the thought process of both social and physical scientists since the middle of the nineteenth century, recent attention to holism by philosophers of science has led to a coherent expression of its methodology. Most notably the works of Abraham Kaplan and Paul Diesing each contain explicit presentations of the holist model of explanation. They seek to uncover the implicit structural framework which facilitates holist theorists' explanations of reality. There is a commonality among holist theories which includes their conception of reality, the structure of their explanations, the primacy of their subject matter, and their particular form of logic.

Conception of Logic. Holistic social scientists argue that social reality must be studied as a whole human system in its natural setting. Obviously, human wholes will tend to differ greatly with respect to size, complexity, degree of self-sufficiency, and relationships to the larger wholes that include them. However, the crucial element of this view is the concept of relationship or unity. That is the holist standpoint includes the belief that human systems tend to develop a characteristic wholeness or integrity. This unity may take the form of a set of values that expresses itself throughout the system, or it may be that a particular socioeconomic structure tends to condition everything else. Holists may disagree on whether this unity derives from some basic source (for example, religion, ethics, technology, personality) or from some complex interweaving of a number of factors, but they all agree that the unity is there.

The implication is that the characteristics of a part are largely determined by the whole to which it belongs and by its particular relationship with the other parts in the system. Thus, if two superficially similar parts of different systems, say markets, are compared closely, they will be found to vary in characteristic ways. Take the example of markets in less-developed countries. Some economic development experts observed that people spent a large amount of time haggling over prices in local output markets in a particular peasant society. They set up a pilot project wherein a fixed price supermarket replaced the old peasant market. It was a failure because the new market did not satisfy the social intercourse provided by the old market system. Thus superficially similar parts, markets, provided different functions in different systems and thus the definition of efficiency also would vary between the systems.

Since holists acknowledge the organic unity of human wholes, they are obligated to study the whole living system rather than one part taken out of context. The context of a particular event is important because the character of any given part is largely conditioned by the whole to which it belongs and by its particular function and location in the larger system. Thus, reality for holists is viewed as a process of evolutionary change driven by the dynamic interaction between the parts and the whole.

The approach which has achieved the greatest success in constructing holist explanations in the social sciences is case studies using what is termed the participant-observer method. The investigators become "socialized"-- that is, they allow the subject matter to impress upon them its norms and to instill within them its categories. In remaining close to the concrete reality of the system studied, holists are in a unique position to perceive a wide variety of recurrent themes (importance of ceremony, target profits/markup pricing, etc) that appear in a variety of contexts. As an observer, the researcher looks for themes which illuminate the systems wholeness, that is, which contribute to its individuality or oneness. It is in this sense that holists find general laws (law of demand) and universal categories (utility) especially unsuited to the task of describing the unity of the particular system unless they have been discovered by observation to be important in this particular system.

Researchers construct tentative hypotheses about parts of the system out of the recurrent themes that become obvious to them in the course of the socialization process. These hypotheses or interpretations of themes are tested by consulting a wide variety of data (previous case studies, survey data, personal observations, and so forth). Gradually, as socialization proceeds, researchers become increasingly attuned to accurate perception and interpretation of the recurrent themes and formulation of validated hypotheses. Holists use this experience and the various pieces of evidence to build up a many-sided, complex picture of the subject matter. Unfortunately, this technique can never produce the rigorous certainty espoused by logical positivists; it can only indicate varying degrees of plausibility.

Eventually the holist proceeds to the last step, which is building a model. This type of model with its emphasis on recurrent themes within or around the individual system is aptly known to philosophers of science as the pattern model of explanation or STORY TELLING. It is constructed by linking hypotheses or themes in a network or pattern, with the account of a particular part emphasizing the multiplicity of connections among that part, other parts and the whole system.

Conception of Reality. Another distinguishing aspect of holist methodology can be found in the structure of their explanations. The structure of holistic theories is concatenated (linked together) rather than hierarchical, as in formal theories. They are composed by linking several relatively independent parts, rather than by logically deducing an explanandum from an explanans. A concatenated theory with its several independent sections and subsections provides a many-sided, complex picture of the subject matter. The concatenated structure of holist explanations is necessitated in part by holists' conception of reality. Rather than say that we understand or explain something when we can predict it, holists say that we have an explanation for something when we understand its place in the whole.

Primacy of Subject Matter. Since holists do not attempt to subsume their particular system under general principles applicable to all systems, their concepts are relatively concrete, particularized, and close to the real system being described. The primacy of subject matter over method, then, is a crucial element of holist methodology. In contrast, formalists argue that the method is what is important and the problem is how to creatively use that scientific method to analyze any event to show that it is merely an example of a general law. Thus, an agents behavior, in whatever context, needs to be shown as an example of optimizing behavior. Holists claim that this approach distorts the subject by saying the context doesn't matter other than setting constraints on optimizing behavior. Holists attempt to generalize from the facts of experience about the working of the economy while formalists attempt to construct a model based on assumptions about how economic agents would behave if they acted rationally in their self-interest.

Form of Logic. The fourth and final characteristic of holistic concepts is that they are frequently, although not always, related dialectically. Two concepts are related dialectically when the development of one concept focuses attention on the other as an opposed concept that has been unknowingly denied or excluded by the first; or when it is discovered that the opposite concept is necessary for the validity or applicability of the first; and when it is the case that the real theoretical problem is the interrelation between the two concepts. There are many examples of dialectical logic in political economy: the ceremonial-technological dichotomy, pecuniary versus economic values, spread versus backwash effects, and so on.

One reason for the frequent occurrence of dialectical concepts in holist theories is that they serve to counterbalance the human tendency to be biased, one-sided, abstract. They make thought and theories more concrete. Researchers begin with some historically or empirically suggested theme and develop it until its shortcomings are clear enough to suggest an opposing, formally unacknowledged, theme; then the new theme is developed and related back to the first. In effect, dialectic is the logic of the concrete. The fact that dialectic is a correction of one-sidedness helps explain why many holistic works are not dialectical-- there is only so much time. The hope is that later researchers can combine several one-sided works into a more complex whole.

Conclusion. Holism has its limitations. First, because of their lack of precision, the use of holist concepts must be continuously monitored by reference to observation, cases, and examples. Holism separated from its empirical base easily becomes loose, uncontrolled speculation. A second problem is that the impreciseness and generality of holist concepts make any definitive verification of hypotheses impossible. As a consequence holists must remember that these theories are always tentative and subject to change.

Use of holist pattern models appears appropriate when an explanation involves many diverse factors, each of which is important; when the patterns or connections among those factors are important; and when these patterns can be observed in the particular case under study. Use of formal theoretical models appears more appropriate when one or two factors or laws determine what is to be explained and when these factors or laws are better known and understood than the specific instance. These formal models have their uses, even by political economists, for certain types of problems. Many of the issues political economists deal with, however, are better handled by holist methods.


Diesing, Paul. (1971) Patterns of Discovery in the Social Sciences. Chicago, Aldine-Atherton.

Kaplan, Abraham. (1964) The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science. San Francisco, Chandler Publishing Co.

Wilber, Charles K.; with Robert S. Harrison. (1978) "The Methodological Basis of Institutional Economics: Pattern Model, Storytelling, and Holism", Journal of Economic Issues, vol XII, no 1: pp. 61-89.





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