Social Research Glossary

 

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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International, http://www.qualityresearchinternational.com/socialresearch/

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.

 

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Holism


core definition

Holism is the view that an organisation, institution, or even society, as a functioning whole has an effect on all the parts of which it is made up, and that therefore one should not study these parts in isolation.


explanatory context

Structuralism and Marxism are, arguably, holistic approaches.

 

In ethnography holism refers the notion that individual actions can only be fully understood in relation to the total social context.

 

Holism is similar to totality but whereas holism considers that the whole is more than the sum of the parts, totality reinforces the interconnectedness of parts and structure.


analytical review

Colorado State University (1993–2013) defines holistic perspective as:

Taking almost every action or communication of the whole phenomenon of a certain community or culture into account in research.


The University of Oregon (undated) has an entry on 'holism':

Holism as an idea or philosophical concept is diametrically opposed to atomism. Where the atomist believes that any whole can be broken down or analyzed into its separate parts and the relationships between them, the holist maintains that the whole is primary and often greater than the sum of its parts. The atomist divides things up in order to know them better; the holist looks at things or systems in aggregate and argues that we can know more about them viewed as such, and better understand their nature and their purpose....

In the seventeenth century, at the same time that classical physics gave renewed emphasis to atomism and reductionism, Spinoza developed a holistic philosophy reminiscent of Parmenides. According to Spinoza, all the differences and apparent divisions we see in the world are really only aspects of an underlying single substance, which he called God or nature. Based on pantheistic religious experience, this emphasis on an underlying unity is reflected in the mystical thinking of most major spiritual traditions. It also reflects developments in modern quantum field theory, which describes all existence as an excitation of the underlying quantum vacuum, as though all existing things were like ripples on a universal pond.

Hegel, too, had mystical visions of the unity of all things, on which he based his own holistic philosophy of nature and the state. Nature consists of one timeless, unified, rational and spiritual reality. Hegel's state is a quasi-mystical collective, an "invisible and higher reality," from which participating individuals derive their authentic identity, and to which they owe their loyalty and obedience. All modern collectivist political thinkers - including, of course, Karl Marx - stress some higher collective reality, the unity, the whole, the group, though nearly always at the cost of minimizing the importance of difference, the part, the individual. Against individualism, all emphasize the social whole or social forces that somehow possess a character and have a will of their own, over and above the characters and wills of individual members.

The twentieth century has seen a tentative movement toward hoilism in such diverse areas as politics, social thinking, psychology, management theory, and medicine. These have included the practical application of Marx's thinking in Communist and Socialist states, experiments in collective living, the rise of Gestalt psychology, systems theory, and concern with the whole person in alternative medicine. All these have been reactions against excessive individualism with its attendant alienation and fragmentation, and exhibit a commonsense appreciation of human beings' interdependency with one another and with the environment.

Where atomism was apparently legitimized by the sweeping sucesses of classical physics, holism found no such foundation in the hard sciences. It remained a change of emphasis rather than a new philosophical position. There were attempts to found it on the idea of organism in biology - the emergence of biological form and the cooperative relation between biological and ecological systems - but these, too, were ultimately reducible to simpler parts, their properties, and the relation between them. Even systems theory, although it emphasizes the complexity of aggregates, does so in terms of causal feedback loops between various constituent parts. It is only with quantum theory and the dependence of the very being or identity of quantum entities upon their contexts and relationships that a genuinely new, "deep" holism emerges.


associated issues

 


related areas

See also

totality

Critical Social Research Section 1.6.3


Sources

Anonymous, undated, 'Holism', available at http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/glossary/holism.htm, accessed 23 January 2013, still available 22 December 2016.

Colorado State University, 1993–2013, Glossary of Key Terms available at http://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=90, accessed 3 February 2013, still available 22 December 2016.


copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017


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