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 Methodological Individualism vs. Holism

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Age : 47
Location: : Connecticut
Registration date : 2007-01-24

PostSubject: Methodological Individualism vs. Holism   Wed Apr 23, 2008 2:19 pm

This is a pretty good essay that describes the differences between Methodological Individualism and Methodological Holism. It's written from a psychologist's perspective but the main ideas hold true.

This essay is pertinent because these two methodologies are at the base of most people's conception of god as well as their world view in general.

In the end the essay offers a suggestion of how these two seemingly contradictory methodologies can be integrated in a way that preserves the strength of both approaches.

Quote :
Methodological Individualism vs. Holism

This entry speaks to the nature of the individual element. Individualism says that the individual element is an independent entity that has self-contained properties, though, of course, it draws on resources around it. An example is the popular idea that the individual is responsible for his/her own fate. Your success and failure depend ultimately on how hard you work.

Holism says that the individual element is inextricably tied to other individuals. Individuals are interdependent, and they are internally related in the sense that each is imbued with, and constituted by, the qualities of others. An example is a child in a family. The child's psychology depends utterly on the way he/she is treated. Any intrinsic tendencies are modulated and mediated by experience. From this perspective, the child is not entirely responsible for his/her behavior.

Holism regards individuals or elements as reciprocally influencing each other. The child affects the family while being affected by it. This dialectical relation of individuals/elements comprises a system, or a whole. The whole is composed of individuals and affected by them. It is not independent of individuals. However, the whole is not simply a sum of independent individuals sequentially summed together, one after the other (see the entry on reductionism). The whole is more than the sum of the parts.

Solomon Asch explains the holistic nature of social interactions in the case of two boys carrying a log. The boys adjust their actions to each other and to the object. The two do not apply force separately. There is a unity of action that embraces the participants and the common object. This performance is a new product, unlike what each participant would do singly and also unlike the sum of their separate exertions. What each contributes is a function of his relation to the other, how the other acts. The other's actions lead to changes in the self's behavior. Self is permeated by other. Larger social units, such as teams and institutions, manifest other kinds of emergent properties.

Emergence is central to holism. It denotes the fact that the whole is different from the sum of the individual constituents. This whole then affects the qualities of the constituents. They are not self-sufficient, independent qualities.

These examples illustrate how the two approaches construe the nature, or existence, of the individual. These ontological perspectives of individualism and holism entail corresponding epistemologies, or ways of acquiring knowledge.

An ontology that construes individual elements as self-contained and self-determining, and as combining arithmetically to form groups, necessarily insists that knowledge of things consists of reducing complexity to simple, separate individual elements --e.g., a group is simply a collection of individuals co-existing. An ontology that construes elements as part of a system of relations that constitute them, insists that knowledge of things requires understanding elements as complex, multifaceted entities that are dialectically related to other things and embody their features.

Individualistic and holistic ontologies and epistemologies also entail distinctive methodologies...

A Synthesis

In their current forms, holism and individualism approach psychological phenomena very differently, and are antithetical. However, a synthesis is possible. This cannot be an eclectic, unprincipled, combining together. For this would combine weaknesses as well as strengths. Nor can the synthesis take the form of a golden mean that is in between the extremes. For that negates the strengths of the positions by watering them down with their opposites.

A workable synthesis requires a reformulation that makes holism and individualism logically consistent through a set of common principles. Lev Vygotsky explained what this involves. He said that an analysis of complex patterns into units is necessary and workable. It requires construing the part as embodying qualities of related parts, patterns, wholes. This reformulates the individualistic concept of an element as an independent entity with a self-contained quality. It makes the unit logically consistent with its holistic existence, internally related to other units.

Vygotsky (1987, p. 46-47) explained this as follows: "A psychology concerned with the study of the complex whole must replace the method of decomposing the whole into its elements with that of partitioning the whole into its units in which the characteristics of the whole are present." "In contrast to the term `element,' the term `unit' designates a product of analysis that possesses all the basic characteristics of the whole. The living cell is the real unit of biological analysis because it preserves the basic characteristics of life that are inherent in the living organism."

These units can be studied, counted, and added. The benefits of analysis can thus be integrated into methodological holism. This enables holism to become a precise, rigorous, scientific approach. It loses its pejorative connotation as a mystical, ineffable, impractical methodology.

I would just add that the concept of the "holon" does a very good job at doing just what Vygotsky suggests at the end in that holons are "units" rather than just mere "elements".

"Enjoy every sandwich" ~ Warren Zevon
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