Holism vs. Reductionism Research Paper

Holism vs. Reductionism


Holistic thinking is a way of thinking that is skewed to wholeness with an inclination for systems to produce complex wholes that have properties merged from parts (Jackson, 2003). Reductionism is the tendency to reduce complex to simple and studying the parts of the whole (Wilmsatt, 2006). The two thinking systems have varied application in various fields with arguably different results.

The debate as to which system is better as been on. This paper seeks to contribute to the knowledge of the two systems by looking into definitions and applicability. Further, the disadvantages and advantages of both systems are discussed.


Holism thinking prefers the study of wholes rather than parts, which is preferred by reductionist thinking (Baranoff, 2004). In solution seeking, holistic system does not break organizations into segments in order to provide remedies but rather concentrates its attention at the organization level to provide a solution that will ensure the parts of the organization function seamlessly as one. It provides solution from the point of view that the organization has a system subsystem and suprasystems and any one change will affect them all as they are integrated (Jackson, 2003).

Reductionism is of the views that parts of an organization as vital. In this light, when seeking solution, reductionism identifies the parts, understands the problems within the parts as it works up the organization. The downside of this approach is that the whole has a different dimension that is different from the parts because the whole is an amalgamation of parts, which affect one another through complex associations. Once merged, the parts seem to be deriving meaning from the whole. As in real life, a living being gives meaning to the liver, brain kidney and other body parts, not other way round.

Holism gives more meaning to the whole by considering that a system is more than the sum of its parts. Holistic thinking is more interested in the networks and association between parts but in how they join to give rise to and by extension uphold in the entity as whole (Thomaz & Miguel, 2000). In giving more meaning to the ‘whole’, holism seems to devalue the parts while on the other reductionism considers the parts as wholes within the whole.

For example in engineering, by seeing things holistically, a scientist views the multi-scale perspective, and possesses the ability to understands the relationships generating by combining different parts of a system with a overarching ethical outline for comprehending the human intersection with engineered systems (Russel and Peters, 2003). Flexibility, creativity in thinking, brawny business sense, good formal and informal communication skills, ability to identify with others, and the capacity for lifelong learning are other traits of a holistic thinking system.

Hudson (2006) favors holistic to reductionism is determining new interventions in healthcare service delivery system. Hudson observes that all stakeholders should be involved in the change process and encouraged to give ideas how the whole delivery system should operate as opposed to thinking their own service delivery. Kellam, Maher, & Peters (2008) posit that a holistic thinker possesses an understanding and awareness of the inter-associations beyond their area of expertise. They are aware of ethical, economical, environmental, social, cultural and global relationships that are connected to their areas of concern and any decision will be made after incorporating all the factors.

Reductionism involves disaggregation stepwise refinement and breaking down the problem. In this light, reductionism tends to understand the problem rather than providing the solution (Natke & Cempel, 2000). In the process, the individual sub problems end up acquiring unique solutions with no association to other parts of the system. It suffices to say that the in seeking solutions or understanding, reductionism is a bottom up approach while holistic is top down approach

From a holistic point of view, one sees a system or an organism as a whole not as connected parts which is a major advantage (McEntire & Fuller, 2002). However, the downside of this is the unpredictability and lack of definitiveness of systems from a holistic understanding as noted in the chaos theory. By reducing a problem into its parts, it makes it easier to understand because there is less to consider as opposed to a holistic approach. Reductionism pins specific problems as originating from specified parts rather than considering all factors then deciding which contributes to the problem as is taken by holistic understanding (Jackson, 2003). Reductionism makes simple concepts easier to test, as only parts are studies unlike holism where concepts that affect are given more meaning.

In scientific approaches, reductionism works best than holism because it is easier to perform controlled laboratory experiments that on the parts of a system. By reducing a problem to its parts, one is able to provide explanations in the most basic level and less likely to be inaccurate and subjective (Natke &Cempel, 2000). Not all problems can be solved by disaggregating them. Reductionism tends to break down complex problems into too simplistic explanations. In the process, causal factors to the whole system are ignored and the understanding of the resultant associations of parts is missed. In this light, the main advantage of holism is that it paints an understanding of the whole picture. It provides an explanation of higher level as it considers the interactions of the parts of system or an organism.

By taking the system as a whole there are chances of inaccuracy, as many assumption will be made as per the exact effect or contribution of a specific part. It suffices to say, solutions that are not holistic give weight to segments of the organizations as opposed to the whole. Non-holistic solutions fail to consider that by maximizing performance of one component of organization damage will be cause to other neglected parts, which affect the aggregate outcome (Jackson, 2003).


Holistic thinking gives more meaning to the whole while reductionism is of the view parts is more meaningful. In the holistic approach, there is diminutive need to understand individual parts of a system as long as there is an understanding of the system as a whole Holism and reductionism are inseparable

In holistic thinking, one attempts to understand parts of the system by first understanding the system as a whole. On the other hand, reductionism involves understanding of the parts first in an attempt to derive a holistic understanding. It suffices to say the two thinking systems are inseparable. No system will sufficiently function with an application of either holism or reductionism. An amalgamation of the two will work best.


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