What is Holism?

A holistic approach is the idea that a system should be seen as a whole entity rather than as a collection of individual parts.

This idea has led to the concept of holism in human behavior, physical anthropology, and social psychology and has implications for the way we approach our own environment.

The Holistic Perspective: In Cultural Anthropology

In anthropology, holism is concerned with group behavior, it is a scientific method that tries to bring together everything that mind, body, society, individuals and the environment bring about together and the emergent properties of the larger system.

Consider some basic semantic holism, which is to say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is obvious and you don’t need a degree in Gestalt psychology or professional medical advice to see that a human being, for example, is more than just a bunch of cells.

You cannot understand behavior by deciding that we are made up of x% cellular identity plus say y% of the culture that we are born into. It might make social science classes easier but it wouldn’t be true.

This means that we cannot be simply reduced to the building blocks that make a person. What makes us who we are is more than just our social context, our genetic material but rather holism theory says that all our different components come together to create something which requires our experiences to be actualized.

This philosophy can then be extended to take a holistic view of the relationship between people and the environment.

Ecological Holism Theory

It was Aldo Leopold (the guy who wrote A Sand County Almanac and who coined the idea of ecocentrism) and J Baird Callicott who are most concerned with the development of holistic thought in relationship to ecology.

The idea of ecological holism is that we as humans have a responsibility to our environment and that from a holistic approach – this is not to preserved individual entities within that environment but to the system as a whole. It is on us to preserve nature itself.

Of course, holism in this respect has some problems, at least, from the perspective of some environmentalists. That is because when you shift your attention from individual pieces to the whole, then you can start to take holism to extremes.

One example of this would be the argument that it does not matter if an individual species is left to go extinct because holism is concerned with the sustainability of the total environment.

If you break things but the whole is OK? Then this philosophy would suggest that is perfectly fine.

If you transplanted this concept into medicine, that would mean doctors would be fine if parts of someone bore signs of injury or disease as long as the person’s health was, overall, in reasonable condition. It’s clear why their patients might find that to be a problem, right?

However, while this might seem as though holism strays into unacceptable areas of thought – holistic ecology is the primary approach of the modern schools of thought in ecology.

The social sciences have reached a compromise where holism is not a simple sum of the parts of the philosophy but, instead, is balanced between both “oneness” and “interconnectedness”. This might be termed “spiritual ecology.”

This brings some sense to the discipline and ensures that we do not see the loss of a species as a good example of what’s OK unless it is to the benefit of the whole ecology. (Which may explain why so many scientists are prepared to live with the extinction of the mosquito, for example).

Final Thoughts On Human Beings And The Holistic Approach

There’s no doubt that a common-sense approach to the study of anything must involve some form of holism. And while holistic ecology may be complex, it is a valuable way of recognizing the overall importance of Mother Nature and how human beings may contribute to protecting her.