Holism (from holos, a Greek word meaning all, entire, total) is the idea that all the properties of a given system (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone. Instead, the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave.
Whether anthropology should be considered as holistic in spirit or not is a debatable issue. The supporters of holistic camp give the concept two senses, first, it is concerned with all human beings across times and places, and with all dimensions of humanity (evolutionary, biophysical, sociopolitical, economic, cultural, psychological, etc.). Further, many academic programs following this approach take a "four-field" approach to anthropology that encompasses physical anthropology, archeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology or social anthropology. Each of these unique subdisciplines in anthropology contributes different aspects to the understanding of humans in the past and present. Rather than focusing on a single aspect of being human, such as history or biology, anthropology is distinct in its holism. These subdisciplines provide the basis for this holistic approach. Second, the functional school which strives for an approach of studying human society and culture in terms of integrated components together comprising a social hole.
According to McGee and Warms’s discussion of Boas in their history of anthropological theory, Boas “pioneered the concept of cultural relativism in anthropology.” Further, his approach of historical particularism emphasized the discipline’s holism, and drew upon the study of “prehistory, linguistics, and physical anthropology” (McGee and Warms 2000, p.131). Boas’s desire to introduce scientific rigor to this emerging academic field and his quest for holism were directly responsible for academic American anthropology acquiring the four-field signature of cultural (social) anthropology, archaeology (or prehistory), biological (or physical) anthropology, and linguistics anthropology (Miller 2004, p. 2). This holistic approach would distinguish American anthropology, going forward, from its European progenitors. Boas also brought to this emerging discipline a new “agenda for social reform” as well as theories of race that challenged the prevailing status quo beliefs. He believed that environment and nurturing were significant factors in human development. In his 1940 essay, “Anthropological Study of Children,” Boas noted, “Some observations have been made that illustrate the influence of environment, not only upon growth of the bulk of the body but also upon some of the forms that develop very early in life” (Boas 1982, p. 101). Boas’s students were the first generation of formally trained academic American anthropologists, and many would become leading figures in the discipline— Alfred Kroeber, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, and Ruth Benedict. Subsequent students included Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston.
In contemporary cultural anthropology, the theoretical positions of the cultural materialists and the interpretive anthropologists correspond to two different definitions of culture. Cultural materialist Marvin Harris defines culture as the total socially acquired life-way or life-style of a group of people, a definition that maintains the emphasis on the holism established by Tylor. In contrast, Clifford Geertz, speaking for the interpretivists, defines culture as consisting of symbols, motivations, moods, and thoughts. The interpretivist definition excludes behavior as part of culture. Again, avoiding a somewhat extreme dichotomy, it is reasonable and comprehensive to adopt a broad definition of culture as all learned and shared behavior and ideas.
While, the holistic approach permits anthropologists to develop a complex understanding of entire societies, anthropology also adds another dimension of analysis through cross-cultural comparison. When examining any particular society, the anthropologist is interested in seeing how that society is similar to or differs from others. This perspective allows anthropologists to open their eyes to what may seem "obvious" or "natural" in the cultural world in which they are immersed. For example, an anthropologist studying Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda will understand this experience and its theoretical implications more fully by comparing it to the Serb-Croat-Albanian conflict in the former Yugoslavia and to other cases of nationalism which have not led to mass violence, such as the situation of nationalism and separatism in Quebec Click on the links below to find out more about social and cultural anthropology.
Holism is also seen as a research strategy that separates cultural anthropology from other disciplines. Holism is the search for systematic relationships between two or more phenomena. One of the advantages of lengthy periods of fieldwork and participant observation is that the anthropologist can begin to see interrelationships between different aspects of culture. One example might be the discovery of a relationship between ecological conditions, subsistence patterns, and social organization. The holistic approach allows for the documentation of systematic relationships between these variables, thus allowing for the eventual unravelling of the importance of various relationships within the system, and, ultimately, toward an understanding of general principles and the construction of theory.
In practical terms, holism also refers to a kind of multifaceted approach to the study of culture. Anthropologists working in a specific cultural setting typically acquire information about topics not necessarily of immediate importance, or even interest, for the research project at hand. Nevertheless, anthropologists, when describing the culture they are working with, will often include discussions of culture history, linguistics, political and economic systems, settlement patterns, and religious ideology. Just as anthropologists become proficient at balancing emic and etic approaches in their work, they also become experts about a particular theoretical problem, for which the culture provides a good testing ground, and they become experts about the cultural area, having been immersed in the politics, history, and social science of the region itself. Anthropology's holistic perspective helps fieldworkers understanding this pattern. Holism means that an anthropologist looks at the entire context of a society when analysing any specific feature. For example, to understand the Japanese tea ceremony, anthropologists might investigate Japanese religion, aesthetics and history, as well as the economy, social relations and the politics of gender. Their colleagues studying medical practices in
might find the tea ceremony
interesting as an alternative therapy used by people who also rely on
hospital-based physicians. Japan
Functionalist assumption was that the constituent parts of every society, from individuals to the largest political and social institutions, must be seen as interrelated and from a holistic point of view. While variations on this assumption divided British anthropologists from their U.S./American colleagues (see below), the important methodological ramification of this assumption, holism, remained true on both sides of the Atlantic. In other words, all constituent parts of a society must be seen as interacting with and influencing all others. As a result, it was impossible to study, for example, kinship in this paradigm without also looking at religion, politics, subsistence, and all other aspects of society.
Every version of the theory is that functional characterization is holistic. Functionalists hold that mental states are to be characterized in terms of their roles in a psychological theory—be it common sense, scientific, or something in between—but all such theories incorporate information about a large number and variety of mental states. Thus if pain is interdefined with certain highly articulated beliefs and desires, then animals who don't have internal states that play the roles of our articulated beliefs and desires can't share our pains, and humans without the capacity to feel pain can't share certain (or perhaps any) of our beliefs and desires. In addition, differences in the ways people reason, the ways their beliefs are fixed, or the ways their desires affect their beliefs — due either to cultural or individual idiosyncracies — might make it impossible for them to share the same mental states. These are regarded as serious worries for all versions of functionalism (see Stich 1983, Putnam 1988).
Some functionalists, however (e.g. Shoemaker 1984c), have suggested that if a creature has states that approximately realize our functional theories, or realize some more specific defining subset of the theory particularly relevant to the specification of those states, then they can qualify as being mental states of the same types as our own. The problem, of course, is to specify more precisely what it is to be an approximate realization of a theory, or what exactly a “defining” subset of a theory is intended to include, and these are not easy questions. (They have particular bite, moreover, for analytic functionalist theories, since specifying what belongs inside and outside the “defining” subset of a functional characterization raises the question of what are the conceptually essential, and what the merely collateral, features of a mental state, and thus raise serious questions about the feasibility of (something like) an analytic-synthetic distinction. (Quine 1953, Rey 1997).
As the name implies, the primary quest for understanding among functionalists was the search for the biosocial or social structural function of any given institution for maintaining the integrity of society. Functionalists assumed that all social institutions or cultural traits, no matter how obscure or seemingly maladaptive, were somehow integral to maintaining the society or culture within the ecological and social contexts in which it existed. Methodologically, this contributed to the development and refinement of anthropological relativism, the belief that all cultures and societies, as well as their constituent traits and institutions, must be looked at in their own context rather than judged by the values and norms of the anthropologist.
Cultures are integrated. To state that cultures are internally integrated is to assert the principle of holism. Thus, studying only one or two aspects of culture provides understanding so limited that it is more likely to be misleading or wrong than more comprehensively grounded approaches. Cultural integration and holism are relevant to applied anthropologists interested in proposing ways to promote positive change. Years of experience in applied anthropology show that introducing programs for change in one aspect of culture without considering the effects in other areas may be detrimental to the welfare and survival of a culture. For example, Western missionaries and colonialists in parts of Southeast Asia banned the practice of head-hunting. This practice was embedded in many other aspects of culture, including politics, religion, and psychology (i.e., a man’s sense of identity as a man sometimes depended on the taking of a head). Although stopping head-hunting might seem like a good thing, it had disastrous consequences for the cultures that had practiced it.
Anthropologists like La Barre emphasized holism in anthropology, as indicated by his classic 1954 work, The Human Animal. Here, he showed how specific human traits such a language, family, and culture were reciprocally related to the specific biology and evolution of the human species. He later continued this theme and argued for the role of human biology in religion and even gender. In his 1970 classic, The Ghost Dance, he argued that religion’s origins must be sought in its creators, human beings, and their experiences of socialization and society, a theme to which he returned in his last book, Shadow of Childhood (1991).
American anthropology continues to embrace holism, and although the four-field approach, the culture concept, and cultural relativism have drawn sharp criticism and debate, they remain cornerstones of the discipline’s distinctiveness. American anthropology’s history of contributing to social reform has also attracted new thinkers that include women, nonwhite, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered anthropologists. Their contributions include ongoing interrogations of evolutionist
theories, positivism, modernization, critiques of ethnocentrism, homophobia, sexism, and racism, both in the society and within the academy, and challenges to the scientific validity of the concept of race, while acknowledging the power of social race. Their interpretive approaches and use of identity politics support methodologies quite different from the empiricism that H. Russell Bernard (1998) claims is ubiquitous to the discipline. These characteristics, along with the persistence of the four-field approach, and a long-standing tension between humanism and science, continue to distinguish American anthropology from its British and French cousins.