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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.



Methodological Individualism



Methodological individualism is the hallmark of positivism. Positivism construes phenomena as simple, homogeneous, separate, variables. A variable is defined as qualitatively invariant, and only quantitatively variable. The reason it is qualitatively invariant is because it is separate from other variables. This prevents others from imbuing it with their qualities, altering its quality, and complicating it. Intelligence, depression, aggression, and all other psychological phenomena are construed as separate variables with simple, fixed qualities.. Only their degree varies in different conditions. This ontology leads positivists to concentrate on measuring quantities of variables. They eschew investigating, or theorizing about, their qualities which are taken for granted as obvious, simple, and fixed.

Methodological individualism is also evident in positivistic instruments such as questionnaires. Each item on a questionnaire is a separate (discrete) element that supposedly taps a discrete psychological attribute. Items are randomly presented in order to prevent any association among them that would bias the subject away from responding to each one independently. In addition, each response is treated as a separate element that is accorded equal weight, and can be summed with the others. Sums are indifferent to the order of the elements. 5 + 3 + 1 is the same sum as 1 + 3 + 5. Sums presume that items are independent of each other, and that a 5 at the beginning is the same as a 5 at the end of a sequence. Of course, responses are statistically correlated together (e.g., in factor analysis). However, it is a correlation of separate, independent items.



Qualitative methodology

One might suppose that methodological individualism, or atomism, is the basis of positivistic methodology, while holism is the basis of qualitative methodology. However, this would be a simplification. In fact, individualism is pervasive in qualitative research, along with holism.


Individualism in qualitative methodology takes the form of treating individual subjects as self-contained individuals who create their own meanings and behaviors. Researchers focus on recording and reporting individuals' subjective accounts. They do not attempt to understand an individual's subjectivity as influenced by other people and conditions. (see entry on subjectivism).

This is characteristic of a good deal of discourse analysis. While some analysts relate discourse to cultural values and practices, many emphasize discourse as an invention of the individual speaker. Margaret Wetherell and Jonathan Potter advocate this position.

It appears in Wetherell's analysis of 17-year old boys' sexuality. She analyzes the discourse Aaron had with his friends about a weekend during which he slept with four girls. At one point, his friend Paul wondered whether Aaron had deliberately set out to have lots of sex ("out on the pull") that weekend. Wetherell analyses the conversation as follows:

 What I wish to note is Paul's new description of Aaron's activities as "out on the pull". This account seems to be heard [by Aaron] as an uncalled for accusation in relation to the events of Friday night and Aaron and Phil issue denials Š in attempting to reformulate and minimize the actions so described -- `just out as a group of friends'. (Wetherell, 1998, p. 399).

    Wetherell construes dialogue as a way that individuals represent themselves to each other and themselves. She focuses on the mechanics of how individuals accomplish this: Paul describes Aaron, Aaron hears the description, he responds. This methodology does not go beyond identifying sequential conversational acts. It does not utilize long patterns of dialogue to interpret statements, code them, organize them, make inferences or deductions from them concerning psychological or cultural issues. This restriction conforms to discourse theory that speech is an invention that expresses the individual, it is not a reflection of cultural or psychological processes. Wetherell is not interested in the nature of Aaron's sexual desire -- i.e., whether it is impersonal, egocentric, loving, considerate, domineering, instrumental, etc. -- and how these sexual qualities might reflect macro cultural factors. She is concerned with how individuals voluntaristically present sex in discourse.


Methodological Holism


Holistic methodology is only found in qualitative methodology. It does not appear in positivism.

One of the most important applications of holism in qualitative methodology is Dilthey's hermeneutics. (see entry on objectivism). The central idea is that the psychological significance of any behavioral expression can only be discerned by relating that response to other

responses. The significance of a response is not transparent in a single behavior. For example, to know whether a remark is a joke or an insult, you must situate it in a context of other comments, the speaker's countenance, and other behaviors. By itself, the comment is ambiguous. The context disambiguates the element.

This relating of behaviors in order to disclose psychological phenomena is known as the hermeneutic circle.

If we want to hermeneutically interpret the psychology of a mother who spanks her child, we must know how the child acted before he was spanked, how the mother behaves toward him in other situations, what she says to him during and after the spanking, how she behaves toward him after the spanking, her facial expression during the spanking, how she explains the spanking to her husband and friends, etc. Only this complex configuration of related behaviors reveals whether her spanking was motivated by concern for the child's well-being, hatred for the child, revenge against the child, or by frustration which was provoked by an event unrelated to the child.

Similarly, the cognitive processes which enable a student to perform well on a math test is only known by observing her extended solution to several math problems in different situations. Test performance may express a number of psychological phenomena. It may reflect the student's ability to memorize material, it may reflect test taking ability, anxiety, or mathematical reasoning. Which of these possibilities is operative is only disclosed by observing the pattern of steps which the pupil takes to solve problems in different situations.    

Kurt Goldstein used a hermeneutic analysis to diagnose neurological deficits. He observed the pattern of responses by which patients match a colored stimulus with objects of similar color. Normal and impaired subjects often find the same number of objects that match the hue of the stimulus; however their pattern of responses is quite different. The patient proceeds sequentially by first matching the stimulus to an object that most closely resembles it (O1), then matching another object (O2) to (O1), then matching (O3) to (O2), and so on. In contrast, normal subjects compare each color directly with the stimulus color. The qualitative difference in the behavioral patterns reveals the patient's deficit.

This is a hermeneutical, holistic analysis because it examines patterns of interrelated responses which indicate the quality and significance of each. The fact that O3 is matched to O2 rather than to the stimulus hue makes it a different (impaired) kind of response and indicates it to be a different kind of response. Hermeneutic methodology that elucidates patterns is holistic. In contrast, counting the number of correct matches, and comparing the sums for normals and patients obscures patterns and the qualitative differences of responses within them. As we have mentioned, sums of responses are indifferent to their order and their interrelationship. A sum treats each response as  separate and independent. Sums are individualistic forms of methodology, while patterns are holistic.


Cultural hermeneutics

The highest form of methodological holism not only elucidates patterns of behaviors among individuals, it additionally recognizes the internal relationship between psychological phenomena and cultural phenomena. This cultural-hermeneutical interpretation of psychology was actually the crux of nineteenth century German hermeneutics. It has been largely overlooked as hermeneuticists focus on the behaviors of individuals apart from culture. However, Dilthey maintained that the interpretation of meaning belongs to the larger science of history. To understand means to understand historically. It means to understand that psychological phenomena such as self concept, sexuality, motivation, reasoning, memory, emotions, perception, mental illness, and developmental processes are integral components of macro cultural factors such as institutions, artifacts, and cultural concepts, and embody their features. Cultural hermeneutics elucidates this cultural quality of psychological phenomena, as Carl Ratner explains in his writings.


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 unitsŠ 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 wholeŠThe 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. 


Carl Ratner



See also: subjectivism, reductionism, objectivism



Additional Readings


Asch, S. (1952). Social psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


Goldstein, K. (1948). Language and language disturbance. Grune & Stratton.


Ratner, C. (1997). Cultural psychology and qualitative methodology. New York: Plenum.


Ratner, C. (2002). Cultural psychology: Theory and method. New York: Plenum.


Ratner, C. (2006). Cultural psychology: A perspective on psychological functioning and social reform. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.


Ratner, C. (2007a). Cultural psychology and qualitative methodology: Scientific and political considerations. Culture and Psychology, 2007, 13,


Ratner, C. (2007b). A macro cultural-psychological theory of emotions. In P. Schultz, & R. Pekrun (Eds.). Emotions in Education (chap. 6). Academic Press.


Ratner, C. (2007c). Contextualism versus Positivism in Cross-Cultural Psychology. In G. Zheng, K. Leung, & J.Adair (Eds), Perspectives and progress in contemporary cross-cultural psychology. Beijing: China Light Industry Press.


Sayers, S. (2007). Individual and society in Marx and Hegel: Beyond the communitarian critique of liberalism. Science and Society, 71, 84-102.


Vygotsky, L.S. (1987). Collected works, vol. 1. New York: Plenum.


Wetherell, M. (1998). Positioning and interpretative repertoires: Conversation analysis and post-structuralism in dialogue. Discourse & Society, 9, 387-412.