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Reductionism is a viewpoint that regards one phenomenon as entirely explainable by the properties of another. The first can be said to be reducible to the second. It is a mere epiphenomenon of the second. It is really just another name for the second. It has no distinctive properties that require a distinctive theory or methodology.

 For example, biological reductionism claims that the mind is entirely explained by physical properties of the brain; the mind is physical; what we call mental is really just another term for the brain; mental/mind is actually only an epiphenomenon of the brain; it can and should be studied by neurophysiologists; there is nothing distinctively psychological about the mind; treating the mind as having distinct properties from the brain is an illusion.

A different form of reductionism is sociological reductionism. This reduces psychological phenomena to epiphenomena of social factors. In this view, psychology is entirely determined by nationality or social class. There is nothing to psychology besides the properties it acquires from one's nationhood or class. In this view one may speak of American psychology as a homogeneous phenomenon or lower class psychology as a homogeneous phenomenon, because no other factors determine psychology; it is reducible to social class or social state.

Another form of reductionism that bears directly on qualitative methodology is quantitative reductionism. The claim here is that qualitative characteristics of personality, emotions, reasoning are entirely expressible in quantitative terms. An example is the notion of intelligence. IQ is construed as an entirely quantitative dimension. IQ can range from low to high. The only meaningful way to discuss IQ is in terms of its quantitative amount. IQ is reducible to quantity. Psychologists are concerned with operationalizing intelligence and measuring it, not with theories about what it is.

Reductionism denies complex multiplicity and heterogeneity in favor of a single kind of phenomenon or factor. For example, biological reductionism construes mind as continuous with the single realm of neurophysiology. It does not recognize the mind as a complication of neurophysiology that introduces a new kind of phenomenon.

Quantitative reductionism similarly simplifies psychology by only recognizing one order of reality, the quantitative order. Qualitative complexity and multiplicity is reduced to simple quantitative differences.


Alternatives to Reductionism


There are two alternatives to reductionism. Both of them emphasize that there is more than one order of phenomena. Dualism postulates separate orders of phenomena. Rene Descartes' postulating of a mind that is separate from the body is the classic dualistic alternative to reductionism. In this case, a separate realm of the mental stands apart from the physical body. In this view, the mind cannot be reduced to the body or be explained in physical terms. Studying the mind requires special theories and methodologies that are different from those that are applicable to physical phenomena.

Dialectical emergence is a second alternative to reductionism. It also recognizes that phenomena are complex, multifaceted, and heterogeneous. They are not reducible to single properties and processes. However, it postulates that these distinctive characteristics are related to others; they are not independent as in dualism.

The classic example of emergence is the relation of water to its elements, oxygen and hydrogen. Water is composed of these elements, it is not independent of them. Yet oxygen and hydrogen are gaseous molecules while water is a liquid. Although water depends upon its constituents, it has a qualitatively new property -- liquid -- that cannot be understood in terms of its gaseous components. A new field of study is necessary to study the distinctive emergent, liquid quality of water. 

In analogous fashion, an emergent conception of the mind argues that it is grounded in neurophysiological processes, however, it emerges from them and is a distinctive form of them with distinctive properties. The mind is capable of willing action, thinking, predicting, comprehending, and even controlling the brain and the body. These are acts that are qualitatively different from their constituent neurons just as water is qualitatively different from hydrogen and oxygen. A special field of psychology is warranted to study these emergent, distinctive mental qualities.


Qualitative Methodology


Qualitative methodology overcomes the simplification of positivism by acknowledging that psychological phenomena are qualitatively different in different individuals and cultures. Shame, introversion, attachment, intelligence, depression, love, memory, self-concept, and reasoning are not single, simple, invariant, quantitative dimensions.

Many different kinds of intelligence have been identified by Robert Sternberg. Abstract, syllogistic, logical reasoning is different from reasoning based upon empirical experience. In the latter, deductions are made from what one has personally experienced, not from abstract logical rules. Romantic love is different from Puritanical love in colonial America.

Qualitative methodology includes complex procedures for investigating complex, variable qualitative characteristics of psychological phenomena. It avoids discounting or simplifying complexity, multiplicity, and variation. Of course, qualitative procedures organize complex data into meaningful categories. They also summarize trends in the data. However, these organizing procedures respect the complexity of phenomena. They simply categorize similar complex issues together and distinguish them from different complex issues. Organizing data does not necessitate reducing it to simple, singular, invariant, quantitative dimensions.



Carl Ratner


See also objectivism, methodological individualism-holism, hermeneutics, phenomenology



Further Reading



Bunge, M. (2004). How does it work? The search for explanatory mechanisms. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 34, 182-210.


Bunge, M. (1999). The sociology-philosophy connection. New Brunswick:  Transaction Publishing.


Bunge, M. (2001). Scientific realism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus     books.


Ratner, C. (1991). Vygotsky's socio-cultural psychology and its contemporary applications. New York: Plenum.

Ratner, C. (1997). Cultural psychology and qualitative methodology: Theoretical and empirical considerations. N.Y.: Plenum.

Ratner, C. (2000). A Cultural-Psychological Analysis of Emotions. Culture and Psychology, 6, 5-39.