March 7th, 2018

Holism In The Social Sciences: An Essay On Our Fragmented Understanding

By Thomas Carey-Wilson

This may seem like a rather obvious point, but what I have started to notice over my foray into the social sciences is that many of the subjects therein exist along a vertical continuum in terms of their explanatory power toward the movement of individuals and institutions within society. Simply, this can be expressed within the scope of the diagram below, portraying the individualist/collectivist binary that these subjects seem to move across:













     It must be said of this graphic demonstration first and foremost that despite its horizontal progression, the subject areas nearer the right end of the continuum do not exhibit any more or less value than those at the left in terms of explanatory power. The main point to be highlighted here is that these topics form the gradual examination of descending or ascending denominations of the individualistic/collectivistic binary.


     The point of this graphic is that the further study of all forms of social science collectively must be reached in order to gain a broader understanding of human social development and status. There are many other forms of social study of course, however the most profound and dividing lines of perspective seem to be drawn between those studying the respective subjects demonstrated above.


     I have witnessed students of Political Philosophy arguing about the importance of John Locke’s pillars of property rights and individual liberty, only to have a Sociology student argue that certain extremist views are damaging to society on a sociological level. Through these experiences I can only conclude that a more holistic understanding of the social sciences is required for a more enriching debate, with those placing primacy on individualism and collectivism alike understanding the merits of each.


     Ultimately, it must be nuanced to the degree that I am simply not saying individualists do not/cannot exist within sociology, or collectivists within political philosophy (given the philosophies of Marx and Hegel, that much is abundantly clear), but on an anecdotal basis, I cannot help but see that there are general tendencies for those who engage with psychology- for example- to have special concerns for individual mental wellbeing, sociology for those pursuits which apply to wider social groupings and politics/IR for that concerning political and institutional security.


     This all mainly derives from the perception that individuals operating within the aforementioned schools of study typically inhabit a certain scope of inquiry, beginning from different points. From the past few years cogent examples to explain what I mean by this would be that of Professor Jordan Peterson and Professor Slavoj Zizek. Both figures leading the vanguard of their respective ideological realms in contemporary academic ‘pop culture’. They exemplify perfectly this movement.


     From reading several articles from Zizek and watching plenty of video interviews of him until my eyes were bleary with a 3am glaze, it becomes clear that often his points are made from the collectivist focal point of ‘ideology’. This is a concept in which Zizek indulges himself regularly. Of course, it could definitely be said that the sniff god himself engages with how ideology interfaces with the individual, but it is always from that initial conceptualization of ideological tendencies among human beings; a collectivistic analysis.


     In a similar sense, Jordan Peterson (a very much renowned psychoanalyst and clinical psychotherapist), seems to engage with how people enact their lives at a more atomic level. Beginning with the immediate individual. Many of his works focus on what we as individuals can do to better ourselves and provide a balance between order and chaos, if even by incremental gestures on a day-to-day basis such as cleaning our rooms or making our beds. In an inverse manner to Zizek, Peterson draws conclusions that may end up at the societal level explanatorily, but his methodological tendency is always to start from the individual and what you can and should do.


     At its very crux, it seems that a mutual misunderstanding of this individualist/collectivist cleavage drives people from discussing points more honestly and with a heightened degree of understanding. Even though Zizek and Peterson seem to come from different focal points in academia, what hones their views to be so effective is that they understand this fundamental cleavage between them. Zizek himself persistently explains his ideas with a well fleshed out grasp of psychoanalysis, citing the likes of Derida and Lacan, and Peterson himself explains the importance of historical (often biblical) archetypes which retain collective human pathologies across time.


     It is these fundamental crossovers that are partially what maintains both figures’ respective ideologies so vibrant and fascinating to so many. Never will you hear Zizek cup his hands over his ears when discussing matters with a ‘don’t-tread-on-me’ libertarian type, bellowing about how his opponents point of view is intolerant and bigoted of collective groups of the economically misfortunate. Neither would you glance upon Peterson ever shaking with rage at a beret-toting Soviet nostalgist for violating the NAP (non-aggression principle). Both understand the nature of the points of view from each-others ideological pond, and are unashamed in borrowing facets from across disciplines, and exploring their methodological depths. This all of course being in spite of Zizek’s Marxist roots and Peterson’s starting point in clinical psychology.


     Despite these case studies (with which whom I implore all those reading to look into), the real conclusive abyss yawning before of us must be a more holistic approach to the social sciences. The future of social science has to lay within an understanding of how the individual human relates to collective society and vice versa. Both at the same time must be considered the particulars of how human beings ontologically are and of how the wider scope of this understanding impacts upon human-to-human social networks, in their capacity to generate societal structures and institutions.


     Those wishing to engage within a certain discipline further down the academic line can choose to do so, but initially the dual perspectives of what is best for the individual and why and what are the various societal implications of this should be taught in schools across the country. I should go as far to say that we need to aggregate the social science schools into a new natural philosophy, perhaps beginning at the two years leading up to university during which college or sixth form is attended, which provides a brief, but collective foray into how human psychology can impact upon collective human behaviour, how this can shape our political institutions and many of the complex dynamics that lay therein.


     To sign off on this notion, I give a quote from 19th century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel: “That true and positive meaning of the antinomies is this: that every actual thing involves a coexistence of opposed elements.”, and this interdisciplinary approach to the social sciences must abide by this maxim- that there is a unity of opposites and furthermore that understanding, fostered via education, can actualize this unity among people to some degree.