Quality & Quantity 35: 389–405, 2001.
© 2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Holism versus Reductionism in Modern Social
PIET J. M. VERSCHUREN
Department of Methodology, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nijmegen, PO Box 9104,
6500 HE Nijmegen, The Netherlands. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract. Since an early stage in most of the technical sciences, and during the last few decades
in many of the social sciences, reductionistic research has become a mainstream type of empirical
research. This research, to be characterised methodologically in this article, has proven to be very
successful in building a body of abstract and generalisable theoretical knowledge, for reasons that are
made clear in this article. However, does reductionism grasp reality in its full extent, the whole being
more than the sum of its parts? In this article arguments and research strategies for holistic empirical
research are presented, offering advantages and possibilities for modern social science research.
Abstract thinking ﬁxes and narrows
the eye. It takes a part for the whole.
Key words: reductionism, holistic empirical research, social science research
Since an early stage in the development of the technical sciences, and espe-
cially since the writings of the seventeenth century French philosopher Descartes,
research has been reductionistic in nature. An increasing number of scientiﬁc
researchers started looking at reality in an analytical way, by decomposing the
research object in aspects and particles. As a result many present-day scientiﬁc
disciplins are fully reductionistic. For instance, micro-physicists examine the be-
haviour of atoms, protons, neutrons and quarks, most probably in future followed
by the study of still smaller particles not yet discovered. Micro-biologists try
to unravel cells, cell structures and cell processes, as well as DNA molecules,
modern sociologists focus their attention increasingly on individuals instead of
groups or even whole societies as was the case in the beginning of this discipline,
present-day psychologists tend to take traits and brain structures as their object of
research, rather than individuals and personalities, and physicians are discovering
the possibilities of micro-surgery.