Holism in Anthropology: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Holism?
  • 1:14 Four Sub-Fields
  • 2:49 Holistic Approach
  • 4:36 Criticism
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
In anthropology, the term 'holism' can be found in more than one context, which might seem confusing. Through this lesson, you will learn what defines holism and explore some of the ways that it is used as a methodological approach to anthropology.

What Is Holism?

If you think about who you are and how you became you, what are the things that got you to this point? There are certainly biological factors and genetics, and a huge number of social and cultural elements that have shaped you, but can any one of these things be singled out as an explanation? It is more likely that you are the person that you are because of all of these elements working together in a particular time and place in order to produce the human being that is you.

In anthropology, this perspective is known as holism, which is the philosophy that functional systems, like a body or a country, can't be explained or understood by looking at the individual pieces; rather, the individual pieces can only be understood by looking at the whole. If this seems like a confusing or vague definition, consider all of the things that make a car work properly. If you take out the battery or the transmission and look at them individually, there's nothing about them that will indicate how they make the car move, nor is it clear why they operate the way that they do. When you consider them as pieces of the entire car, however, you will be able to see that they work collectively with other parts in order to make the machine operate.

Four Sub-Fields

One of the reasons that holism might be confusing is because it is both a methodological approach to research and a kind of field in itself. Generally, anthropology can be broken down into four sub-fields:

1) Physical Anthropology: This sub-field explores the origins of the human species by studying early humans and primates in order to understand their environments and how they evolved into modern people.

2) Cultural Anthropology: As the name suggests, this sub-field explores the social and cultural elements that comprise human collectives. This could include a wide variety of traditions, values, and cultural practices that contribute to the evolution of societies across time and space.

3) Archeology: Perhaps the field most familiar to people, archeologists study the material things that cultures and societies leave behind, such as houses, tools, or works of art.

4) Linguistic Anthropology: This field explores the ways that societies and cultures have communicated with one another throughout time. This includes verbal and non-verbal communication and can also focus on the meaning of communication in a particular society.

Any one of these is its own sub-field of anthropology, with specific objectives and methodological approaches. Holistic anthropology, on the other hand, posits that one cannot get an accurate understanding of past societies and cultures by taking a single approach. Instead, holistic anthropology proposes that all four of these approaches need to be employed in order to truly understand a particular people and their social structure.

The Holistic Approach

If you take our previous example of the car and apply it to people in societies, you can begin to get a sense of how holism operates in anthropology. From the holistic perspective, behaviors, traditions, and phenomena can't be understood as isolated events but instead have to be viewed as a piece of a whole in order to be properly understood. In this way, the holistic approach pays very close attention to context, which is the time, environment, and circumstances that surround an event or practice.

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