Be holistic if you study real-world problems! (But how?!)

By Joern Fischer

Studying real-world problems such as sustainability, food security, or even biodiversity loss means you’re dealing with complex systems. Complex systems are characterised by a few features that make them tricky (and interesting) — the whole is more than the sum of the parts (something you might call “emergence”), and things are connected in ways that are not always simple. If you fiddle with one part of the system, this has ramifications for the rest of the system — and those can even feed back to the very thing you thought you had “solved” in the first place.

So what does this mean for doing research on real-world problems? It means you can’t “solve” a given problem without dealing with the “complex system” context. In theory, this answer feels quite satisfying, and people like myself can preach this to others, and tell them they aren’t holistic enough.

Apart from the fact that me being preachy is annoying just in general, in this case, it’s worthwhile to ask the likes of myself — how do you take that general idea (which is obvious and seems fair enough) to reality? Where do you draw the line? How can you study “everything”? Is holistic even possible in research? If so, how can “holism” be achieved?

I think these are tricky questions. Thinking outside the box means you probably think within another one. Expanding your focus in one direction might mean you reduce it in another direction. This means that researchers who study just “one piece of the puzzle” at times have a point. Perhaps it’s silly to think that more should be done.

I don’t feel I can articulate very well why, but after all that, I still think it’s worth trying to be holistic. For the simple reason that not trying definitely won’t work if you’re in a complex system. The fundamental question is: if there is detail (sub-components of your system) and the whole system (however its boundaries are defined), how do you oscillate between the two?

The traditional answer has been that we come up with disciplines, and specialise, and then we understand the bits in isolation — and then all we have to do is put them together. But that kind of reductionism is precisely what does not work in complex systems. The bits are not additive, they interact. For that reason, I think we should try, from the beginning of a research project addressing a real world problem, think about multiple connected issues, and somehow address them simultaneously, including exchange of insights as they emerge. No project will be able to cover the whole system, or at least not if you’re dealing with moderately complex real-world problems. But I think it’s worth trying to advance multiple fronts of knowledge at the same time, so that interconnections become clearer as you go.

The risk of not doing this is that you think you have a solution when you might not. In complex systems, you can’t get “optimal performance” by optimising the parts in isolation.

What does any of this mean for how we should conduct our conservation or sustainability research? What’s the place for disciplinary knowledge when trying to solve real-world problems? Questions, questions, questions …

3 thoughts on “Be holistic if you study real-world problems! (But how?!)

  1. Nice post! Somehow it reminds me Konrad Lorenz who told/wrote: ‘Every man gets a narrower and narrower field of knowledge in which he must be an expert in order to compete with other people. The specialist knows more and more about less and less and finally knows everything about nothing.’

    To be holistic may mean to fight against that state of ‘knowing everything about nothing’?

    Juhász-Nagy Pál, the Hungarian ecologist wrote in the late 70`s that we need a new type of naturalists. Naturalists are those who feel and know the system as a whole. They are able to remember specialists where to stop with data collection/interpretation e.g. because from the perspective of the whole system after a level it doesn`t matter to know more detail.

    The new type of naturalist iwhat JNP envisioned more than 3 decades ago now starts to get shape (e.g. with concepts like inter and transdiscciplinarity).

    But in our transdisciplinary enthusiasm we should not forget that we will need ‘craze sceintists’ too, who knows indeed everything about nothing.

    We need therefore both. Bigh challenge how to fit these new types of naturalists with specialists.

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