Questions to explore after reading “Reductionism, When Are the Answers

Too Easy?” 

            These questions are all based on materials in this essay.  Don’t give routine or perfunctory answers.  Search you own experience, and make sure you base your answers on that.  Even when I ask you to explain something in the text, use your own words and thoughts.

            These questions are meant to exercise your skill and imagination in readingsocial science theory, andanalyzing social processes.  Real reading of real writing is not easy; it takes practice. Social analysis, likewise, is not in your genetic code, and certainly not available from mainstream journalists or politicians: that’ll be the day.  No, it has to be learned, and learned from sources outside of what passes for “the mainstream.”

            Just answer the each question in two or more paragraphs, but each time you make a new point, make anew paragraph, as many as ittakes.

            Short paragraphs are good.  Punchy.

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1.  Is “theory” a difficult term for you?  In what contexts (where and from whom) have you heard the term before now?  How about outside of class?  What was it used to mean there?  How is/was it often misused?  What’s wrong with saying, “Oh, that’s just a theory”?  What does Strange say it means?  What does he say is important about theory in the first two paragraphs?

2.  Have you heard of ADHD (or ADD) before now?  Where and in what context?  How were its causes explained to you, or how did you imagine it could be explained? (If you have never heard of it before, say so, and move on to the next Q.)

3.  Answer the question at the end of section I about your first critical reaction to the chemical- genetic explanation of ADHD given so far.  How does it (the theory/explanation) of ADHD sound to you at this point?  Be frank.  What other human actions (complex behaviors or traits) have you heard described as having genetic, or hormonal, or biological causes (make a list)?

(The remaining questions, but especially 4, 5, 7, 8, and 10, demand a little more detail, as well as more soul-searching.)

4. a) What are the possible shortcomings stated here (but translate into you own words) with the chemical-genetic explanation of Isabelle’s ADHD?  b)  What can be said to be missing from the chemical-genetic explanation/theory?  c) What is meant by “blaming the victim”?  Do you feel the chemical/genetic theory does this to Isabelle?  How so, or how not? What is your reaction to the other examples mentioned here of blaming the victim?  Do they?

5.  a) What is Gabor Mate’s alternative explanation for the problems of children like Isabelle?

 b) Show how Mate’s theory/explanation can be applied to Isabelle’s specific case (in other words, translate his general theory into what we know about Isabelle’s social context (meaning her relation to other people and groups, and the history of those relations.)  c)  Give some features, or processes at work in the social world (social context) in which Isabelle’s parents and relatives operate which might create pressures and stresses on them, pressures that are easily communicated to children.  So should we put all blame on the parents?

6. What is your own list of the most pressing problems of our time (my list is on page 18)?

Why do these (sometimes ponderous sounding) issues matter?

7.  Throughout this essay (especially section V and VI), a number of other issues or problems are referred to (like the housing bubble, schizophrenia, etc. etc.) which could be explained either reductionistically, or more holistically (by social context.)  a) Pick  any one of these issues, or one of your own. Explain what the issue or problem is.  Show what an explanation that reduces the answer to a biological factor, or to some form of biological determinism, would look like.

b) Where would you look for a more holistic explanation?

8. a) Pick one other issue or problem that is often explained not by something biological this time, but by putting all the weight of explanation on the individual, or to individual or group mental characteristics (or to some other partof a larger social whole, like those shown in the circles just before page 9.  What issue have you chosen?  b) What would, or does, a more reductionistic explanation look like?  What part of what whole is being used to explain something?  What is missing from such an explanation?  What would a more holistic explanation look like and include?  c) What is wrong with explaining our huge wealth gaps in the US by “greed,” or with explaining Iran’s governmental actions by religion (see especially pages 12, 13, and 14)?

9.  a) How would you explain to someone else, another college student say, what reductionism means? b) What makes some forms of reductionist explanation moreextreme (more heavily reductionistic) than others? c) Looking at the two-sided, one page handout by Neville, “Neuroscience exposes..” and “Race Gap..”, how would you argue that “genes are not destiny.”  Why aren’t they?  e) What accounts for gaps in test scores between blacks and whites?  What would have to happen in order to erase (or reverse) these gaps?

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10. a) What makes reductionist (and “human nature”) theories/explanations so hard to resist?  How does our cultural/historical emphasis on machines play into this fatal attraction? b) What does this essay suggest is wrong with (or suspect about) “expertise,” and with reliance on our beloved technical (or technological) solutions to current pressing human problems?

11. a) How might the recent dramatic rise in the incidence of ADHD, as well as other childhood personality or developmental disorders be explained?  (Remember, slow to change factors like DNA or psychological properties can’t explain more rapid changes in behavior or diagnoses.)  Would your explanation be in some degree holistic?  How so?  What contexts, or social units would you include to explain the rise?

12. In the Neville “Neuroscience exposes..” article, it is theorized that poverty affects things like memory, language skills, and I.Q. scores.  a) By what processes do you think this might happen?  Be specific.  b) Can cognitive (or brain) function be improved after birth, and after environmental damage has been done?  How?






Reductionism:  When Are the Answers Too Simple?

Frederick Strange

            Theory is a word for the different ways we explain how the world works.  We can hardly resist the urge to fashion explanations for whatever troubles, surprises, or resists our understanding.  But different ways of explaining and understanding things—theories—are not equal.  Nor are they emotionally neutral.  Some theories flatter us, and give us a sense of release.  Usually, this is because they either offer a “quick fix,” or suggest nothing can be done to change the outcome.  Either way, they let us off the hook.  Another mode of explanation (theorizing) enlarges and complicates.  It draws us into a search whose outcome seems uncertain, if not unsettling; it can shake our sense of complacency.  For that very reason, such an alternative model of thinking opens up fresh questions and unsuspected relationships.

            Critical thinking is about being able to tell the difference between these two styles of engaging the world.  And it’s about caring.  Perhaps feeling that such differences matter is what is most important.  Let me try an example.

I.  Explaining Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

            Isabelle is just eight years old, but she has a problem.  Or perhaps others have a problem with her.  On acquaintance you would probably find her lively, smart, a bit of a charmer, rather funny.  You might be intrigued by her sharp awareness of what those around her are up to.  Yet Isabelle is surrounded by a certain amount of drama and disorder.  Those close to her, getting into the spirit of her drama, might call it chaos.

            At school her desk is bursting with unfinished work and overdue books.  The classroom closet contains a heap of clothes she has forgotten.  Even when she has completed a homework assignment, she forgets to turn it in.  Worse still from the teacher’s point of view, Isabelle improvises comments that may or may not be sarcastic, and has occasional tantrums replete with defiance, weeping, and quick walking in circles; by then it will have run its course.  Friends, by contrast, secretly admire her bite and boldness.

            Isabelle’s ambiance and comportment is richly textured and quick to change, but perhaps we should interrupt to ask, who has a problem, and exactly what is it?  Maybe it begins with the teacher.  Isabelle is not so easy to manage, when compared to other students.  With thirty-four students, the teacher feels she can’t give the extra attention Isabelle is directly or indirectly demanding.  Other students are amused and distracted.

            By the same token, one or both of Isabelle’s parents begins to view her behavior as pushing the envelope too far.  The girl is trying, exhausting, takes attention away from her brother.  Soon a counselor is consulted, and then a doctor.  In time a diagnosis emerges of a syndrome that has been used to label millions of children: ADHD (or simply ADD.)

            This syndrome has a history, dating back at least to the 1950’s, under different names and with varying symptoms.  But they frequently include a (relative) lack of impulse control, short attention span, and an inclination to dramatize, today called “acting out.”  Step by step the behavior has become “medicalized.”  What this means is that her actions are treated as a disease-like abnormality in need of a cure, rather than as something falling within an acceptable range of variation.  How then is it to be understood?

            The medical diagnostic suggestion is that something special is occurring in Isabelle’s brain.  An excess or lack of different chemicals (“neurotransmitters,” whose actions are little understood) have been selected as the culprit.  To further underscore the biological roots of this condition, a further explanatory step is taken.  The reason Isabelle and millions like her have a deficiency in their neurotransmitters is alleged to be the genes they have inherited.

            With this familiar approach, we have a chain of causes proposed for Isabelle’s, or anyone’s, ADHD behavior.  A gene, or several genes—unspecified and unknown, but assumed—lead to a chemical deficiency (not well understood) in a child’s brain.   This brain chemistry results in restless, low-impulse controlled, short attention span behaviors.  These behaviors cause spotty and unreliable school performance, and finally, it should be added, they get on adults’ nerves.

            If I were to cut it short here, what would you say about this analysis?  Where would you locate its weaknesses and stumbling blocks?  Give it a try.  If you can answer with ease, you may be a born critical thinker, and a gifted scientist of the human to boot.  Perhaps you have a gene for sociological imagination.  But if there is no gene for it, or if you, like the writer, don’t have it, let me try to develop a critique that requires only the genes and neurotransmitters we all share.

II. Getting a Grip on Reductionism

            Reductionism is what I hope is a useful term for penetrating the shortcomings of the kind of explanation for ADHD (or ADD) I have briefly summarized.  So how does it work?  Reductionism is the familiar theoretical (explanatory) strategy of explaining some complex whole, like Isabelle’s labeled ADHD behaviors, by one or more of its parts.  The first part offered up in this example is the child’s brain: something unusual is going on there, we are told.  In saying this, the whole has been “reduced,” and then explained, by that one part (the brain) of the whole (Isabelle herself and her described actions with others.)

            You can guess this is only the first step.  For the brain itself is a kind of whole; its productions are said to be determined (explained), next, by the chemicals within it.  This is a second step “down,” so to speak, from the whole (now the brain) to one or more of its constituent parts (complex enzymes like dopamine or serotonin.)  And why the deficient chemicals?  In much popular science on this topic, a gene or some (unknown) pattern of genes has been proposed.  This gives us yet another, third, step by which we have reduced to simplicity Isabelle’s and other children’s array of labeled behaviors:  abnormal or special genes.

            When we go from children with ADHD in their social and cultural setting to supposed conditioning genes, we have taken not one, but three reductive steps to three “lower,” supposedly more basic levels.  One would be enough, but because there are three, critics might call this example a case of extreme reductionism.

            But let us admit that we frequently hear exactly these kind of explanations used to explain complex, socially saturated, human actions.  Almost weekly, newspapers report scientific breakthroughs in which features of the modern world like stress, anxiety, depression, crime, addiction, intelligence of course, and much more are allegedly caused or influenced by genes, or “genetic factors.”  Such discussions are commonplace, and almost hypnotically persuasive.  So what, if anything, has gone wrong?

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III. The Trouble with Breaking It Down to Its Parts (and Not Putting It Back Together)

            Instead of leaping at once to generalities, maybe the best way to explore the trouble with reductionism is to return to Isabelle.  Where do the reductionist explanations sketched here leave her?  What’s missing?  What consequences will follow?

            The focus on Isabelle’s individual and internal (biochemical) characteristics leave her dangling in a social vacuum.  But that is not where she lives.  She has parents and care-givers, one of the many versions of the American family; she has teachers and peers; she lives in a specific social and cultural setting.  Shouldn’t those who care about Isabelle have a look both at her current relationships, and at the history of those interactions with others that have brought her to the present moment?  I have noted the steep rise in the number of children (mostly boys) who exhibit similar behaviors.  Mightn’t this be investigated by the methods started long ago by Emile Durkheim for studying suicide and crime rates, which, like ADHD rates, also change for whole populations, according to time and place?  Then there is the ADHD diagnosis itself.  How can we be sure someone “has it?”  What kind of cultural pressures are on people to apply this diagnosis to children, and treat it with mood-altering drugs?

            It may even strike us that shrinking attention spans, edginess, and impulsiveness are pretty general tendencies in our world (American, late capitalist, postmodern, or however you describe it.)  In fact, many adults show some behaviors like those described here; maybe even you and me.  (If ADD doesn’t fit, try OCD, addictive behavior, depression, or any of the many other labels available1.)  What’s up with that?

            That’s a lot of questions about Isabelle’s, and our, social worlds.   In asking them, I mean to remind you that not a single one of them gets asked in the reductive, brain chemical and genetic, approach.  Instead, the people concerned look inside Isabelle, and only consider her as an isolated individual.  Like most of us, they follow a well-established cultural model by which we explain a whole—Isabelle and her nerve-wracking behavior—by one of her parts.  This is the red flag, the indicator, for theoretical reductionism.  It assumes the behavior we have labeled is intrinsic to her, inherent in her constitution.  It is the way she is put together.

            Perhaps few will say upfront that they blame Isabelle for her problems.  Nevertheless, in this reductionist approach, the problem becomes defined as part of her constitution, it is who she is.  Therapists have noted that Isabelle, and others like her, are highly watchful of those around them.  She is well aware of what is being said and thought about her.  Would it be surprising if she were to feel ever more saddled with a stigma, and coaxed to see herself as somehow odd or abnormal?  “How did I get so messed up?” she might be saying to herself.  This result can be understood as “blaming the victim.”  Blaming the victim may not follow from every single case of reductionist explanation, but it is quite common.   Frequently the one taking the blame is a person, like Isabelle, or a group—say, an ethnic minority, those out of work, or the working poor.  In each case there is somethingwrong with the person or group who is said to be “having a problem.”

            There are three million children in the US who have been prescribed stimulants for ADHD.  Another half million are receiving anti-psychotic medication for other diagnosed behavioral disorders (Matè, 2010).  These drug treatments often help to put the child’s behavior closer to adult expectations.  But sometimes they don’t, and often the results are moot, uncertain.  Brain chemistry is complicated, to put it mildly, and the exact effects of stimulants and calmatives (short and long term) are little understood (Rose, 2005, pp. 291-294).

            What is certain is that only symptoms are being addressed, and the child’s social relations with others, and the history of those relationships, are being ignored.  At the level of solutions, taking pills for behavioral problems is one of our most popular quick fixes, and an ultimate form of practical, everyday reductionism.

            Obviously, it is not just ADHD for which reductive biochemical and genetic explanations have been put forward.  Parallel understandings have been said to account for alcoholism, obsessive compulsion disorder, depression, and violent and criminal behavior, not to mention stereotypical gender behavior (“boys will be boys.”)

            These explanations can be criticized in much the same way I have begun to do for the reductionist theory of Isabelle’s ADHD.  Let me summarize those criticisms in a more general way.  First, evidence for the processes, that is, the specific steps, linking the part (the individual, the chemical, or the gene) to the complex social whole (ADHD, depression, alcoholism, etc.) is sketchy or absent.  Causes are often assumed and asserted rather than subject to tests or comparison.  Next, the history of the problem and the many people involved are ignored.  Third, no attention is given to the social contexts for the problem and its medical label, their patterns and forms of discourse (the shared ways people define and talk about a subject.)

            Fourth, the result of reductive tactics often end up pointing a finger at  marginalized groups (e.g., immigrants, the homeless, welfare recipients, those unable to pay their suddenly elevated “subprime” mortgage) or individuals ( unruly kids, lazy people, and supposed criminal types.)  Something about their mind-sets and internal workings, are said to be the cause of their own alleged problems.  They are stupid or injured, or immoral, or incompetent—or lazy.  This is exactly what is meant by blaming the victim.  Of course one may do this, and it is most common to do it.  But perhaps we should ask ourselves, do I really want to blame people with little power, like those just mentioned, and if so, why?  What need in ourselves are we satisfying?

             Finally, the solution is often a quick fix which attacks symptoms and punishes the relatively powerless, but fails to touch the enabling or generating social fields in which events have occurred.

IV. Beyond reductionism: Social Contexts, Cultural Patterns, Histories

            Once the shortfalls and distortions of reductionist theories are appreciated, where do we go from there?  First we might pause, step back and open up our imagination of humans as socially and symbolically enmeshed beings.   As noted in section III, Isabelle, and the many like her, are not isolates alone in the world.   Like all of us, they live their lives in constant connection and ceaseless interchange with parental figures, sibling, peers, teachers, and those who model our behavior.  These relationships are wrapped up in particular, learned ways of speaking about things, and each has a particular history.   To give these realities their true importance is to move away from reductionist oversimplification.

            What theories that focus on such things should be called is not entirely settled.  Some would call themholistic, others, some kind of systems approach.  Yet others are content to say that the thoughts and actions of people are always caught up in social structures and cultural frames, or discourses.  The jargon quickly piles up.  What all of it directs our attention toward is social context.  Many of us would argue that binding tie among the social and behavioral sciences is the attempt to place human thoughts and actions in their social, cultural, and historical contexts, and to reveal how we are shaped by them.

            Before getting back to a more helpful way to understand Isabelle in her social contexts, let’s try to get an eagle’s eye view of the many different kinds of social context we might need.  We can start with social units, the things scientists of the human study.  What we study (everything, really) can be divided into parts and wholes, as in figure 1.a.  But each part is itself a whole, made up of its own parts, as in figure 1.b.  This part-whole distinction can be extended indefinitely in both directions.  Particle physicists and cosmologist will tell you so.  But some socially and biologically meaningful parts and wholes are indicated in in figure 2.  Using these figures, note the following.  Every time you try to explain something at one level (say a social class, a corporation, a family, or a person) by moving “down” to a lower level (for example, to an individual, an excluded group, a few “rotten apples,” a neurotransmitter, or a gene), your explanation becomes reductionistic.  The more levels through which you descend, the more reductionist your explanation becomes.

            By contrast, whenever you try to account for something on the same level (a person interacting with her peers, for example), or on a higher level (a person with her family, a family by its links to a job or working life, a job by its employer or class or ethnic standing) you are becoming more holistic.  In other words, you are paying close attention to social contexts.  At this point, you can return to the parts, now seen in relationship to some of the wholes with which they are in continuous interplay.              Would even just a bit of this help us to better understand Isabelle’s situation?

            It turns out that by age eight, Isabelle already has an interesting history of social engagements.  At the time of her birth, her parents were forced to struggle with several kinds of stresses.  Her father as an Iraq war veteran who, like at least a third of such vets, suffered from PTSD.  At this time it was undiagnosed, and its effects made it difficult for him to hold down a job for more than short periods, or to focus for long when he was at home.  Her mother had a respiratory illness that debilitated her at unpredictable intervals.  They both loved Isabelle, and her older brother, and they did their best to meet their children’s needs.  But they were under pressures that made large demands on their time, and on their ability to be completely present, emotionally.  Just keeping a roof overhead and food on the table was a time-consuming and stressful challenge.

            When Isabelle was three-and-a-half, her parents felt they had no choice but to put her temporarily in the care of a series of grandparents, and more distant “shirttail” relatives, who were willing to help.  For the next four years, Isabelle lived in three different homes, each of them with good intentions, but each with different child-rearing habits, and with their own set of insecurities.  In the course of these experiences, Isabelle become quite independent, vigilant, and resourceful in getting her needs met.  She adapted.  In an apparent happy ending, her parents were finally able to take her back and care for her.  Of course many of the original strains still had to be borne.  It was shortly thereafter that Isabelle was diagnosed with ADHD.

            The Canadian psychiatrist, Gabor Matè (1999) argues that similar histories and circumstances, commonplace and often less dramatic than Isabelle’s, lie behind the meteoric rise in diagnosed childhood personality disorders.  In order to develop the sort of impulse control and attention span our compartmentalized culture has come to consider proper, certain transactions between the child and others needs to take place.   These include what some call bonding or “attaching” with one, two, or more adults.  What this really means, Matè explains, is that children have a persistent need to engage in trusting, consistent, emotionally responsive interactions with parental figures.  These kinds of reliable interactions with emotionally available adults provide the nurturance all children need, at each stage of their growth.

            The bare bones of Mate’s theory of the genesis of ADHD are this.  Children need to attach to adults in a nuanced and sensitive way.  In the absence or distortion, in some degree, of consistent attachment toemotionally available adults, children will be damaged or slowed down in their developmental processes.  As this happens, children will exhibit a range of attention seeking, disruptive behaviors, some of which are easily diagnosed and labeled as ADHD, or other childhood (and adult) psychological disorders.

            Furthermore, Matè argues that modern or postmodern society in its present historical moment, imposes conflicts and stresses on adults that make it increasingly difficult  for parents to deliver the conditions for that low-stress, responsive bonding to flourish.  Downtime, peacefulness, feelings of security, focused attention, adequate and stable income, and support from the larger society—one or more of these too easily comes up missing.

            In this way, briefly stated, Matè tries to advance our understanding of Isabelle’s and others’ plight.  Surely testable hypotheses spring from these insights.  But there are perhaps more important implications.  In this non-reductionist style of analysis, Isabelle, or her internal workings are not posited as the cause of her own problem.  The system of which she is a part, not she who suffers most, is held accountable.  The victim hasn’t been blamed2.

            Less reductionist, more contextual approaches like these point to more effective interventions.  When parents and teachers become aware of such perspectives, they will try to lighten the ADHD child’s already heavy load.  To begin with, kids need to operate in clear, stable, and consistent structures laid down for them.  But instead of emphasizing punishment and tightening the leash, care-givers will want to engage in more attentive, accepting and empathic exchanges with the child—and with each other.  There is strong evidence that this works (Neufeld and Matè, 2006).  No quick fixes here, but an uneven, unfolding process, as the maturing of human beings must always be.

            Once the burden of responsibility is lifted from the child, it is easy to shift blame to the parents as individuals.  But this is merely another kind of reductionism, if one realizes it leads directly to a further question. Who or  what is responsible for the conditions under which families have to live?

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             Even then most dedicated and loving parents have to cope with increasingly unforgiving economic, political and cultural surroundings.  The reader can form her own list of pressures on marriage and households that currently undercut many (most?) families’ ability to be fully nurturing.  But surely that list would include the current necessity for two or more family members to work, and to work longer hours, while managing day care; it would include “deskilled,” underpaid, unsatisfying jobs; add to this the threat, or the actuality, of losing one’s home, health insurance, and pension, to speak just of those lucky enough to have any of these in the first place.  We know that for the last thirty-odd years increasing numbers have been excluded even from these basics.  Is it reasonable to imagine that even the most well-meaning parents can escape communicating a good measure of these stress-creating pressures to their children?  It follows that until the conditions underwhich families have to struggle are changed or ameliorated, these expert-labeled disorders in children will continue to skyrocket.  These same or similar socially-created stressful conditions, it should be added, have been shown to correlate with other widespread forms of social suffering, ranging all the way from obesity, mental illness, and school drop-out rates, to increasing  suicides.

            When we trouble ourselves to look at the social, political, and ideological (or discursive) contexts in which people live, we move closer to at least two desirable ends.

First, the more we make ourselves and others aware of specific and meaningful social circumstances, the easier it is for us to understand how our supposedly personal problems are connected to the social—that is, to structured arrangements and interest-driven policies.  These structured social conditions and policies affect many others besides ourselves.  To know this lightens the burden of stress-laden guilt that weighs on those many of us who wind up on the receiving end of unjust social practices.

            Secondly, and still more pointedly, such non-reductionist social analyses can discover exactly which policies, practices, ideological discourses, or institutions are routinely and systematically damaging to people’s lives.  Of course to look into such matters sharply disturbs one’s defensive impulse to avoid painful realities.  Because unless we, or someone, struggles to bring about deep economic and political changes, the unnecessary wounds and ruined lives of people just like you and me will only deepen.

V. Reductionist Oversimplifications Everywhere?

            Though often advanced by experts, reductionist explanations are not rare, or confined to specialists.  They are hard to miss in widespread popular science journalism.  Those that put forward biological determinants for complex social behaviors are probably the best known.  It is regularly reported by in the media that stress, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, aggression, and performance on I.Q. tests have genetically determined or conditioned sources (Rose, 2005, p. 272-283).  Have you heard the one about a genetic factor for infidelity?  How about the “gay brain,” created by “gay genes”?  Should we take that one more seriously3?  In a moment we will look at some of the compelling motives many have for doing so.

            No matter how attractive they may be, biological explanations for these complex human actions are subject to roughly the same critique I have put forward for Isabelle’s ADHD4.  I leave it to the diligent reader to work out appropriate versions of that critique for any of the instances just mentioned, or for others she or he may find rousing.  All that is required is the gumption.

            Beyond genes and hormones, there are another set of commonly proposed explanations, or causes, that are easily taken for, of all things, common sense.  How can we know when either “common sense” or expert analysis is a reductionist oversimplification?  To qualify, all that has to happen is for some behavior (actions, thoughts, or trends) at the level of one social unit be explained by one of its parts at a lower level.  (See figure 3.  Then compare with figure 2.)

            For example, the actions of an economic system might be explained by the personality traits of its individual citizens, let’s say their “greed.”  Or the political policies of a nation-state, let’s take Iran, might be attributed to one of its component institutions, perhaps religion.  The religion of Islam might be proposed as the source of Iran’s (or Syria’s, etc.) policies toward other countries.  Do these sound familiar?

 Such explanations are reductionist.  Reducing social wholes (the economy, a nation) to its parts (greedy individuals, religion) is not so much plain wrong as it is incomplete and misleading.  Consider greed.  Just as lack of enough dopamine in the brain may be an effect, rather than a cause, of a person’s stressful interpersonal-familial situation, so what we call “greed” may be the effect—a consequence, not a cause—of rules, motivations, and pressures built into the way a high-stakes, competitive economic system like ours works, especially near the top.  A better way to question the issue might be this: what kind of political and economic order encourages and rewards the human potential for greed?

  Likewise, a nation-state is part of an international (or world) system, made up of other nations.  Iran offers a pointed example.  The best-funded and most lethal military force on earth has invaded and occupied countries(Iraq and Afghanistan) on both its eastern and western borders.  That same US government has repeatedly stated that invasion of Iran is “still on the table” and conducts covert operations in that country.  This might tend to make Iran’s diplomatic stance defensive, insecure, and understandably paranoid–with or without help from religion.  Iran, like all nations, must manage in a context of surrounding nations and the world’s current superpower, with its thousands of nuclear weapons and its unrivaled ability to loose havoc from 30,000 feet up.  In this context, to reduce the behavior of the Iranian government, whatever its faults, to the country’s religion is to wear not blinders, but a blindfold.

            Yet the most common examples of non-biological reductionist thinking probably involve either “the individual,” or some excluded, discounted, social group.  Think how often we hear some many-layered social phenomenon pinned on the individual: his psychology, her choices, his traits, her human nature (along with his or her hormones!)  In other cases, the responsibility for our most pressing problems is laid at the door of a dismissed social group marked as “other.”  Undocumented workers, welfare recipients, the under- or un-employed, discriminated against ethnicities, these are among the most common groups to be blamed.

            A wide range of layered social issues are reduced to their parts in this way.  These include racism (thought to be the result of individual prejudices), social-historical changes (allegedly brought about by great or evilindividuals like FDR, Lincoln, Hitler, Osama bin Laden, etc.) and unemployment (said to be caused by undocumented workers, lost work ethic, apathy.)  In countless examples, many-leveled social things like Aid to Families with Dependent Children, high levels of credit card debt, and the concentration of wealth are treated as products of individual choices, mind-sets, or emotional dispositions like hatred, aggression, greed, ambition, or sloth.  It doesn’t help matters when these emotions are attributed to an ethnic group, a religion or a class or class segment.  Even the housing bubble, whose recent bursting, by general agreement, triggered the current recession, is by some attributed to the foolishness, over-eagerness, or poor money management of manyindividual home buyers5.

            It would be an exercise in independent thinking for the dedicated student to take one or more of these examples and work through a critique.  In doing so, the student may have to confront her own long-held assumptions.  Part of the difficulty is that explanations reduced to individuals and their choices, or to greed or aggression, or to people we regard as “other,” or to human nature itself, have a powerful hold on us.   Why are these views so compelling?

VI. The Magnetic Appeal of Reductionist Theories

            It is hard to deny that to criticize and move beyond reductive arguments is to swim against the current.  It also places demands on the student and reader of this essay6.  Why is the undercurrent of the reductionist tide so hard to resist?

            Part of the appeal of reductionismderives from an historically received, but out-dated view of what the goal of science is.  According to this view, science’s ultimate aim is to discover basic particles or building blocks (like atoms), from which everything is constructed.  This might, someday, give us a universal theory of everything.  But this is a position that modern quantum physicists are no longer willing or able to avow, since no such basic particles seem to exist.  In spite of this, it somehow sounds more “scientific” to argue that Isabelle’s restless energy, and adult distress over it, are best understood as the result of something peculiar to her as a separate, skin-bounded individual (the first particle), and behind that, her genetic code (the ultimate particle.)

            There are further historical reasons why reductionist approaches fit our misleading stereotype of what science is.  Beginning with the scientific revolutions of the Renaissance (15th to 17th centuries), much of our culturally inherited view of how the world works has been based on machines; that is to say, based onmetaphors of the machine (Rigney, 2001).  Perhaps the first machine analogy, used to understand the solar system, was the clock.  Other machine metaphors followed:  the steam loom, the steam engine, hydraulic pumps, the internal combustion engine, and most recently, the computer.

            What the tenor of these metaphors have in common is that they were all assembled by human creators out of previously separate parts (“nuts and bolts,” we like to say) to add up to a working whole.  Now, it would be hard to argue that reductive, mechanical metaphors are inappropriate for actual machines.  Problem might arise because living things, humans, culture, and society are not machines8.  But reductively analyzing real machines in terms of their parts seems just right. (All the same, to understand why your brakes are failing, you mechanic might ask you where, and how, you have been driving for the last few months; auto-mechanics need to look into contextual and historical patterns too!)

            To do it full justice, the successes that mechanical, reductionist inquiry has enjoyed up to the present are quite dazzling.  Modern medicine, for example, began the achievements we credit to it today by breaking the taboos against dissecting—cutting up the parts—of a corpse.

            The applications of scientific discoveries in the last three hundred years have given the Western world a sense of being able to manipulate nature (as if it were a machine, reducible to its parts) to our own purposes.  Technological mastery appears to be our greatest source of pride and self-congratulations.  This is so despite—or is it because?—this deceptive “mastery” over nature has been connected with the military, political, and economic “mastery” of other peoples in the long history of Western imperialism (Headrick, 2007).

            Even for problems brought into being by technology itself, further technical innovations are believed to be our salvation.  Problems wrought by high technology include nuclear and industrial wastes, new diseases bred by industrial agriculture, high tech financial crises, unprecedented civilian deaths in wars, high speed extinction of species, a dearth of clean water, cancer-causing pollutants in air, water, and food, and of course much more.

            Following mechanical, reductionist models, the preferred solutions rely on  drugs, ever faster communications, more and higher tech weapons systems, cutting out government services, inventing “financial instruments,” building higher border walls, and ever more invasive medical treatments.  Anything that resembles a magic bullet arouses our hopes.

            As these examples imply, whatever apparent gains reductive approaches have had in the past, there is a growing sense that, in all fields, mechanical models and their “quick fix” applications have reached their limits.  Despite their strong appeal, high tech fixes and playing by the numbers doesn’t feel right anymore, and past a very short run, they take us in quite the wrong direction.

            Still, wouldn’t we sigh with relief if the major problems of our time had a single, quick, technical solution?  Underemployment, say: reduce taxes and cut back social services so that each socially isolated, separateindividual can take care of himself.  Climate change?  “Geo-engineers” suggest scattering iron filings in the oceans, or sulfur nitrates into the stratosphere, to deflect the heat of the sun9.

            The appeal of these solutions suggests a final reason why reductionist logic and mechanical fixes remain popular.  Explanations that locate the cause of any problem on or in an individual (“rotten apples,” lazy people, perverts, bigots, etc.), or on a social group we can designate as “other” (the poor, the homeless, “illegals,” felons, other religions, nationalities, ethnic minorities, or races) get us off the hook.  “It’s too bad, but what’s it got to do with me?  And anyway, they need to clean up their act.”

            By contrast, theories that emphasize people’s interdependence, shared habits, and position in relation to others10 suggest that you and I and those we know are ourselves embroiled and complicit.  Perhaps those in positions of great power are more complicit, because they have more clout.  But we too are mixed up in it.  Who doesn’t wince under that kind of responsibility?  Small wonder simple, single cause explanations in terms of individuals, molecules, and minority groups are all but irresistible!

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VII. But Isn’t Social Context Too Complicated to Bother With?

            The usefulness of a theory depends on what the problem is—on what you thinkthe problem is, and how you define and construct it.  Here’s a short list of the problems that I think are coming to plague and shake us most:  catastrophic climate change, ecological pollution and depletion of food and energy resources, declining health and health care, the extension of Cold War militarism into never ending counterinsurgency,  “proxy wars” and “black-op” interventions throughout the world , the failure of economies to meet basic needs, fast-growing canyons between classes and the lives this ruins, and the unequal and thinned-down education of children to be avid consumers instead of socially and politically informed citizens.  But make your own list, and put it in your own way.

            Does anyone really believe that any such list will respond to one-dimensional, quick technological fixes that focuses on one part at a time, and not on some larger wholes?  At the very least one must ask, “technology and innovation for the greater benefit of what fraction of the population?  Who gains and who loses? “ And this is already a more holistic move.  It can be that simple.  For the problems that currently torment us seem to beg for an exploration of at least one of the following alternatives to reductionist thinking:  patterns, contradictions, processes, social contexts, histories, discourses, and social wholes.  Each of these can be cut down to a size we can handle, as I have tried to show for ADHD, and hinted at for other questions.

            Of course no one holds a magical key to these things.  It might be wise to admit that we have only just begun to think non-reductively, and as yet we aren’t all that good at it.  But this should be taken as encouragement to the student or interested person.  It won’t take you long to catch up.  Nor does it help, in seeking better analysis, to make things so complicated that finding patterns seems impossible.  They aren’t, and it isn’t.      Likewise, looking for a bigger picture doesn’t mean neglecting the parts, the individual, the genetic code, or the unique culture.  Rather, it means bringing the parts into relation with the others of their kind, the social wholes, and the recent histories that surround and enter into them.  It should be remembered that a little attention to such matters goes a long way.  The same can be said for imagination and insight:  just a little goes a long way.

            It turns out that searching in a more holistic way—call it contextual, call it relational, dialectical, or interactive if you like—is not the protected domain of specialists and experts.  On the contrary, one could argue that it has been authoritative experts, bowing before their number-tables and mechanical models, who have enticed us into most of the fixes we are in.  What is needed is precisely that which falls outside of, and goes beyond, expertise.  Perhaps this is best realized by ordinary people who find it within themselves to care about others who struggle alongside them in their shared social worlds.  It may be made to bear fruit by the young and by those many who find themselves, excluded, ignored, and exploited.   Such people are less committed to the rigid and dehumanizing models for how we live that are held in a death-grip by authorities of all kinds.  In a world whose issues are at once global and personally anguishing, the consequences of how we think about these matters—and how we speak and act with others—are anything but trivial.


1.  I am not arguing that ADHD, and the other diagnoses are not “real.”  Only that behind any such “expert” labels there lies a wide variety of behaviors, overlapping to a high degree with those we consider “normal.”  The labels very loosely approximate the realities to which they refer.  Often they miss them entirely.

2.  Even calling the condition a “disease” (especially a mental disease) can be stigmatizing.  Matè (1999) proposes that instead of viewing ADHD and other childhood conditions as “diseases,” they are better understood as incomplete or frustrated development.  Isn’t similar “unfinished business” to be found in just about everyone’s life history?

3.  Often claims for genetic causes for things like unfaithfulness or homosexuality, or alcoholism are hedged by saying that genetics is just one “component.”  But the more this discussion is pursued, the easier it is to give ever greater importance to this “component,” as if these complex, socially defined (or perhaps invented) behaviors were somehow already present (preformed) at birth.  Such preformation is a longstanding example of magical thinking.

4.  Because these examples so far point to biological determinants (of complex social behaviors) as instances of reductionism, it might be thought by some readers that the critique of reductionism is an assault on biology as a science.  Not so.  Biology is of course the entire material basis for our being on the planet.  We need to know much more about it as set of interactive systems with an evolutionary history, and a future endangered by our attempts to either dominate or ignore biological systems.

     The most insightful biologists also strive to avoid reductionism, and support its critique (Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin, 1984; Gould, 1987; Lewontin and Levine, 2007, and Rose, 2005).  They are well aware that the nucleotides that compose genes, and genes themselves, like people, have porous boundaries, interact with each other, and have outcomes conditioned by the arc of their particular histories.  Biological wholes, like social wholes, have properties not to be found in any of their parts.  This means that our genome provides us only with (remarkable) potentials, not determinants(Gould, 1987).

5. In this case at least, more holistic, that is, more social structural, understandings are gaining ground.  It is becoming increasingly understood that systematic malfeasance and profiteering by investment bankers, brokerage firms, and credit rating agencies—these larger social wholes—were the primary engines of the mortgage-credit collapse, and that home-buyers, many now in foreclosure or on the street, were their victims.

6.  It is easy to say that holism is better because it appreciates how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; and because it directs our focus to influences between various parts, and between the whole and its parts.  In this essay, I have tried to “reduce” the arguments between reductionism and holism to some simplicity for better understanding.  But arguments on either side cannot really be reduced to a formula to be “plugged in.”  Though increasingly common in the university, that kind of simplicity is a false goal.  Simple formulas, quick mechanical fixes, and easy answers are exactly what we should be trying to escape.

7.  At least three different meanings, or referents, for reductionism can be distinguished.  Methodological reduction refers to dividing or breaking things down for comparison and study.  This seems acceptable, and all but unavoidable, in a familiar research strategy.  It is philosophical and theoretical reductionism that are under scrutiny and critique in this essay (Rose, 2005, p. 77-91).

8.  Machine models (aka metaphors), it should be clear, go hand in glove with reductionist strategies.  These strategies and models have worked well for machines and up to a point, for things we have decided to treat as if they were machines: bodies, planets, markets, and weapon systems, for example.  The implication of this essay is that the use of mechanical, reductionist models is excessive, and dominates public conversation, at the very moment when such models have largely outlived their usefulness.

9.  Is it clear what these different sounding solutions for different problems have in common?  They all reduce questions to small, separate parts, and ignore larger social or ecological wholes.

10.  The way shared habits and social positions (aka social identities) are interdependently linked with each other is what is usually meant by “social structure.”The case being made here suggests we humans are intimately and responsively connected with each other in these dynamic structures.  We aren’t just nuts and bolts.




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