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Holism?

Posted on 08-12-2021

Holistic has definitely become one of the current slogans in policy, just like “it’s the economy, stupid” was during Clinton’s campaign in 1992. This new mantra of housing studies seems to be about the integration of a certain mix of socio-economic-environmental aspects. In this regard, holism may deliver a satisfactory umbrella term. However, does it really work as a research strategy? Is really the whole larger than its parts? Can we apprehend a whole without understanding its constituents?

 

Economists love to start academic papers by saying that housing, homeownership, in particular, is both a financial asset (a resource) and a consumption good (directly used by households). Thankfully, humanity has gone beyond neoclassical economics, and that includes economists. In a way, the totality of housing as a fact escapes any discipline since it is always nested in the next. As a house with its built components is incorporated into a market to become an asset, it also acquires meaning by providing ontological security to its inhabitants (Madden & Marcuse, 2016).

 

In fact, housing systems can be studied from myriad perspectives. As the documentary “Anamones” shows, steel bars protruding from a home can be the longing promise of secure housing and stronger family bonds with your offspring. Similarly, the new season of Netflix’s show Selling Sunset glosses over the social status that comes with real estate, while emphasising the psychological struggle of modern urban life in L.A. Indeed, housing is as much about feelings of safety and community as it is about wall cavity insulation and faux-brick veneers.

 

As researchers, we do not only perceive reality through various neutral inputs, we actively participate in the construction of our respective objects of study. Naturally, we pay more attention to those elements that are more relevant for our research questions – what some call observer dependency. Opposite to holism, we encounter reductionism, the epistemological position that the whole is nothing but a set of interacting fundamental parts. This is the position taken for example by Epstein and Axtell (1996), together with a series of complexity experts researching how societies work following sets of basic rules. In this vein, awareness of the limitations in our approaches enhances research outputs, does not hinder them. While keeping an eye on the total, let’s not forget that systems are usually made of understandable parts.

 

Epstein, J. M., & Axtell, R. (1996). Growing Artificial Societies. Social Science from the bottom-up. Brookings Institution.

Madden, D., & Marcuse, P. (2016). In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis. Verso.

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