Social:Complementary holism

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Complementary holism is a social theory or conceptual framework proposed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, that sees all societies as consisting of a Human Center and Institutional Boundaries, and all social relations in the political, economic, community/cultural and kinship "spheres" as mutually interacting to define our social experiences. Complementary holism does not rest on an a priori assumption that a particular sphere is the base and all else is superstructure, as historical materialism does, but rather that we must take an empirical look at society's development and assess how it has been shaped by all social forces. Complementary holists agree with Marxists that economics is important to human and social development, just as they do with anarchists in regard to the State or with feminists in regard to gender inequality, but they assert that Marxists see economics, or class conflict, as the sole factor, and they don't believe that economics is always the most important factor.

In Liberating Theory, Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel et al. write that:

Just as Marx and Engels paid strict attention to "state of the art" science in their time, we should keep up with contemporary developments. Ironically, however, though most contemporary Marxists pride themselves on being "scientific," few bother to notice that "state of the art" science has changed dramatically in the last hundred years. While avoiding simplistic mimicry and misapplication of scientific principles, we should update our methods by seriously examining contemporary science for new ideas relevant to our theoretical efforts.

Modern quantum physics, for example, teaches that reality is not a collection of separate entities but a vast and intricate "unbroken whole." Ilya Prigogine comments, "The new paradigms of science may be expected to develop into the new science of connectedness which means the recognition of unity in diversity." When thinking about phenomena, we inevitably conceptually abstract parts from the whole in which they reside, but they then exist as separate entities only in our perceptions. There are no isolated electrons, for example, only fields of force continually ebbing and flowing in a seamless web of activity which manifests events that we choose to call electrons because it suits our analytic purposes. For the physicist, each electron, quark, or whatever is a "process" and a "network." As a process it has a developmental trajectory--extending through all time. As a network, it is part of an interactive pattern--stretching throughout all space. Every part embodies and is subsumed in a larger whole.

Human Center and Institutional Boundary

Each society has a human center where we find people, their consciousness, personalities, talents and needs. Each society also has an institutional boundary consisting of social institutions and their role structures. Just as our consciousnesses, needs and desires are shaped by the institutions we create to facilitate our social activities so are our institutions shaped by our cultural traditions. How we define our institutions and the roles we play in society has an important effect on what kind of people we become.

Society's center and boundary are complementary aspects of a single unbroken whole. Both center and boundary are complex dissipative systems. Whatever society's defining features may be, they will necessarily pervade both society's center and boundary. They will persist through evolutionary changes since such changes necessarily involve limited adaptations of both center and boundary. Revolution, however, will alter these defining features. Since we know that historically people universally engage in certain social activities, which in turn involve social relations contouring daily life and governing group interactions, as our next conceptual step it makes sense to subdivide society along lines highlighting these activities, social relations, and social groups. (Liberating Theory)


Complementary holism carves out the Human Center and Institutional Boundary into four separate but interconnecting social spheres: the Economic Sphere, the Kinship Sphere, the Community Sphere and the Political Sphere.

  1. The Economic Sphere is where the production, consumption, and allocation of material means of life occur. The key institutions for the economy are workplaces, allocation mechanisms, property relations, and remuneration schemes.
  2. The Kinship Sphere is where child rearing, nurturing future generations, socializing and care giving occur. Key institutions are the family, with parental and child rearing roles, where gender and sexuality, and other relations form for boys and girls, men and women, fathers and mothers, adults, children and the elderly.
  3. The Political Sphere is where adjudication, policy regulation and law making occur with courts, a legislature and police.
  4. The Community Sphere is where identity, religion, and spirituality occur with race, ethnicity, places of worship, beliefs about life and death, celebration of cultural traditions, etc.

Like the human center and institutional boundary, these four spheres interconnect with one another:

People aren't economically-affected in one part of their lives and gender-affected in another; state-influenced one day of the week and community-influenced some other day. Instead, they simultaneously experience economic, kinship, governance, and community involvements, and this guarantees that spheres interact. At a particular time class may have more influence on molding a person's consciousness and behavior than gender, or vice-versa. But these influences must co-exist. (Liberating Theory)


Accommodation describes a particular way in which the four spheres interact with each other. The assigned roles that are a feature of one sphere may be accommodated in another. How our roles are divided in the workplace may accommodate with sexist and racist divisions found as central features in our Kinship and Community Spheres so that economic activity subjugates women and non-whites to lower pay and positions of power than men and whites.


Another way the four spheres can interact is by co-defining each other. For example, workplace roles are often determined by more than "class divisions."

There is nothing inherent in capitalist economic relations that requires the activity of coffee-making to be assigned to the role of secretary. There is no purely economic reason why in the U.S., women are ghettoized into so-called "pink collar" jobs: clerical work, nursing, domestic work, restaurant and food service, retail sales, elementary school teaching, etc. There is nothing about economics that requires that in addition to different levels of compensation, women's and men's activities must or even should involve different degrees of oversight and mobility. Purely economic dynamics cannot explain such profound gender differentiations. In this sense, then, not only do economic relations accommodate kinship hierarchies, by placing women in the lowest "economicallydefined" positions, but patriarchy "co-defines" basic economic relations. (Liberating Theory)

Social Change

Proponents of complementary holism feel that the social theory is not only helpful in understanding society as it is, but also in understanding how society can be changed. By recognizing the interconnecting social forces - the human center, institutional boundary and four social spheres - and how they shape and are shaped by the intertwining relationship with each other, complementary holists feel we are better equipped to transform society and overcome social oppressions.

Complementary holism sees two ways in which societies can change:

  1. Reproduction: This is where a change recreates a past social feature. An example could be where a revolution overthrows one hierarchical political system and replaces it with another.
  2. Transformation: This is where social activities create an entirely new characteristics that differ from the past. For example, a social revolution may overthrow a market economy and replace it with a self-managed participatory economy.

See also

  • Eco-socialism
  • Participatory economics
  • Social ecology
  • Polyculturalism
  • Socialist feminism


Albert, Michael et al. Liberating Theory. South End Press. 1986
Hahnel, Robin. The ABC's of Political Economy; A Modern Approach. Pluto Press. 2003:
Spannos, Chris. Introduction to Totality and Complementary Holism. Znet. 2008: holism was the original source. Read more.

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