The word synthesis comes from the Greek word meaning “to put together.”1 Synthesis is a process of reasoning whereby we put disparate parts together to gain an understanding of the whole. Synthesis can be considered the opposite process of reasoning from analysis in that analysis involves taking things apart to understand the components. Synthesis and analysis define two distinct overarching pattern or structures to a process of inquiry.
Whereas reductionism and holism represent two different paradigms or ways of looking at the world, synthesis and analysis can be understood as the corresponding process of reasoning that lead from these set of assumptions.2 Synthesis is the method used within a holistic paradigm. With synthesis, one understands something by looking at how the parts interrelate to form the whole and how this whole system functions within its environment.
Because holistic paradigms always refer to the whole in order to understand the parts, synthesis reasons by looking at how parts are put together to form the whole and how the whole system interacts with other systems and operates within some environment. This process of combining different things together to form a greater whole is called emergence. In the process of emergence, diverse elements interact, self-organize and combine to give rise to some combined entity that exhibits novel and different properties when taken as a whole. Synthesis tries to understand this process of emergence and how the interactions between diverse parts can create something new.
Synthesis takes a holistic view, meaning it looks at the whole and is primarily interested in the overall workings; that is to say it looks at the system’s macro level of how the parts are interrelated and how whole systems interact in their environment. Within this holistic paradigm, the ultimate, most valid frame of reference for understanding something is seen to be through understanding it in relation to its whole environment.
We regard a system as a whole unit when we treat it as a black box and look at its overall behavior and function, i.e. what it does or accomplishes.3 For example, architecture is considered a holistic discipline as it is primarily concerned with how the whole building works; rather than prioritizing any single element to the building the architect must look at how all the parts interrelate to form the whole system. In contrast, building engineers are required for the analysis and design of the physical parts to ensure that it will function.
Synthetic thinking has three steps that can be seen to be the opposite of analysis.4 To understand something using synthesis one has to firstly ask “What is this a part of?” Then, identify the whole context that the system is a part of. For example, to understand a corporation, it is important to identify the economy; to understand a bicycle, we have to understand people and what they might use it for etc.
Secondly, we have to understand the behavior of the whole. For example, one needs to gain a basic understanding of the transportation system and the economic system in order to understand the car and corporation respectively. Finally, we have to identify the function of the system we are trying to explain and how it is interrelated to other systems in the performing of that function. For example, understand the role a car plays in the transportation system and the role a corporation plays in the economic system.
Types of Answers
Both analysis and synthesis provide very different insights: while analysis reveals the structure of a system and how it works, synthetic thinking reveals why it behaves as it does. No amount of analysis to the French automobile would reveal why they drive on the right side of the road. Why this happens is a historical contingent part of the broader evolutionary context within which the car exists.5 Whereas, an analytical inquiry may give us detailed insight into the internal workings of something, and thus an understanding of how it functions, it is also argued that reductionist approaches do not allow us to identify why behaviors happen.6 For example, an analytical approach could explain that running away from a large lion was made possible by our fear centers causing a stress response to better allow us to run fast. However, the same analytical view cannot say why we were afraid of the lion in the first place. In effect, by being analytical we may be asking smaller, more specific questions and therefore not addressing the bigger issue of why we behave as we do. Thus, while reductionism is useful, it can lead to incomplete explanations.7
Synthesis resolves this by referring to the broader context. Synthesis helps us to understand the meaning of something because the meaning of something is in its functioning within some larger system. A person finds meaning in their life by playing a part in some larger organization; a mother playing her role in a family, a person forming part of a sports team or a musician in a band.8 It is only in reference to a system’s functioning within a broader environment that we can derive answers to the question of why and it is only really in taking things apart and analyzing them that we can get answers to the question of how.
The effectiveness of either method is very much contingent on the context. Some phenomena and circumstances lend themselves well to analytical reductionism, others not so well. Which paradigm is most relevant may be understood to be contingent on the degree of complexity to the system we are dealing with: simple systems are amenable to the reductionist approach, while complex systems do not, due to the highly interconnected and interdependent nature.9
The basic word “synthesis” means putting things together to form some new entity. For example, in botany, plants perform the core function of photosynthesis wherein they use the sunlight’s energy as a catalyst to make an organic molecule from a simple carbon molecule. Thus, synthesis is essentially a creative process, synthetic thinking is designed to create new out-of-the-box ideas and solutions. Whereas analysis cannot really tell us anything fundamentally new, it gives incremental improvements and optimization; because we are simply breaking things down it can only build upon what already exists. While synthetic thinking can enable major paradigm shifts due to its creative, emergent nature.
While analysis gives us differentiation, which is important to achieving efficiency through specialization, however, it can lead to fragmentation over time. Synthesis puts things together, thus it plays an important role in systems integration; making sure that all the parts are working together in an integrated fashion and that things do not become too fractured. For example, within science systems thinking works to try and provide transdisciplinary models and frameworks that interrelate the different domains of inquiry. The analytical strategy is not able to consider the wholeness of a program because its primarily focus is on individual tasks; systems thinking is required to balance this and maintain an overall integration thus ensuring that fragmentation does not occur.10
Synthetic thinking refers to the context or environment as the most important frame of reference: for something to be of value or correct it must be aligned with the context within which it exists. For example, whereas with an analytical approach one might focus on the optimization of subsystems placing this as the highest priority, even if it is at the expense of some other element, system or the environment. Systems thinking would invariably give precedence to the system’s environment, positing that nothing can be correct or “right” without being what is best for the overall context. Thus, synthetic thinking can be an important element within a system to ensure its alignment with its environment and long-term sustainability.
A corollary to this is that because everything is seen as context dependent, holistic systems are optimized for adaptation and responding to change within their environment. Whereas an analytical paradigm leads to the idea of determinism and predictability – because the focus is on the internal workings of closed systems, i.e. everything that will exist already existed in the past and is determined by it. Scientific holism holds that the behavior of a system cannot be perfectly predicted, no matter how much data is available. Natural and social systems can produce surprisingly unexpected behavior, and it is suspected that behavior of such systems might be computationally irreducible, which means it would not be possible to even approximate the system state without a full simulation of all the events occurring within it. In the face of this uncertainty, adaptive capacity is seen as having great valued within the holistic paradigm.11
Both synthesis and analysis are key to gaining a full understanding of an entity, both have their achievements and limitations and both are required to form a balanced understanding of the whole and its parts. They represent the dynamic interplay between the whole and the parts that creates a dialectic process of development.12