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  The methodological strategy of explaining some phenomenon or event by means of an often simpler, but presumed more fundamental, entity. The strategy is especially prominent in the natural sciences that strive to decompose a phenomenon or event into its most basic constituents or causes, for example, sub-atomic particles or forces. Reductionism implies that facts that are apparently important are really dispensable because they can be reduced to a more basic set of elements. For example, rather than to talk about genes, it is better to speak about strands of DNA molecules, or rather than talk about lightning, it is better to speak about an electrical discharge or even more fundamentally the flow of electrons.

Reductionism is also found in the social sciences, including human geography. One of its most common forms is methodological individualism. Here the complexities of human behaviour are reduced to the single fundamental cause of individual rational choice. While it might appear that the diverse decisions involved around, say, setting up a new home, or going to war with another country, or relocating an old factory, have nothing to do with one another, in reality, say methodological individualists, they all obey the same fundamental logic of rational decision-making. The facts and circumstances of each particular case can be eliminated because they are reducible to a more elementary set of axioms.

While reductionism as a methodological strategy appears enormously powerful and productive, yielding seemingly ever more secrets of nature and social life, it has been criticized on a number of grounds.

{img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } That some entities, such as human motivations and creativity, are simply not divisible into constituent parts; that there is always a \'ghost in the machine\' to use Arthur Koestler\'s phrase. Humans can never be reduced to Pavlovian salivating dogs or Skinnerian rats in a maze. {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } That some phenomena or events are characterized by the property of emergence; that is, the interaction of constituent elements produces an effect that cannot be predicted by examining the properties of the individual elements themselves. As a result, reductionism as a strategy is ineffective (see also compositional theory; contextual approach). {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } That there is often something important in the original facts and setting that is lost when it is reduced to a different vocabulary. Translations are never perfect, and important contextual factors useful in explanation may be lost when reductionism is applied.In human geography reductionism was most strenuously applied during the period of the quantitative revolution and spatial science. Then the complexities of geographical landscapes were reduced to supposedly more fundamental entities such as the postulates of geometry or the actions of homo economicus. Even after this period reductionism remained important within the discipline. radical geography, for example, was often characterized by economism, that is, the reduction of spatial relationships to economic ones. Historically, however, the discipline has always emphasized the importance of context, attempting to keep geographical facts intact rather than reducing them to something else. This sensibility has taken on greater theoretical momentum in the wake of post-structuralism and postmodernism, movements entering geography in the 1980s and associated with an explicitly anti-reductionist agenda. Critiques of reductionism, and attempts to develop non-reductionist research strategies, are now found in feminist geography (Hanson and Pratt, 1996), cultural geography and economic geography (Gibson-Graham, 1996). (TJB)

References Gibson-Graham, J.K. 1996: The end of capitalism (as we knew it). A feminist critique of political economy. Oxford: Blackwell. Hanson, S. and Pratt, G. 1996: Gender, work and space. London: Routledge.

Suggested Reading Gibson-Graham (1996).



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