Synthesis and Analysis Distinctions
The terms analysis and synthesis stem from Greek, meaning “to take apart” and “to put together,” respectively. Analysis can be defined as the procedure by which we break down a complex whole into parts.1 While synthesis means the combining of constituent elements into a single or unified entity.2 Synthesis and analysis represent two fundamentally different processes of reasoning, but both are required to perform a full process of inquiry, as analysis helps one to understand the parts while synthesis helps to understand the whole of a system.3 Analysis is the traditional method of reasoning taken within modern science whereby we try to gain an understanding of a system by breaking it down into its constituent elements. On the other hand, synthesis, which is the foundations of systems thinking, works in the reverse direction, trying to gain an understanding of an entity through the context of its relations within a whole that it is part of.
Analysis is the process of breaking down or reducing systems to their constituent parts and then describing the whole system primarily as simply the sum of these constituent elements. Analysis is often described in terms of a three step process that we use for analyzing things.4 Firstly, we take something and we break it down into its constituent elements. This is deeply intuitive to us. When we wish to understand how a car, bird or business works, the first thing we do is isolate it by taking it into a garage. Analysis is based on the premise that our basic unit of interest should be the individual parts of a system. With analysis when we wish to understand something like a bird or car we take it into a garage or lab and decompose it into its constituent parts. Secondly, once we have broken the system down into its most elementary components, we analyze these individual components in isolation to describe their properties and their functioning in isolation. Lastly, we recombine these components into the original system that can now be described in terms of the properties of its individual elements and their direct interactions.
Modern science is based upon the analytical method that involves the breaking down of complex systems into components that can be analyzed in isolation and modeled using linear equations. The analytical approach is the fundamental method behind modern science, and by extension our modern understanding of the world, and it has proven highly successful in many ways from understanding atoms and DNA to designing the modern corporation and nation state.5 However, as successful as it has been, it also has inherent limitations to it. Because we understand systems by breaking the parts down and isolating them, the reductionist paradigm systematically and inherently de-promotes the relationships between these components.6 Thus, within this process of analysis the whole system is implicitly thought to be nothing more than the sum of its parts. Analyses works well when there is a low level of interconnectivity and interdependencies within the system we are modeling. Although this may be true for some systems, it is certainly not always the case. Many of the systems we are interested in describing have a high level of interconnectivity and interdependency, examples being ecosystems, computer networks and many types of social systems.
More complex systems are primarily defined by the relations within the system and not the static properties of their elements. We can and often do continue to use analysis to try and describe them but the reductionist approach is not designed for this, and thus we need to change our basic paradigm to one that is more focused on these relations as opposed to the components. This is where synthesis and systems thinking find their application. Synthesis means the combination of components or elements to form a connected whole. It is a process of reasoning that describes an entity through the context of its relations and functioning within the whole system that it is a part of. Systems thinking is based upon this process of reasoning called synthesis, and it is also referred to as being what is called holistic, meaning that it is characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole. Thus synthesis focuses on the relations between the elements, that is to say, the way those elements are put together or arranged into a functioning entirety. And like with analyses one can also identify a few key stages in this process of reasoning.
Synthetic Process of Reasoning
The first step in the process is to identify the system that our object of interest is a part of. Examples of this might be a bird being part of a broader ecosystem or a person being part of a greater culture. Next, we try to gain a broad outline of how this whole system functions. So for example, a hard drive is part of a computer, and to properly understand it we need to have some understanding of the whole computer. Lastly, we try to understand how the parts are interconnected and arranged to function as an entirety. By completing this process we can identify the complex of relations within which our entity is embedded, its place and function within the whole. And within systems thinking this context is considered the primary frame of reference for describing something.
The first thing to note is that the methods of synthesis and analysis are not mutually exclusive. They should both be a part of any well-developed model,7 but each will have particular relevance depending upon the type of system we are dealing with. Thus, it should not be of surprise that physics is the home of the analytical approach, where they are often dealing with inert, static and decomposable systems, whereas ecologists that deal with highly interconnected and dynamic systems are much more inclined to synthetic reasoning. Some of the primary questions we will be asking to determine the type of system we are dealing with, and thus the appropriate method of reasoning, will be; Firstly, is it primarily a component-based system or does it serve some common function that integrates the various elements? Is it isolated or connected? Is it a linear deterministic system or a non-linear non-determinate system? And is it static or dynamic?
Firstly, are we dealing with an actual system or simply a set of things? When we wish to talk about a composite entity, that is to say, a group of things, we can describe it as either a set of objects or a system, the difference here being that a set is a group of objects that share no common function. Thus, we call a group of cups on a table a set of cups as they exist independently from each other. In contrary, if we take the human body, again it is a composite entity, but this time, the elements have been designed to serve some common function, we can then call it a system, and we would need to use systems thinking to properly understand it.
Secondly, how interconnected is the system? Analysis starts with a component-based view of the world and builds a description based upon the properties of these components. Synthesis in contrary focuses upon the relationships between parts. Thus, from a systems thinking perspective we are often interested in connectivity, i.e. answering the question what is connected to what and thus systems thinking is best suited to systems with a high level of interconnectivity.
Thirdly, are we dealing with a linear system or are there feedback loops? Analytical thinking searches for direct linear relations between the cause of an event and the effect. Thus, we call this linear thinking. Systems thinking is more inclined to see events as the product of a complex of interacting parts where relations are often cyclical with feedback loops.
Is the system primarily static or dynamic? Analytical methods often describe entities in terms of static structures with limited reference to their evolutionary development within time. Systems thinking takes a more dynamic view of things often contextualizing entities in terms of the evolutionary forces that have shaped them, and thus seeing the process of development as an important phenomena with which to understand the world.
Lastly, are we dealing with a system on the micro level or the macro level? Analysis breaks things down into parts, and thus analytical thinking typically focuses on analyzing and optimizing subsystems, in a belief that we can improve the whole system by simply optimizing all of its subcomponents. If we are dealing with a system on the macro level – what is sometimes call the global level – we need to use synthetic thinking to get a vision of the whole system and an understanding of how the parts interrelate to achieve global functionality.