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Central to a systems perspective is holistic thinking, as opposite of reductionist thinking. A key understanding within systems thinking is that a system as a whole cannot be understood by analysis of its separate parts (M.Q. Patton 2015). The functions and meanings of the parts are lost when separated from the whole. Therefore a systems approach requires synthetic thinking, which is fundamentally different from analysis. To analyze is to explain by taking things apart in a first step, the contained parts are explained in a second step and finally knowledge of the parts is aggregated into knowledge of the whole. To synthesize is to see something as a part of a larger whole, next the containing whole is explained, and finally the understanding of the whole is disaggregated to explain the parts by revealing their role or function within that whole. Synthetic thinking reveals why a system works the way it does, but not how it does so. Analysis and synthesis are complementary and systems thinking incorporates both (M.Q. Patton 2015).

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