Environmental and sustainability problems have become increasingly complex as a result of, for example, globalization and the development of information and communication technologies.

On the other hand, the development of scientific thinking has made it easier to understand their complexity. Hence the need for comprehensive mental models is perhaps greater than ever.

The general objective of the research of the Kudelma network is to develop an understanding of the comprehensive approach and at the same time to deepen understanding of its dialectic relationship it has with the differentiative approach. We therefore seek to promote the use of a comprehensive approach in the analysis of sustainability related questions. Development of the so-called GHH frame - our own version of comprehensive approach - and its different applications in the analysis of sustainability issues plays a central role in our research, but we also do other kinds of research on comprehensive approach. The writing of scientific articles in groups of writers of different ages and the co-learning process related to that (presented on the Learning page) are important dimensions of our research.

Classification of comprehensive approach models

For example Ancient Greece and  Eastern philosophy, known to be over thousand years old, are first approaches perceived as comprehensive. Suitable ways of analyzing complexity have also been developed in modern science. A few examples are systemic thinking and systems thinking with their many variations, chaos and complexity thinking and many subcategories of dialectics.  These perspectives that we call comprehensive have not been given a common title for general use nor is the “taxonomy” of the different dimensions of thinking clear. This is somewhat natural since the essence of comprehensivity lies in not segregating things into clear categories. 

In the work of Kudelma we seek additional understanding to the concept of the whole by drawing a kind of a classification line between systemic, a mindset that classifies world into systems, and dialectic, a mindset that emphasizes conflicts and intertwining of things. From this we strive to continue the classification of different orientations of thinking. For example the GHH framework may be described to be systemic rather than dialectic.

The GHH framework

The GHH framework has been developed in the Kudelma network for researchers, teachers, students, and other learners, as a tool for studying and understanding complex phenomena. It is a conceptual framework that is largely driven by systemic thinking, and it is based on three key dimensions of thinking: generalism, holism and holarkism. The following description is taken from Willamo et al. 2017 and 2018, and from Holmström 2019 for the part of holarchism.

Generalism refers to the broad examination of reality –  there are always multiple perspectives and aspects to things. It is useful to distinguish two dimensions of generalism: object generalism refers to the inclusion of multiple objects under examination, such as extending waste recycling campaign in schools to water recycling as well. Whereas viewpoint generalism means that a single object is observed from multiple perspectives, for example from many different disciplines. Generally, the term specialism is often used as an antonym for generalism.        

Holism refers to the way of thinking where interactions between phenomena are considered as important determinants of the overall nature of the systems as the components of the systems: things affect each other! Due to these interactions new kinds of features occur, and as a result the whole is more than just a sum of its parts (emergence). There are several concepts used as antonyms for holism: e.g., reductionism, merism, and atomism.                  

Holarchism as a term has been developed during the evolution of the GHH framework by the ideas of ​​Charlotta Holmström (2019), based on the conceptual system created by Arthur Koestler (eg 1970). Holarchism refers to an approach where systems should be perceived as emergent, hierarchically layered structures. It is not not reasonable to assume all systems to be same frequency, magnitude or them to have the same degree of complexity. Hierarchy differs from the concept of holarchy, created by Koestler (eg. 1970), which is a hierarchy where each element (holon) is at the same time part of a larger whole and a whole itself that can be divided into smaller entities at a lower level of the system. As an antonym for holarchism we use the term planism, which we have derived from the Latin word planus (flat). In a “planistic” approach, all objects are viewed as existing at the same systemic level.

Thus, with the concept of holarchism, we broaden the perspective of holism, emphasizing that there are also interactions between parts and wholes that are part of the nature of both. Holarchism is a hierarchy that combines the idea of ​​generalism and holism: there are lots of elements and interactions between them that cause emergence. Thus, the higher-level entity is something else than just the sum of the lower-level parts, and the entity is considered to function at least partially under different laws than its parts. These changes in complexity occur when crossing the complexity threshold.

Needless to say, the GHH framework is not ready yet, but requires continuous development. One important development stage is to add the temporal dimension to the framework, since now the framework is fairly static in nature. Also, the concept of the complexity threshold requires clarification: what happens to complexity when moving from top to bottom, or horizontally to the side of the holarchic system? Analyzing these questions will play an important role in Essi Huotari's forthcoming doctoral dissertation.


Holmström, C. 2019. Multi-level wickedness –holarchism as a tool for dealing with complex sustainability issues. [In Finnish.] Master’s Thesis. Environmental Science and Policy. University of Helsinki.

Koestler, A. 1970. Beyond Atomism and Holism - the concept of Holon. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 13(2): 131-154.

Willamo, R., Helenius, L., Holmström, C., Haapanen, L., Huotari, E., Sandström, V., 2017a. How to understand complex phenomena? Generalism, Holism and Holarchism in Comprehensive Sustainability Education. [In Finnish.] Kasvatus 48(5): 415–428.

Willamo, R., Helenius, L., Holmström, C., Haapanen, L., Sandström, V., Huotari, E., Kaarre, K., Värre, U., Nuotiomäki, A., Happonen, J. & Kolehmainen, L., 2018: Learning how to understand complexity and deal with sustainability challenges – a framework for a comprehensive approach and its application in university education. Ecological modelling. 370: 1-13. (Special issue on teaching systems and modelling.)

Other publications:

Huutoniemi, K. & Willamo, R. 2014. Thinking outward. Heuristics for systemic understanding of environmental problems. Huutoniemi, K. & Tapio, P. (toim.) In a book Transdisciplinary sustainability studies. A heuristic approach. London: Routledge, 23–49.

Willamo, R., 2005. Comprehensive Approach in Environmental Science and Policy: Complexity as a Challenge for Environmentalists [In Finnish.] Environmentalica Fennica 23. Yliopistopaino, Helsinki.

Dia­lectic and inclusive approaches

Another important research path for us, besides the GGH framework, is developing dialectic and inclusive approaches as a branch of comprehensive thinking and approach. In her doctoral thesis, Leena Helenius examines whether dialectical approaches can help to understand and reconcile contradictions evident in many sustainability challenges. Her work is based on comparing the approaches of prevailing western logical paradigms to dialectical paradigms. The aim of the research is to further analyze these two paradigms and develop and create tools to apply them in contradicting situations in the field of sustainability and in sustainability education in particular.

Also the general aim of the work is to develop the methodology of comprehensive approaches.

Other research interests

Our other research interests are for example the environmental effects of complex and globalized food markets (Vilma Sandström), post-growth societies (Liisa Haapanen), human-nature relationship and sustainability education (Pihla Salminen and Risto Willamo) and heuristics as a tool for comprehensive approach (Risto Willamo). In Publications page you can find examples of our work.

In addition to PhD and post doctoral work, our younger students and researchers have been applying comprehensive approaches to human-nature-relationship, environmental values in politics and the importance of sustainability communications. Theses page gives some examples, but most of them are unfortunately in Finnish.

Practical applications

For more information about applying the comprehensive approach see Collaboration page.