GESTALT [guh-SHTAHLT]: a structure possessing qualities as a whole that cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts


Gestalt is a “professional word” that comes into our language through the German language.   In fact, for many, the term is always capitalized to reflect that it is still a German word.  However, over the past decades the word gestalt has become so common in English that it is now written in lower case.

Gestalt is used primarily in sociological dialogue, describing the culture in which something exists.   For instance, the gestalt of popular music being produced in the United States could be described as a mixture of such modes as rap, rock, country, and a smatteringof other forms.  It would be fair to say that the gestalt of popular music in the United States at this time is generic.  Therefore, by some assumptions, anything goes.

The gestalt of American popular music, as in most societies, reflects the tensions at work overtly or beneath the surface of the society.   Urbanization, the drug culture, populism, nostalgia for other times, social instability (as in marriage) and the economy might well be instrumental in creating the gestalt with which we are so familiar that we don’t even identify it most of the time.   It is.

In more sophisticated realms, the gestalt of a culture is broader than something like popular music.   It is the merging of hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of factors which exist in a culture which affect the way in which the members of that society choose to live their lives.    Right now, violence and gun culture are prominent in our American society, but so is acoustic folk music.   Architecture of great homes for the wealthy is exciting, but the move to a more urban society is rampant, with people living in apartments and condominiums, some as small as 270 square feet!  New cars are faster, sleeker and more expensive, but there are more people using bicycles as their primary form of transportation than ever before in our history.

The concept of gestalt is visually depicted by the yin-yang, represented the complementary nature of opposites and the way in which they relate to each other.   Gestalt would be unfairly and inappropriately defined by an exclusive characteristic.  It is the creative melding of characteristics, even opposites, into a commonness.

It would not be uncommon to stumble across a quote like that from Garner which, in identifying gestalt says:

So Clinton becomes the consensus candidate, capitalizing on the latest gestalt of the electorate.”*

This is to underline the fact that gestalt can be used to identify an entire culture, or a segment of the culture.  There is, in addition to an electorate gestalt, one for education, the arts, sports, culinary preferences, the media, and so on.

It is a word which is important and should be included in one’s language, but it is also a word that should not be overused.


Illustration Credit:  Fatima Caldas

*U.S. News and World Report, 28 Oct. 1996.

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