Relational constructionism

by Dian Marie Hosking

Relational constructionism

Relational (social) constructionism is the practical-theoretical set of understandings that informs the research, writing and consulting of Dian Marie Hosking. Below you can find an overview of the premises of this thought style. In the menu you can find links to detailed discussion of relational constructionist approaches to change, a participatory world view and the link between relational constructionism, knowledge and learning processes.

The present focus

Many researchers, consultants, and therapists see themselves as taking some sort of social constructionist perspective. However the term 'social constructionism' has come to mean many different things. This said, all constructionisms share an emphasis on language as communication - contrasting with the more usual emphasis on language as representation. In addition, communication is viewed as ‘forming’ persons and worlds - rather than informing pre-existing entities. Constructionisms vary in three ways - in their focus on: socially constructed ‘products’ or processes; in centering individuals or communal construction processes; and in the significance given to the fact of the knower's participation in those processes. The following account takes a relatively uncommon approach: by emphasising processes and not products; by exploring communications both as processes of construction (rather than a means to transmit information) and as relational processes in which participants co-construct particular people and worlds.

Relating as a co-ordination process

Most ‘relational talk' presumes individual entities such that 'relational' is a reference to what goes on between entities. An alternative is to make communications the basic 'unit of analysis' and to view entities as social constructions, made and remade in these processes. By communication we mean immediately to refer to the realm of language and action, using these terms in rather special ways. In the case of language, this often is thought of as standing in for, or representing, how things (entities) 'really' are. In another view, not necessarily contradictory, language is regarded as performative i.e., its use brings people and things into being. This performative emphasis joins what often is separated i.e., talk, action, things and events. Language (action) now is seen to include written and spoken words, non-verbal gestures, voice tone, artefacts of human activity such as a logo, a company uniform, interior layout and decor, music... Action is any act or artefact (arti-fact) that might be co-ordinated with in some way, so constructing a communication. For example I say ‘sit down, and you say ‘thankyou’, or I hand you a questionnaire and you fill it in, or I nod my head and you nod in reply. Given these arguments, relating becomes understood as a co-construction rather than an individual affair. These arguments sustain talk of co-ordination processes and not individualised actors and non-human objects. We should add that, in this view, relating is co-constructed, even when acts are separated in time and space, such as as might be the case for example, in computer-based communications or when a 20th century gaze looks upon a prehistoric cave painting. This is the very particular meaning of ‘social’ in social constructionism - it is not a reference to face-to-face relations between people as entities. Since we do not wish to treat people as social realities with pre-existing characteristics, a new set of tools is required for talking about what is co-ordinated with what. The tools of ‘act’ and ‘supplement’ or ‘text’ and ‘context’ can both be used. Of course ‘supplementing’ some act or text also constructs an act that, in turn, might be supplemented - no-thing is either an act or a supplement but is both text and context - just as Yin embraces Yang - just as con-text embraces text.

Acts - supplement relations

A moments reflection might suggest that, for any act, an infinity of co-ordinations is possible - though not all are equally probable. For example, you might enter a public discussion group on the web for the first time, and post your questions. Others could coordinate with your action by (a) ignoring it (not acting is a form of action), by (b) complaining about your presumption, and/or (c) by bombarding you with competing replies. Each different co-ordination gives a different meaning to the act and invites the process to continue in a different way. As was implied earlier acts (texts) are not intrinsically meaningful but are made meaningful by the ways they are supplemented. Strictly speaking there are no knowable brute facts although well rehearsed conventions characteristic e.g., of local usenet cultures may make it seem as if there are (see e.g., Gergen 1994). So the conventions of our native tongue, musical, and mathematical conventions, business practices... seem natural compared to those e.g., of 12 tone serialism/atonality. You could say that actions (re)construct stability in the midst of multiple and limitless possibilities. This said, the possibility of changed supplements - of different constructions of what is ‘real and good’ - is ever present. This is known, for example, by the Zen master who says ‘three pounds of flax’ in answer to your question who is Buddha, by the comedian who walks past your outstretched and ready to be shaken hand, and by the magician who knows that reality is what you can get away with.

Constructions are local-social and local-historical

No universal, transcendental, or natural laws have to be invoked to explain the above. Rather we speak of these processes in terms of what works in some here and now performance. In other words, we are speaking of local and pragmatic issues. People show themselves to be locals, to be knowing, by co-ordinating their actions in ways that (locally) are deemed appropriate and natural i.e., conventional. For example, when I enter a new usenet I may 'hang out' for a while, learning something about how participants 'do' their identity work, how they construct their relations, constructing some sense of the history of their discussions. After a while I might then enter the ongoing stream, using local jargon… This way of co-ordinating may 'work' in the sense that it reconstructs a particular set of local conventions about what is real and good and how (as participants or 'insiders') we may know it. At the same time, other possibilities and conventions are made difficult or nearly impossible to construct. So, if I depart too far from the local conventions (and taken-for-granted by participants as right and natural) they may reject my participation as ill informed, incomprehensible, and/or as just plain wrong. Of course my participation could (more minimally) be deemed as that of an 'outsider', neither better nor worse just different. The present talk of ‘local’ is intended to contrast with the perhaps more familiar presumption that existances and our knowledge of them (ontology and epistemology) are transcendental. Relational-processual arguments emphasise a ‘here and now’ and ongoing quality. However, and this is crucial, this is not meant as a reference to ‘a present’ in relation to conventional constructions of past, present and future. Past, present, and future are social constructions too - and they are variously constructed in different ‘local’ cultures. Relational processes, may be locally constructed using conventions such as 'before' and 'after', with reference to strong or weak causal presumptions, or may construct the past and the future as in the present e.g., as in Australian aboriginal cultures, Buddhism, and participatory world views more generally. Relating references ways of co-ordinating already in place and, in principle, is open to new supplements and changed ways of going on. This view of processes makes non-sense (literally) of questions about beginnings and ends and makes a (more or less) temporary punctuation of all claims to closure. It is important to emphasise that relational constructionist arguments do not rely on the assumption 'anything goes' - as some critics of social constructionisms suggest. The criticism implicitly assumes and opposes limits set by nature and relativism/no limits. However relational constructionism need only set aside (note, not declare false) the presumption that nature - viewed as how things 'really are' - sets limits on social realities. In so doing it makes prominent the limits constructed and reconstructed in social relational processes i.e., how things really are made. Limits to what might ‘go’ become viewed as conventional and as in ongoing (re)construction in relational processes. They are none the less limiting - as many will know who for example, have tried to change their relations with their partner or to change 'an' organisational culture.

Processes make people and worlds

The co-ordinations of which we have spoken make and remake social constructions as products, so to speak. This includes everything we know - self and other - including what a Cartesian dualist might construct as mind and as internal and external nature. Notice that matters of existance and knowledge (ontology and epistemology) are left joined in this perspective. In the present view, the way someone or something can be and be known is relational i.e., in relation to particular bundle of co-ordinations (text-context relations) referenced as contexts. This means that relating necessarily references some constructions of self, differentiated in some (separate or participatory relation to 'other'). You could say that ongoing co-ordinations simultaneously construct self, other, and relations. This in turn implies that co-ordinations embrace multiple co-constructions of reality from many different, particular, and moving self-other ‘locations’, relational positionings, or ‘standpoints’. These multiple realities are not more or less true, in the sense of being variants around some transcendental truth. Nor are they individual subjective knowledges. Rather, the binary construction of subjective and objective knowledge is set aside. In a relational constructionist perspective, multiple realities constitute multiple emergent products of multiple co-ordinations. These constructions resource and constrain how the process continues - bringing us back to our earlier claim - not anything goes. Self and other often are constructed in subject-object relations. To explain, a 'subject' construction constructs some self as knowing about and as having warrants to achieve power over 'other' - constructed (from the subject standpoint) as knowable and serviceable. Consider, for example, narratives of scientific or religious authority, ownership, hierarchy... warranting claims to know better and to be better able to decide how to continue. The present version of relational constructionism has the considerable advantage that, by making brute facts into constructions, other possible constructions (social realities, ways of knowing…) are made available. Subject-object relations, hierarchy, and power over now are just possible constructions. Invited now is an exploration of how communication processes may construct multilogues, heterarchy, and 'power to' in different but equal relation.

Summary of relational premises

Communicating may be viewed as a language-based process of relating text (act) and context (supplement). Relating includes not just written and spoken language but implicates all actions, natural objects and artefacts. All relating is a "reality-constituting practice" whether achieved through virtual or physical co-ordinations. It is ongoing processes of relating that make particular self-other constructions real. You could say that self-making and world (other) making are just two sides of the same coin. These relational premises may be summarised as follows:
  • relating is joint action,
  • constructed in language and other forms of action,
  • co-ordinating act and supplement, text and con-text,
  • acts invite possible supplements, some become conventional, other relations always are possible.
  • processes are local -social- historical,
  • co-ordinating with text-context relations already in place; co-ordinations limit how a process is likely to go on; not anything goes.
  • processes (re)make self in relation to other; they are standpoint dependent, they may (re)construct power over or power to.