Relational constructionism

by Dian Marie Hosking

Participatory world views

In many areas of writing and social practice it has become commonplace to think of people and organisations as having content-specific characteristics (e.g., traits, attitudes, structures), and as conducting internal and external processes (intra and interpersonal, intra and inter-organisational…). The approach taken here is very different. Relational processes form the ‘starting point’, these being viewed as the medium within which social realities and learning are socially constructed. More precisely, relational processes are said to construct (a) people and things and (b) relations – as social realities. It is suggested that relations very often are constructed as being between separate and opposed entities; these being viewed as relations of ‘either/or’. However, relations also may be constructed as ‘both/and’ - which invites a view of learning as participation by treating self and other as joined. It is this participative or ecological view that is explored here.

Some-one knows some-thing

Participants in western cultures usually speak of people and organisations in terms of ‘ism’s’, talking of things (nouns as subjects and objects) and describing their characteristics using noun qualifiers. So, for example, organisations (such as universities) and their contributors (leaders, managers, students...) are said to discover what knowledge ‘is’, and to own, teach, learn, and sell ‘it’. Conventions construct an acting subject that is assumed to relate to, learn about, and produce (form, shape, structure) objects such as followers, trainees, and students. Of course, many grammars require use of both nouns and verbs, often in subject-verb-object relation. Users can try to give richness to both noun and verb forms in rather the same way, for example, that research programmes can assume and investigate both particle and wave, both stability and change. However, both/and practices are rare. Instead, verbs such as knowing and organising are treated as if they were nouns (knowledge, organisation), or they are used as verbs - but verbs capable of doing very little given the richness of the noun (adjective, pronoun...) context. So, in this "entitative" view, some-one with knowable, defining and stable characteristics, knows and influences some-one and/or some-thing.

Constructing some-one and some-thing

Here, primacy is given to verbs. Others have attempted this in many different ways. These include linguistically oriented approaches that advocate an operational language of ‘ing’ rather than ‘is’, along with theories that emphasise humans acting - rather than personal characteristics. The present constructionist perspective theorises the processes (rather than products) of social construction. This means that persons and organisations are viewed as ongoing and multiple constructions ‘made in’ processes, so to speak and not as the pre-existing ‘makers of’ processes. Premises concerning social construction processes will be outlined; more elaborated versions of these arguments are developed elsewhere.

In a relational constructionist perspective what is and how we know it are viewed as ongoing achievements constructed in sequences of acts/events. Acts may be written or spoken but also could be gestures, artefacts, and what commonly are understood as objects in nature. In other words reality, and representation of the same through conceptual language, are not being differentiated and opposed – as is so often the case. Rather, conceptual language is understood as one of many possible ways to connect with Other. In addition, constructions are considered as: a mix of the already learned (conventional) and the new (emergent); ongoing, and; relational in the sense of always inter-relating connections - many of which are tacit. So, what are counted as knowledge - truth, science...i.e., all social practices – can be said to be local social-historical conventions that realise and fix some sub-set from an infinity of possibilities.

Constructing relations as subject-object

The above themes have been developed over many years in many literatures including philosophy of science, interactionist social psychology, feminisms, postmodernist histories of ideas and cultures... Whilst interests differ to focus e.g., on science, on gender, on nature... theorists generally have understood construction to be a process of differentiating and relating. Further these processes have been shown to include (some sort of) differentiation and relating of self and other. So, for example, Self and Other often are differentiated and related as e.g., knower and known, observer and observed, expert and novice... Recent Western constructions e.g., in many science subjects - between the observer and observed, typically construct exclusive differences that are understood as opposed in an Aristotelian logic of either-or. These have been called "subject-object" constructions where the former is viewed as active (knowing and influencing) in relation to some differentiated Other(s), treated as passive, knowable and formable, object(s).

Constructing inclusive and co-operative relations

Many have suggested and persuasively argued that subject-object relations are not enforced by the world ‘as it really is’. For example, reflection on scientific practices shows that knowledge of ‘the observed’ cannot be entirely separated from ‘the observer’. Scientific practices, like other practices, may take-for-granted the separateness of Subject and Object, may strive to impose S-O relations, and may devalue deviations as bad science or as unscientific. However, critiques of S-O assumptions suggest that these assumptions may be regarded as relational in the sense of being constructed in relation to particular local (historically located) cultures, and in constructed in relation to particular standards (as conventions). What is interesting in the present context is that this opens-up consideration of other (non S-O) relational possibilities, how particular differentiations and relations come to be warranted, and in relation to whose and what notions of usefulness. So for example, research need not necessarily be conducted in S-O relations, nor need relations between e.g., leader and other, or between teacher and student. What possibilities might then be afforded and constructed in ongoing relations? One possible alternative, already spoken of, is the both-and view of relations in which self and other explicitly are viewed as in inclusive, co-operative relation. This has been called a "participative world view"– where participation is understood to be a relational way of being and knowing and much more than a form of governance or interpersonal style. Perhaps this is what others had in mind when they argued that "partnership" (rather than dominator) cultures have been constructed in which relations were different but equal, rather than exclusive and opposed, right/wrong. The possible power of such arguments begins to be felt when they are understood to be about a participative way of being, and not about liberal ideology in the context of science, exclusive relations, and universal rights and wrongs.

Nature in mind and mind in nature

An inclusive view of relations seems very radical indeed when considered in relation to an S-O construction such as is embraced by the Cartesian construction of mind separate from internal and external nature (S or O). The latter is a defining assumption of what Sampson called "possessive individualism" (Sampson, 1993) – a world view in which mind and other personal characteristics are differentiated (set apart), nominalised (made into nouns), and "spatialized" (viewed as something, in some space). In the Subject-Object view S is ‘outside’ of and acts over O (internal and external nature) to make the latter in some way serviceable to the subject as a provider of natural or human resources. In contrast, the "participative" or co-operative view of relations can be thought of as a construction in which S and O are enfolded and co-dependent as in the Yin/Yang symbol. An inclusive view of relations as co-operations is an eco-logical view. It offers an "ecological construction of mind"– or indeed of all relational processes. Minding becomes understood as a world of pattern, of form in process (relating), and minding other (e.g., ‘nature’) is minding self.

Constructionist arguments offer no firm foundation for the claim that either inclusive or exclusive ways of relating are more true or better in any universal, transcendental sense. Indeed, persuasive arguments could be made for the pragmatic value of many S-O ways of relating. This said, it is increasingly argued that the pragmatics of particular local cultural/historical considerations may call for more inclusive ways of relating. For example, new world-wide communication technologies, globalisation, increasing inequalities in financial wealth and economic infrastructure, destruction of forests, landscapes and communities, pollution... raise issues that do not seem tractable through more subject-object ways of relating. A changed epistemology - changed forms of practice - seem needed. Again, Peter Reason puts the point well, arguing (quoting Mumford) for the need to "fashion a myth" that might be "of service to our time". This might be a "participative world view" that constructs mind in nature and nature in mind.

How can we know?

Relating has been theorised here as the co-ordination of events. It was further suggested that these may be constructed in anything and everything that might commonly be understood as verbal and non-verbal, as talk and other kinds of action, and as artefacts and as facts of nature. In their theoretical work writers sometimes speak of text - context relations - perhaps, for certain purposes, too suggestive of conceptual language - and sometimes of act - supplement relations, perhaps understating the involvement of what usually would be understood as natural and artificial/made objects. Shifting to a view that joins conceptual language with other forms of text and that decenters humans as ‘knowers and shapers’ in subject-object relations invites and legitimates changed forms of praxis and therefore new constructions of learning

Learning, when eco-logically constructed, could involve less emphasis on conceptual language - perhaps desirable given the limits that conceptual language tools construct and reconstruct. Ecological ways of knowing include ways that are embodied, enchanted, sensual, analogical… joined with the landscapes of our being. Further, shifting attention to relational construction processes is a shift towards the ‘how’ of knowing, relative to knowledge that i.e., propositional knowledge. Finally, and of central interest here, is the invitation to view knowledge and the criteria by which it is evaluated and certified as true, relevant, useful as multiple, local, and contestable rather than singular, general/universal, and independent of power considerations. Our arguments about social construction processes have major implications for education and training. This is especially true given arguments about eco-logical ways of relating – arguments that now enfold (or rather do not separate) individual and organisational learning.