The Relational Gaze on a Changing Society

by Paolo Terenzi (Volume editor) Elisabetta Carrà (Volume editor)
©2019 Edited Collection 316 Pages


Relational sociology is coming increasingly to the fore on the international academic stage. As it invariably happens in such circumstances, when a new paradigm attracts a growing number of scholars, researchers and practitioners, it is almost inevitably interpreted and identified in many different ways. This book aims to highlight the specific nature of relational sociology, disseminates knowledge about the relational approach which has been developed in Italy and in Europe starting from the work of Pierpaolo Donati, and confronts this approach with issues which are currently much debated in social theory, social research and social work. The authors try to consolidate the directions taken in the research field in order to distinguish relational sociology from other approaches which are not relational, or are only so to a certain degree.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Preface
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Part I The Relational Gaze: Theoretical Studies
  • The Sociological Gaze: When, How and Why Is It Relational?
  • Interaction, Transaction and Relation. Ideas for a Closer Comparison of Emirbayer and Donati’s Relational Outlooks
  • The Sociology of Guy Bajoit: between a Relational Paradigm and Relational Individualism
  • Relational Aspects of the Third Sector Today
  • Discovering the Relational Relevance of Reciprocity
  • The Emergence of Crowdsourcing as a Relational Work
  • Part II The Relational Gaze: Research Studies
  • A Multigenerational Point of View: The Contribution of Relational Sociology
  • Analysing Family Social Capital in a Relational Perspective: A Pilot Research in Northern Italy
  • The Operationalisation of Functional Intergenerational Solidarity in the Family: Findings from Research Carried Out in Spain
  • Social Capital and Familiness in Primary Childcare Services: A Study of Families with Children 0–3 Years Old in Italy
  • Relations, Trust, Actualisation: Postmodern Short Circuits
  • The Crisis of European Citizenship in a Relational Perspective
  • Part III The Relational Gaze on Social Work
  • The Relational Social Work: Principles and Methods
  • Foster Care as a Relational Practice. A Quantitative Research on Case Files of the Juvenile Court of Milan
  • The Participatory Research Approach. Suggestions by the Relational Social Work Method
  • Decision-Making in Child Protection. The Family Group Conferences Model
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Contributors

Pierpaolo Donati

The Sociological Gaze: When, How and Why Is It Relational?

1 The thematizing of the human gaze

When we and others observe a painting, a sculpture, a view, the scene of an accident or a televised event, the object remains the same for everyone. In other words, everyone is observing the same reality; however, each of us describes it and sees it in a different way. Each of us perceives and focuses on different aspects of observed reality, depending on the individual sensitivity each of us possesses. This happens even when we are faced with numerical or other purely quantitative entities. Everyone “sees” the same numbers or quantities, but each “looks at” them in different ways.

For example, if we look at the figures for the increasing number of children born out of wedlock in various countries, the figures themselves are the same for all observers, but the way they are perceived will invariably differ. Everyone will see something different: some will see this phenomenon as a sign of a crisis of the family as an institution; others will see it as a sign of the greater freedom of parents, while some will perceive it as an indication of a changing civilisation, and so on and so forth. So why is it that each observer sees things differently, and offers different explanations and accounts for the very same observed things?

The easiest answer is that everything depends on the observer, that is, on the individual observer’s own way of being and of operating. In recent decades, this idea has been transformed by mainstream social sciences into a radically constructivist gaze, whereby the aforesaid observations differ simply because each person ‘constructs’ observed reality in his/her own way. This response is certainly true to an extent, but it does not provide any thorough explanation. It fails to account for the fact that individual observations depend on the groups that observers belong to and refer to, that is, on those collective ‘cultural models’ that are neither invented nor decided by individuals, but constitute the premises for their observations.

Hence the further question: does all of this thus depend on the observer? And can individual gazes be compared?

Undoubtedly each observer looks at reality in his/her own way, but the question remains as to whether these ‘ways’ are simply subjective and self-referential. I shall reformulate my answer by saying that the difference between what is ←11 | 12→observed and what is perceived, processed and described by the observer certainly depends on the observer’s ‘gaze’, but this gaze is not something constructed entirely by the observer; on the contrary, it represents a complex relationship between the observer and the observed, and as such, this relationship is subject to forms of mediation and to conditions that can be compared in terms of their premises and consequences.

The radical constructivist position may be criticised if one can sustain the belief that a gaze is not a purely self-referential ‘operation’ performed by an observing system, but rather a questioning of what is observed in order to find a meaning that is not merely dictated by the observer. It is not simply a reflection of the observer’s individual sensitivity, but is a comment made by the observer in regard to the relationship between subject and object in a sociocultural context. So, who is the viewing subject?

What is required here is a better grasp of the concept of ‘gaze’, that is, an analysis and understanding of precisely what an individual gaze consists in, so as to be able to compare one gaze with another. Although a gaze (the act of gazing) is something specific to the individual observer, this act is performed within a context that significantly influences the act itself. We ought to be able to explain that the differences between gazes are the result of the diverse relationships between observers and their relational context. This framework enables us to compare gazes expressing different visions of what is being observed. In order to do so, as I shall explain, an appropriate use must be made of reflexivity.

It is clear that a gaze may be reflexive to a lesser or greater degree, and may utilise different methods of reflexivity (Donati 2011a). If we were to ask people to describe, at first sight, a half-filled glass, it is a well-known fact that some would see it as a glass half full, while others would see it as a half-empty glass. This shows the self-referential nature of a gaze ‘at first sight’, which makes the difference. However, a person’s view of an object may go beyond this, and reflect on itself. It may reach the conclusion that the difference is only apparent, since the reality is the same. In fact, this is simply the case of a glass that has been half-filled. However, in order to take this latter step, a second observation is required in regard to the first observation; that is, reflection on the first relation is called for: this second action is what is termed the ‘reflexive gaze’.

In Greek, the term ‘theory’ (theoros, θεωρος) is synonymous with ‘gazing at’, ‘having a look at’. The fact that the two terms (theory and gaze) are synonymous tells us that in some way they are identical, while in another way they are dissimilar. In cases like this, we can only understand a term if we see it in relation to the other term. This means that a gaze reflects a theory (which implies an awareness), and the theory reflects a gaze (it is a questioning) characterised by a certain reflexivity.

←12 |

I shall try to explain what I mean by gaze in general, and shall then focus on the scientific gaze in relation to the sociological gaze.

2 The gaze as a relation

What do I mean by a ‘gaze’? According to relational sociology, a gaze is not only a way of processing subjective perceptions, but also a way of relating to what we observe. In this present work, I basically refer to the gazes of human beings. I know that in everyday language, people talk about gazes, looks or expressions also in regard to non-human beings and androids (a cat’s sweet expression, a dog’s affectionate gaze or the friendly expression of a robot). However, I believe that the term ‘gaze’ or ‘expression’ of an animal or a robot is used in a very broad (vague) analogic manner compared to the concept of the human gaze. The fashionable belief that the gaze of robots, just like that of many species of animals, is similar to that of humans, raises an ontological problem, namely that of knowing whether non-human beings are ontologically capable of the same relations that characterise human beings. In my view (Donati 2019) they are not.

Obviously, even a lion observing its prey adopts a certain ‘gaze’. In fact, some people believe that even human beings, when they act as mere animals, adopt a similar expression or gaze to that of animals. That is not exactly true, however, since a human being who observes the world as an animal does cannot be seen as a mere animal from the ontological point of view. The differences between the gaze of human animals and that of non-human animals are substantial. Where does the difference lie between the human gaze and that of non-humans?

The human gaze constitutes a relational action performed by a subject who: (i) processes perceptions on the basis of the constitution of their body/mind, and (ii) on the basis of their own concerns, (iii) bearing in mind the context, and reflecting on that context in a more or less knowing manner, by diverse means of reflection. The human gaze represents a complex interweaving of circumstances and values (Gorski 2013). The referential link between the human observer and the observed reality (including virtual reality) always comprises a moral aspect.

This uniqueness is not only the result of the diverse nature of humans’ mind-body complex compared to that of living beings, although this is of course of substantial importance. We need to look beyond this point to fully comprehend the phenomenology of the human gaze, which depends on how a human being experiments and lives out his/her existential relationship with the world. The uniqueness of the human gaze is the result of a whole series of factors: the history of the observer, the culture in which that person is immerged, the circumstances of that person and a number of other agency-dependent and context-dependent ←13 | 14→factors. For the purposes of the present study, what I want to do here is to highlight the fact that this uniqueness lies in the specifically relational nature of human beings, and in the diverse causal qualities and properties of those relations that they create. This relationality cannot be presupposed a priori, but has to be established on the basis of experience and scientific research.

As a rule, the human gaze is not simply recognition of that which lies before us, but is an act motivated by the need to respond to the demand for knowledge and the evaluation of that which generates such demand. Saying “I see you” is not the same as saying “I’m gazing at you.” The human gaze reflects a cognitive need resulting from emotions and feelings of a moral nature. Emotions and feelings may be positive (that is, of sympathy, empathy, exaltation, etc.) or negative (that is, of fear, repulsion, rejection, etc.).

However, there is also the apathetic or indifferent gaze which requires separate consideration since it denotes the fact that the observer has distanced him/herself from the observed object or person to the point where he or she is ‘mentally absent’ or incapable of relating to the latter, or has no desire to do so. Another specific kind of gaze is when you stare at a person, in your state of surprise or ‘paralysis’, that is, when you are incapable of looking away simply because you cannot work out what it is that you are looking at. This is the case, for example, when a person stares at a physically disabled or ‘strange’ person and remains stunned due to a strong sense of unease and anxiety (Garland Thomson 2009).

Briefly speaking, the human gaze is the adoption of a point of view for the purposes of observation; and as such, it selects what the observer wishes to know on the basis of an inclination or a concern, which may be more or less specific, in the search for the answer to a question coming from within the subject (it is agency dependent), and is always stimulated by a given context (it is context dependent). The question can be more specifically defined, such as when one says, “See if they’ve brought the milk yet!”, “See that the child isn’t in danger!” or “Look in the drawer and see if you can find the keys!”; or it may be less specifically defined, such as when one says, “Have a look at the market situation and see how things are going!”, “See whether things in the neighbourhood function properly!” or “Have you had a look at today’s newspapers to see if there’s anything that may interest us?”

All human beings share a certain capacity to observe the world: however, they do so in many different ways. That is, they may do so by exercising ‘good sense’ or ‘common sense’, or they may do so in a more sophisticated, reflexive manner, as when looking at the world from a scientific point of view.

Let us take, for example, a policy maker’s view of the needs of those families living in the policy maker’s administrative district. What kind of view is ←14 | 15→adopted here? Does the policy maker see things from the viewpoint of the political system, or from that of the families concerned? Clearly the observations made will be very different in the two cases. If the policy maker sees things from the viewpoint of the political system, then he/she will meet the interests of political action, considering the families at the addressees of public action. If, on the other hand, he/she sees matters from the families’ point of view, his/her gaze will reflect the independent requirements of lifeworlds. The relational approach reveals that these two different ways of looking at things may be contrasted by highlighting the differences between them; however, relations may also be established between them in order to see where, how and why they differ, and whether they have, or could have, something in common. It emphasises the fact that the analysis and evaluation of different viewpoints – those of the political system and those of lifeworlds – are not separate, but are indeed interdependent. Therefore, it proposes to adopt another gaze, the one that arises from the perspective of the relationship between the point of view of the political system and that of families. To situate oneself from the viewpoint of the relationship between the two terms offers a better understanding of the operation and interaction of the terms of the relationship itself.

To ask for a viewpoint is to ask for a relation. The relation remains invisible, but it materialises in a process that has to produce a certain outcome (or that one would expect it have, at least). It is a definite relationship that takes care to grasp what an object, person or situation may suggest, as a response to a more or less precise question posed by the observer. Thus the gaze is in itself a complex combination of cognitive, emotional and symbolic elements, all of which conceal practical aims and also moral needs. For example, when a woman asks her partner to “have a look at that website and see whether the children should really be looking at it.”

A gaze may be an events-based relation consisting of simple interactions (a gaze focused on an event, lasting the time of interaction), or it may become an emergent relation when it takes on a certain structure and duration (duréè). In the latter case, it materialises in the form of stable behaviour or as a practical action in response to certain concerns. What needs to be established is whether a gaze takes one or the other of these two forms. This depends on the type of relation that the observer establishes with those things concerning him/her. Observers who fail to consider the relational nature of their own gaze may well remain reflexive within, in their inner thoughts, but the gaze as such remains irreflexive if their attention is not focused on the very relationship with the object. For example, if I say to a companion, during a hiking trip in the mountains, “have a look at the map to make sure we’re on the right path,” I’m asking that person to ←15 | 16→situate the map in an appropriate relationship with the area around, and to reflect on our position in relation to the map and the context.

The unreflective look is that of those who observe people and things by accepting the observations of others that influence their own observation in an uncritical way. For example, Boda (2018) has demonstrated how the friendship relationship influences the observation and attribution of race identity among students1. Self-identification and observed race are theoretically and empirically related to each other. The long-known concept of the looking-glass self suggests that self and identity develop via interactions with others in society as a context. Studies on reflected appraisals show that indeed, self- identification is strongly influenced by others: people tend to conform to external judgments about their racial membership. Social ties affect racial perceptions through within-group micromechanisms, resulting in discrepancies between racial self-identifications and race as classified by others. This research exemplifies how personal racial identity passes through relationships with others and is more influenced by such relationships the more the subject lacks both personal and relational reflexivity.

In order to understand the human gaze as a way of relating to what we are observing, it may be a good idea to analyse it using the MINV (means – intention – norm – value) diagram shown in Fig. 1.

The gaze has an intentional object (I), which implies, albeit latently, a value given to having a look at something or someone (V), that is, a value in having that relation. It is performed through the cognitive means (epistemology and instruments) utilised by the observer, who possesses a mind and body (M), depending on the various ways (N) by which the object, the value of the relation and the observer’s cognitive means relate to one another. Let us examine the structure of the gaze (MINV) in greater detail.

(I) The intentional object may be definite or indefinite, generic or specific, and may be a thing to be recounted or which to reflect upon in a certain way.

(V) The value attributed to the gaze, insofar as it points to an interest in being party to a relation, may consist simply in recognition of the object of one’s gaze, or in recognition thereof in order to act with regard to such. A gaze implies, nevertheless, the recognition of something or someone. What do we mean by recognising something or someone? As far as relational sociology is concerned, such recognition implies three steps: (i) a focus on what is seen in order to identify it (for example, I see a person and think to myself “that appears to be John”); ←16 | 17→(ii) validation of said identity through personal reflection (for example, I strain my eyes and say, “Yes, that’s is John”); (iii) the choice of approach to whom or what I have recognised, that is, whether or not to relate to that person or thing, and what type of relation to establish with such; this is where relational reflexivity comes into play (that is, reflecting on the relation as such), which may lead one to avoid recognition, or to accept it and establish a relation with that person or thing (the completed relational gaze); this is how relational negatives (avoidance and rejection) and positives (acceptance and recognition) arise, respectively.

(M) The instruments employed when gazing at something/someone obviously depend on those that the observer possesses. These instruments may be seen as part of the observer’s ‘epistemology’, that is, his/her capacity to ‘see inside’ (intus legere, gain insight into) what is being observed. One may wonder whether robots may possess the ability to ‘gaze’ in this manner. I would say that they do not, as long as the relations between robots and humans remain ontologically different from those among humans. If I say to my domestic robot “see if you can find that book,” the robot can of course look for the book, and perhaps it is more ←17 | 18→capable of finding the book than I am, but the robot’s searching for the book is a functional service, and cannot be compared to my view of the book, which I am attached to by certain feelings and intentions.

(N) The three previously-mentioned aspects of the gaze (I-intentional object, V-value of the gaze, and M-means used) are combined in different ways (according to a different norm or rule) which may be random to a certain degree, or may be guided by diverse combinations of practices and rules.

3 The scientific gaze

The scheme depicted in Fig. 1 may apply to people’s gazes during the course of their everyday lives, as well as to the gaze of the scientist observing an object. I am now going to examine the gaze of the person carrying out scientific work.

The scientific gaze tries to render the observer’s work ‘rigorous’. Exactly what ‘rigorous’ means is debatable. For classical scientists it means appropriate to the object of one’s observation, controlled, replicable, devoid of any distortion, whereas for those sciences based on constructivism, such terms lose their value given that the gaze creates, even imagines, its object. In any case, each science has more than one way of looking at reality, depending on how each of them constructs its relation with reality (in the components of MINV, intentions and value attributed to the gaze, instruments and means of use).

What happens is similar to when you switch on a light in a room: what you see depends on various factors: on what the person switching on the light wishes to see, on the observer’s visual capacity and on the characteristics of the device projecting the rays of light in terms of their colour, their intensity and their capacity to penetrate the objects in question. Each instrument possesses different qualities and powers, and each observer is interested in seeing different things.

From this point of view, important questions of social ontology, epistemology and social practices emerge.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (December)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 316 pp., 11 fig. b/w, 27 tables.

Biographical notes

Paolo Terenzi (Volume editor) Elisabetta Carrà (Volume editor)

Elisabetta Carrà is full Professor of Sociology of Cultural and Communicative Processes in the Faculty of Psychology at the Catholic University of Milan (Italy). She is a member of the scientific committee of the Family Studies and Research University Centre (Catholic University of Milan). Paolo Terenzi is Associate Professor of Sociology of Cultural Processes at the University of Bologna and secretary of the "Relational Studies in Sociology" network.


Title: The Relational Gaze on a Changing Society
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