Relational Reason, Morals and Sociality

by Elżbieta Hałas (Volume editor) Aleksander Manterys (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 250 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Focusing on Relations, Reason and Morality (Elżbieta Hałas and Aleksander Manterys)
  • Relational Sociology for Good Society
  • Pierpaolo Donati: The Good Society Is One that Creates Relational Goods
  • Sergio Belardinelli: The Social and Moral Dimension of the Relational Paradigm
  • Elżbieta Hałas: Relational Care: Rethinking Altruism
  • Aleksander Manterys: Social Bonds and the Relational Nature of Embeddedness
  • Social Relations and Good Life
  • Elisabetta Carrà: Reflexivity: A Crucial Resource for the Challenge of Family Well- Being
  • Anna Horolets: Is Sociability Conducive to Good Life? Migrants’ Leisure Pursuits in a Relational Perspective
  • Michał Federowicz: Relational Good(s) and Technology in Education
  • Andrzej Szpociński: A Question About the Subject of Social Memory and Common Knowledge About the Past
  • Michał Łuczewski: Nation as a Primordializing Subject: Florian Znaniecki and the Foundations of Relational Sociology
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • List of Tables and Figures

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Elżbieta Hałas and Aleksander Manterys

Introduction: Focusing on Relations, Reason and Morality

Following some of the leitmotifs in relational sociology, i.e. the issues of relational reason and relational goods (Donati 2009, 2011: 157–158, 2015c: 198–228), this volume presents studies that tackle these issues, either at the theoretical level or through research on selected areas of social life.

In the book’s title, the term “relational” directly accompanies the term “reason,” but relational understanding also includes morality and sociality. The relational approach undoubtedly requires explanation. It should be noted, however, that this book is the result of a narrowly scoped team venture within relational sociology, and thus cannot meet the expectation that it will contain an in-depth study and interpretation of these key notions. For now, let us pause at the general statement that each of these categories separately, i.e. reason, morality, and sociality, requires relational understanding, and all of them remain mutually related. The subsequent texts in this book reveal a relational key that opens up new cognitive opportunities. This introductory discussion offers only a brief outline of the issues of sociality, morality and rationality configured anew as part of the relational approach in sociology.

We should start by characterizing the relational sense of sociality. It is neither possible nor necessary to explicate it in depth here. For now, let us contrast the holistic concept of society with sociality. It is worth noting at this point that a radically different understanding of sociality already lets us avoid reproducing the theoretical discourse that contrasted the notion of the individual with the notion of society as a collective being. Georg Simmel was an early opponent of this dichotomy of individualism and collectivism; relational sociology also takes a stand against it.

Simmel introduced the notion of sociality (Vergesellschaftung), which, unlike society (Gesellschaft), is a cornerstone of the founding tradition of modern relational sociology. Obviously, Simmel abandoned the substantialist understanding of society as the entirety of phenomena of collective life occurring in a space identified with territoriality. He innovatively initiated a relational approach par excellence in sociology, not only proposing a conceptualization of relational analysis of the phenomena of social life, but above all bringing to light the processes that underlie the formation of social ties. Sociality involves various modalities of ←7 | 8→interpersonal relations based on reciprocal interaction, which Simmel termed Wechselwirkung (Simmel 1908). Reciprocal interaction is the unique quality, or differentia specifica, of a notion of relations that refers to the very basis of the constitution of social being (Hałas 2019), including relational subjects.

When Simmel used the notion of forms of sociality, he did not intend to remove its content (especially moral meanings) from the center of sociological interest, since reciprocal interaction implies normativity that emerges in relations. Thus, Simmel opened the way both to research on sociality in the relational sense and to research on morality as a relational phenomenon. This allows the focus to be shifted from the dominant ideational order of performances that regulate collective life, i.e. from axionormative models, to subjects that need reciprocal recognition and enter into interaction with one another. However, the pull of collective ideas and moral norms was so strong that sociology did not advance far enough toward a consistently relational analysis of morality to propose satisfactory solutions to the problems posed by the dynamics of modern cultural differentiation. A more or less explicit tendency to subjugate the sociological perspective to normative ethics did not help; neither did unsuccessful attempts to replace ethics by sociology, which proclaims the relativity of norms and polytheism of values (Boudon 2000). The oppressive potential of morality as a collective phenomenon made it a target for criticism (Skorupski 2010: 393) and marginalization in sociology, as expressed by the opposition between the normative and interpretive paradigm (T.P. Wilson 1974). Thus, one of the goals of the modern relational perspective is to restore moral problems to their proper rank from the perspective of sociology, as shown by the issue of relational reason.

Reason, Rationale and Relationality

The concept of relational reason arises from criticism directed against notions of rationality limited either to rationality of the individual or to rationality of the social system (Terenzi 2016: 199). This concept takes a stand against a one-sided focus on the issues of instrumental rationality (such rationality is typical for modern culture, which is fixated on effectiveness and efficiency), precisely such a focus dominates in the social sciences. Relational reason, on the other hand, manifests itself in several dimensions of rationality: in the cognitive dimension through symbolic means of expressing relations; in a good rationale for the existence of relations; in the norms and rules that govern relations, and finally in the values toward which relational reason turns (Donati 2008: 96). In this way, various dimensions of rationality (including those conceptualized by ←8 | 9→Max Weber as Zweckrationalität and Wertrationalität) manifest themselves in social relations and through relations, rather than in the subjective orientation of actors. The innovative concept of relational reason outlined by Pierpaolo Donati requires fuller reconstruction, interpretation and criticism; it can only be briefly presented here.

An inevitable question arises: how should relational reason be understood in relation to theoretical reason and practical reason? The relational approach by definition cuts across deeply rooted dichotomies and oppositions; hence, relational reason should not be associated only with theoretical reason, nor (as it might seem, given its place in reciprocal interactions and social relations) only with practical reason.

Theoretical reason, or theoretical rationality, raises the question of what judgments should be considered true or what beliefs should be held. On the other hand, practical reason tackles the problem of what should be done. In the first case, the focus is on truth; in the second case, on good. In the past, these issues used to be considered separately, in line with the distinction between factual judgments and value judgments.

In sociology, a discussion about relational reason must take into account the broader problems of reason, rationale, and rationality which are the subject of philosophical debates, especially in the field of philosophy of morality. Sociologists need philosophers of values (Znaniecki 1952). Especially relational sociologists may seek further support for the concept of relational reason in modern philosophical debates which criticize the opposition between theoretical reason and practical reason. Here, we only signal the importance of this philosophical debate for relational sociology.

First of all, it is worth noting that not only practical reason is subject to specific normativity, but theoretical reason as well, and this issue is raised here. Furthermore, when considering theoretical reason (the rationale behind accepting certain judgments or conclusions; being convinced of something) and practical reason (the rationale behind doing something), the rationality of feelings is also taken into account; namely, the rationale behind feeling certain emotions or sentiments. The rationale behind believing (holding beliefs), acting in a certain way or feeling something forms three groups of reasons: epistemic reasons, practical reasons and evaluative reasons, respectively (Skorupski 2010: 35–36).

Rationale is not immutable in time and may be convincing to varying degrees; this is consistent with relational reason being an emergent phenomenon, just as social relations are emergent (Donati 2011: 217–224). The dynamic perception of rationale results from treating it as relations between facts, persons and ←9 | 10→their beliefs, actions and feelings (Skorupski 2010: 36). This approach to the relationality of reason leads to the issue of taking into account the rationale of various subjects that remain in relations. Relationality in this second sense raises no doubts, because judgments regarding rationale always pertain to the rationale of other people (Scanlon 1998: 73).

Perhaps the biggest challenge is both theoretically and practically developing the concept of relational reason and its implications for social order under conditions of globalization. The concept of relational reason addresses problems of the multicultural world and of civic coexistence, which requires reflexivity. This concept addresses vital issues of sociality in the contemporary world of increasingly conflicting valuations, in which cultural differences become fault lines threatening peaceful coexistence.

Neutralization of moral and ethical discourse in the social sciences has gone hand in hand with a growing domination of instrumental rationality in all spheres of modern societies. Relational sociology draws attention to non-instrumental and non-utilitarian aspects of sociality that reach beyond the functional. While researchers of modernity and postmodernity have focused on processes of demoralization in the sense of a loss of moral reference points in various spheres of human activity (B. Wilson 2003), relational sociology describes and explains the phenomenon of sociality as a moral one. It focuses on relational goods, bringing the issue of the “good society” (Bellah et al. 1991) back into focus. Shaping a civil society emphatically indicates why it is necessary to reflect upon relational reason.

Disputes Regarding Relations

Another issue that needs addressing here are the different standpoints regarding relations in general. Of primary importance is the problem of the ontological status of relations, which also underlies the differences between diverse variants of the relational approach in social sciences and relational sociology. Simply contrasting the notions of substance and relation and indicating the second notion as the unquestioned starting point for relational sociology (Dépelteau 2018) is rather superficial and does not tackle the essence of the problem. Namely, while various approaches presently claim to be relational, their outlook on relations and relationality is varied, although they do not always explicitly declare their assumed ontology of relations. Even a cursory review of disputes about relations in the field of philosophy (where the discussion about relational ontology is now lively, although it has been going on for centuries) gives some ←10 | 11→idea of the importance of this problem. Hence, these issues are worth presenting in more detail.

The question about the ontological status of relations, as shown in a review of the philosophical discussion (Heil 2009), pertains primarily to whether relations are only a product of the mind or exist in the world independently of the mind. The answers can be grouped into three stances: hyperrealism, antirealism, and moderate realism.

According to the hyperrealist stance, only relations exist in the world and constitute the basis of reality. It is worth noting that from the perspective of classic realistic metaphysics this would be an antirealist stance, since it negates the existence of substantive beings. According to the antirealist stance, relations exist only as products of the mind. On the other hand, moderate realism recognizes that relations are real, but does not consider them separate entities.

It is emphasized that many modern thinkers voice a thesis that used to be completely unthinkable for centuries: that relations are more fundamental than the world’s non-relational qualities. This is illustrated by the metaphor of “the world as a graph:” objects are defined by the relations they enter into or by their relations with other objects (MacBride 2016). The opponents of such a stance consider it unjustified, arguing that relations cannot be considered independently of relata, i.e. the relation components. Without relata, relations (e.g. the relation r of A and B that exist side by side) would have no point of reference. While the strong version of this thesis states that there is nothing else in the world except relations, according to the weaker version, the world can only be described in relational terms. For centuries, the issue of relations did not play a key role because, following Aristotle’s example, relations were considered only one of the categories of accidental existence, dependent on substance. In the long history of ideas, the relation began to gain prominence only in the late nineteenth century, thanks to the development of modern science, because relational language proved indispensable.

From the beginning of the twentieth century, discussions on relations revolve around the distinction between internal and external relations. By internal relations we mean relations that are significant for the relata, as in the case of a larger and smaller number. However, if external relations did not exist, every object would necessarily and significantly also possess relational qualities. This is a line of argumentation against the reality of relations and against the legitimacy of relational ontology. However, the language of science is relational, and the scientific vision of the world inevitably raises ontological questions.

The cited variety of ontological positions regarding the existence of relations also manifests itself in diverse views regarding the relationality of social reality. ←11 | 12→However, ontological assumptions are not always expressed explicitly and do not necessarily take into account the arguments that appear in philosophical disputes about relations.

Relational Thinking in Social Sciences

Discussing the relational turn (Hałas, Donati 2017) often meets with understandable skepticism, since broadly understood social theory has focused on relations almost from its very beginning.

Referring to the meaning of relation, one can indicate a variety of contexts, ranging from anthropology, through economics, psychology, political science, to sociology, in which the term plays an important analytical role. The relational turn caused the rise of the relational movement in social sciences. The relational movement is a very visible fact in the global flow of ideas. To avoid sinking into vain contemplation of this statement, it is worth pointing out the principle of organization, which not so much codifies the contexts of this flow, but rather poses the theoretical framework for the interpretation of events related to intellectual prosperity around relationality.

Since disciplinary transgression is an obvious must, it is worth looking at, in grosso modo, what reasons for the “relational turn” or “relational movement” are also formulated outside sociology and in interdisciplinary research areas. The example of political science is interesting in many ways, but at the same time typical. At the end of the 1950s, mainly thanks to Robert Dahl (1957), the belief that power is a relational phenomenon is real in the dimension in which it is exercised; power is neither possessive nor substantial (Bachrach, Baratz 1962, 1963). Patrick T. Jackson and Daniel H. Nexon (1999), referring to the famous manifesto of Mustafa Emirbayer (1997), explicitly state that configurations of ties, considered on the set of social transactions, constitute the material for building the theory. Analysis of processes and relations in the terms of configurations, projects and yoking allows us to understand or explain the shaping, duration and modification of entities. Instances of borrowing and inspirations from outside the disciplinary reference point are numerous. It is impossible to write about configurations without recalling the findings of Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu or to analyze social processes and movements without responding to Charles Tilly. The relational approach is an incentive to reorient one’s thinking in dialogue with other approaches to construct new and better analytical tools, better suited to central issues in a particular discipline or research area.

Recognition of politics as a relational phenomenon means the search for relational patterns, characteristics of political activities and institutions at many levels. ←12 | 13→“Power – the central construct of political science – is intrinsically relational, where power exists between actors and among actors in a complex, differentiated fashion” (McClurg, Lazer 2014: 1). Peeter Selg (2016: 27–28), commenting on the relational turn in political science, which was made thanks to social network analysis (and recognition of power as a relational phenomenon), sees further challenges. “Relationalization” as the emblem of the relational turn means many types of activity, even a discussion of where to look for strengthening or legitimizing one’s own stance: in critical realism, social network analysis, interactionism, the neoinstitutional approach, and maybe in the classical findings of John Dewey, George H. Mead, Georg Simmel or Florian Znaniecki.

Moreover, it is possible to reconfigure the topics of classic and modern social theory in a relational perspective, in order to be able to address the ongoing rapid changes in social and cultural formations. In these processes, cultural knowledge, its semantics and reflexivity play a fundamental role, making the new relational orientation especially significant.

A broad foundational consensus does not seem absolutely necessary. On the contrary, examples of earlier intellectual movements in the twentieth century, such as neopositivism, pragmatism or phenomenology, show that maintaining a necessary unity of perspective is possible simultaneously with a relatively high degree of heterogeneity, which is indispensable for creative development.

The relational approach aims to transcend such dualistic pairs of opposing concepts as individual – society, microsocial dimension – macrosocial dimension, individualism – holism, facts – values, cognition – action, theoretical reason – practical reason. The aim is to reevaluate the relational grounds of society and culture along with their normativity, and the dilemma of social control and attempts to break this control, typical for modernity and postmodernity.

Questions – sometimes doubts – around the characteristics of the relational turn and postulates of decisive departure from established patterns, along with a better consolidation of one’s own approach, characterize other disciplines. In the area of education, Daniel A. McFarland, David Diehl, and Craig Rawlings (2011) note the growing importance of social network analysis, wondering whether and to what extent it can contribute to tackling issues that otherwise are hard to squeeze into existing frames. If one considers that the “external reality,” both in the sense of changes in the social world and the academic environment, is subject to significant transformations, as evidenced by the discourse around the growing importance of social networks, whatever is named a turn actually means a thorough reconstruction of the educational process “in terms of the fluid and changing relationship between actors and the networks in which they are embedded” (McFarland, Diehl, Rawlings 2011: 89).

Biographical notes

Elżbieta Hałas (Volume editor) Aleksander Manterys (Volume editor)

Elżbieta Hałas is a Full Professor of Sociology at the University of Warsaw. Her research interests are relational sociology, cultural sociology, social symbolism, and interpretative approaches. Member of the Scientific Committee of the “Relational Studies in Sociology“ network. Aleksander Manterys is a Full Professor of Sociology at University of Warsaw. His research interests are relational sociology, interaction order, and sociological theory.


Title: Relational Reason, Morals and Sociality