What is RS?

In the last years, we saw the emergence of networks of social scientists working together to develop and diffuse relational sociology (RS), such as what A. Mishe called the “New York School of Relational Sociology” (with C. Tilly, H. White and M. Emirbayer) or “Relational Studies in Sociology”, which is chaired by what could be the first sociologist who used the label RS in the 1980’s, P. Donati. In the last years, panels and congresses have been organized on RS, such as in Berlin in 2008 (organized by J. Fuhse), in Xi’an (China) in 2009 (organized by Yanjie Bian), and in Davis (USA) in 2010 (organized by F. Block). Since 2011, F. Dépelteau and C. Powell have organized panels on RS in the annual congress of the Canadian Sociological Association. Besides, relational thinking has spread in many sub-disciplines in sociology like sociological theory of course, but also to the study of social movements, childhood, gender, emotions, methodology, nationalism, genocides, education, organizations, feminism, social inequalities, violence, and many others. Relational thinking can be found in other disciplines like environmental studies, religious studies, social work, political science, international relations, relational psychoanalysis, relational psychotherapy, philosophy and economy. It is also spreading outside of the academic world through organizations working on issues such as environmental problems, community development and social justice (see the website of Relational Thinking, http://relationalthinking.net/) The creation of this research cluster is part of this fragmented but huge relational turn in social sciences, where so many different approaches, theories, disciplines and sub-disciplines seem to push in some similar directions.

RS has been connected to critical realism, symbolic interactionism, the Actor-Network-Theory of B. Latour and J. Law, network analysis, P. Bourdieu, N. Luhmann, C. Tilly, H. White, M. Foucault, G. Simmel, pragmatism, K. Marx, K. Manheim, A. Schutz, E. Cassirer, N. Elias, M. Mann, and many others. This can be confusing but, at the same time, it is impressive that so many important social scientists and philosophers have been linked to this approach. In fact, many of them explicitly connected their work to RS. RS is usually based on the rejection of some fundamental principles or categories used by many sociologists since the beginning of the discipline. As M. Emirbayer reminded us, the term “relational thinking” “had the quality of fighting words” in the late 1990’s (in Powell and Dépelteau 2013: 209). They were fighting against statistical regression-based approaches and rational choice theory, for instance; but also, and maybe more importantly, against the idea that social phenomena are substances or essences; that actors, as pre-given entities, can be defined outside of social relations – as if we could understand what they are doing outside the social relations they are embedded in. Accordingly, most of the relational thinkers try to move beyond classical dualisms such as objectivism/subjectivism, nature/culture, mind/body, social structures/agency or individual/society. Something is what it is in relation to something else.