Relational thinking is a way of seeing the world that places greater precedence on the relations or connections between entities rather than simply looking at those entities as discrete. The main overarching principle in the relational paradigm is a shift in one’s perception from seeing a fixed world, made up of things and their properties, to seeing a world that is primarily made of relations and connectivity.1 Throughout the sciences, relational theories in general, are frameworks for understanding physical or social systems in such a way that the elements of interest are only meaningful in relation to other entities, i.e. through their relations.2 With the rise of network theory and computation, relational approaches have developed within many different areas over the past few decades. There are now relational theories within physics,3 sociology,4 psychology,5 international relations6 and many more.
The traditional analytical approach taken within modern science is to understand the world through focusing on the properties of discrete parts, holding these as ontologically primary i.e. separate objects or entities are what are seen to be real, and one must have these entities before one can have relations between them.7 In a paper entitled “What is Relational Thinking?” Didier Debaise describes this component-based paradigm as such “A paradigm which has crossed modernity and which deploys itself, more or less implicitly, at every level of knowledge, in the orientations given to practices, in the way of relating to experience. This paradigm is that of ‘being–individual.’ One can say, very schematically, that modernity will have been… a research almost exclusively on the conditions of existence, the reasons, modalities and characteristics of the individual, granting it, implicitly or explicitly, an ontological privilege to the constituted individual.”8 Reductionism is an attempt to trace back all phenomena to basic elementary parts and how those parts generate direct cause and effect interactions. A classical example of this is methodological individualism, which is the requirement that causal accounts of social phenomena explain how they result from the motivations and actions of individual agents, at least in principle.9 The analytical reductionist paradigm excludes the idea that relations – how two or more things interact – can actually be the source in itself shaping those elementary parts.
The synthetic approach of systems thinking is instead focused on the relations between the parts, it posits that the relations between parts – and whole networks of relations that form the context – can and do shape the constituent parts in a two-way reciprocal relation. Within the systems paradigm, “causes” are not traced back to the properties of component parts but instead are seen to derive from the relations between things. In particular, how whole networks of interconnections that form the context or environment can shape the individual parts.
For example, two objects may have a particular color when looked at in separation, but when we place them side-by-side in relation to each other, the initial objects’ colors may appear different. The properties of the objects’ colors have not changed, but they appear different because a relation has been added to them and it is this relation that is affecting the perceived properties of the elements. As another example one could cite global cities like Singapore or Dubai which are a product of the context of globalization, they are enabled and defined by global networks of connection, air traffic, logistic and financial networks, etc. These global cities are not entirely created by the local context but instead are defined largely by the global connections that shape them.
One of the most extraordinary examples of this within physics would be quantum entanglement, whereby two subatomic particles interact and become what is called “entangled” with another, meaning their spin, position or other properties become linked or interdependent. If one then makes a measurement of one particle, that then instantaneously determines the other particle’s state. There is no manifest interaction between them instead it is this relationship of entanglement that alters the properties of the parts. These examples help to illustrate how certain properties, features, and dynamics only emerge out of the interaction between things, and they are governed by the nature of those interactions; thus it is important to use a relational paradigm to understand these phenomena.
Synthesis and Analysis
The systems paradigm argues for a balance between the analytical approach, focused on parts, and the synthetic approach focused on relations. An over-emphasis on the parts can lead to a narrow process of reasoning that creates its own limitations. For example, by focusing on the individual parts of society we derive the conception of the rational individual, i.e. the individual that is driven solely or primarily by their own internal logic. This understanding of the rational agent then leads to defining any human action that is not logically reasoned through by the individual – which is a large section of human behavior – as irrational and unexplainable. Most humans do not rationally and logically reason through what they chose to do or believe. Instead, they act based on the context and their connections with others. People adopt a particular belief or opinion because it fits in with their culture – their connections with others that form their socio-cultural context – these choices are not derived from the individual making a logical decision.
Thus simply trying to understand human behavior as a function of the internally generated motives of the individual is very much limited.10 Likewise trying to describe all phenomena in terms of connections and context results in an equally limited perception. To gain a complete understanding of some phenomena, it is required that a relational paradigm is used to complement and balance this perspective.
The relational paradigm leads to an inversion of our traditional conception where discrete entities exist within an inert space creating actions, interactions, and relations. From the relational perspective, relations are what define how entities act and react; it is the network of connections around an entity that creates the context for its behavior or form. For example, when looking at a sculpture, we often assume it is simply the inherent properties of that item that define it. But a sculpture is made up of what is called positive and negative space.11 Positive space refers to the object itself, while negative space is the space around the sculpture that gives it form, context and through which we interpret it.
This is analogous to the shift in perception brought about by the rise of modern physics. Newtonian classical physics saw the environment of space and time as essentially absolute, exerting no influence, it was the object that affected change and interaction. General relativity changed this though to a new perspective where space and time are a fabric and events are a product of an interaction between the object and this space-time fabric. Here again, the interactions and context is an active agent in shaping events and outcomes, we can not reduce everything to a description of the parts.
The relational paradigm fundamentally alters our perception of space. The traditional component based conception of space is relative to objects and their physical extension, which creates a three-dimensional Euclidean space; one that is absolute in that it just exists and is not affected by the changes in components or connections. The relational paradigm though alters this perception of space in that relations are defined by exchanges of some kind, along every connection something is transferred, information, money, heat, light, trust, etc. how “close” things are to each other is relative to how easily something can be exchanged through the connection. The easier it is to exchange something between two elements the “closer” they are, and thus within this paradigm, there is not absolute space but instead, distance is defined by connections and ease of transfer.
For example, if we take three people standing equidistance beside each other, when looking at this system from a component based perspective we would see three people in some absolute space where they are at equal distance from each other. But when looking at this system from the perspective of connections, we would see a social network where two of the people are possibly friends and the exchange between them is much greater and easier. Because of this difference in connection, these two are much “closer” to each other than to the third person. The same applies to any form of network of connections, such as a transportation network with major hubs that will in effect be “closer” than other less well-connected nodes because of their high degree of connectivity, not because of their distance within some absolute form of space.
Physical Relational Theory
The relational paradigm has found application in many areas of science and we will briefly highlight some of its main applications. In physics, a relational theory is a framework for understanding physical systems in such a way that the positions and other properties of objects are only meaningful relative to other objects. In a relational space-time theory, space does not exist unless there are objects in it; nor does time exist without events. Space can be defined through the relations among the objects that it contains considering their variations through time. Leibniz’s relationalism, is one example of this, describing space and time as systems of relations that exist between objects. The alternative spatial theory is an absolute theory in which space exists independently of any objects that can be immersed in it.12
Relational sociology is a collection of sociological theories that emphasize relationalism over substantivalism in explanations and interpretations of social phenomena.13 Pierpaolo Donati – known as the founder of ‘relational sociology’ writes about relational sociology as such “More or less implicitly, the observer (the social scientist) stakes for granted that the concept of relations qua talis is not of first importance, but must come ‘after’ the terms that it connects. This means that social relations are viewed as a product of individuals and of social structures, as something that comes after them. On the contrary, the relational paradigm affirms: In the beginning there is the relation!”14
Relational psychoanalysis is a relatively new and evolving school of psychoanalytic thought considered by its founders to represent a “paradigm shift” in psychoanalysis.15 An important difference between relational theory and traditional psychoanalytic thought is in its theory of motivation, which would assign primary importance to real interpersonal relations, rather than to instinctual drives.
Freudian theory, with a few exceptions, proposes that human beings are motivated by drives that are biologically rooted and innate. Rationalists, on the other hand, argue that the primary motivation of the psyche is to be in relationships with others. Rationalists posit that personality emerges from the matrix of early formative relationships with parents and other figures. Philosophically, relational psychoanalysis is closely allied with social constructionism.16
Complex interdependence, in international relations, is the idea that states and their fortunes are inextricably tied together through a complex set of interdependencies that have grown-up with the rise of global interconnectivity on different levels – what is called globalization. Complex interdependence theory was a major challenge to fundamental assumptions of traditional and structural realism which focused on military and economic capabilities to explain the behavior of states. Complex Interdependence, on the contrary, highlighted the emergence of transnational institutions through global relations and their capacity to affect the nation states.17