2016 Symposium Report

IASRT: Relational Academics Symposium Report

Theme: Critical Perspectives on Substantive and Methodological Individualisms

St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, 29th September 2016

The 2015 symposium report is available here. 

The Relational Academics Network is a network of scholars interested in exploring relational approaches to their studies. It is part of the Relational Thinking Network, which is a global association of individuals, corporations, NGOs and think-tanks committed to developing and applying relational thinking in all areas of life.[1] After the success of the previous year’s inaugural symposium, where discussion focused on concepts and methodologies central to relational research, the Relational Academics Forum reconvened to consider varieties of substantive and methodological individualisms which stand opposed to a ‘relational thinking approach’. The hope for the symposium was not simply to critique individualistic paradigms but to think about  (i) how we might systematically map and relate different types of individualism (ii) how these different types of individualism might be inter-related, (iii) how different responses to these different individualisms, within and across disciplines, might be appropriate (iv) why it is that these individualistic paradigms persist despite widespread theoretical acceptance of their philosophically problematic starting point, and (v) application of these finding to real world praxes.

The day was chaired by Julian Rivers, Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Bristol, and Sarah Pawlett Jackson, PhD candidate in Philosophy at The Open University.

Rivers introduced the symposium with a reflection on the broader aims of the network, which focus on tracing the theme of relationships and relationality through disciplines ordinarily kept separate. Rivers identified three overarching questions for relational thinkers to continually refer back to: (i) the Family Resemblance Question: how do different examples of ‘relational’ ideas in the broadest sense relate to each other? (ii) the Relevance Question: what difference does relational thinking? and (iii) the Grand Theory Question: does relational thinking have enough explanatory power and normative salience to constitute a ‘grand narrative’.[2]

Rivers invited the symposium to consider if and where a relational thinking approach sits in relation to Gustav Radbruch’s schema of individual, supra-individual and transpersonal values.[3] By individual value, Radbruch meant the subservience of all other institutions and practices to the end of individual autonomy and fulfilment. Collective values are those which see the highest end in nation, family, economic class or religious group. And transpersonal value schemes subordinate both of these to abstract entities such as truth, beauty, justice or prosperity. Is Relationism a fourth, distinctive, position – or simply a blend of all three, perhaps subordinating the value of the individual and the group to an overriding ethical postulate of love?

Seven papers were then presented and discussed. The first two papers focused on the philosophical foundations of individualism, the third and fourth discussed trust (and lack thereof) in relation to individualism, and the final three papers looked at the shift from individualism to relational thinking in the corporate and legal sectors. The day ended with a roundtable discussion of issues raised throughout the day, and a consideration of the next steps that the network might take as a result.

Paper 1: Dr Jeremy G.A. Ive, ‘The Crisis of Western Thought in the Modern and Postmodern World with Special Reference to Relational Peacebuilding’[4]

Ive’s paper identified three paradigms in the history of Western thought, all of which, it was argued, have distorted the conception of the person as individual. Three basic ways in different form according to which methodological individualism have been conceived were traced, namely:

  • that of realism with its view of the individual in terms of substance, shaped especially (in its ‘moderate’ version) by the Aristotelian form/matter dichotomy;
  • that of nominalism, with its conception of the individual as sovereign legislator;
  • that of narrative post-structuralism with its conception of the individual as a self-actualising story amongst a multiplicity of stories, all equally valid.

Ive argued that each of these conceptions of the individual draws on genuine insights about the world and society and the role of the individual in them, but that each involves significant and far reaching distortions. Ive argued further that each of these forms of methodological individualism can, ironically, give rise to different forms of collectivism in the political sphere. These different collectivisms inherit the distortions of their counterpart individualisms and as a result in each of these contexts the possibility of building relationships within a true political community is undermined. Peace ceases to be seen in terms of right relationships and becomes instead the imposition of a political ideal coupled with the exclusion, disenfranchisement and removal of those deemed incompatible with the realisation of that ideal.

Ive then laid out an alternative approach, arguing that relational peacebuilding repairs and corrects the distortions arising from the different forms of individualism. Specifically, he argued that a relational approach acts as a corrective to the three types of individualism identified insofar as it:

  • recognises the existence, harmony and diversity of universal relations without hypostasising them in the form of a metaphysical substance;
  • appreciates particularity in the context of the diversity of institutions and communities within the range of the social order, rather than being a denial of connection and social communality;
  • understands story not as self-justifying but as normatively examinable, shareable and trans-communal.

Paper 2 – Peter Lacey ‘Love, the radical driver of relational thinking: a theological foundation for the concept of relational value and its distinctiveness from modern individualism’[5]

Lacey prefaced his presentation by noting that the paper was prompted by a participant’s question at the first IASRT in September 2015 when discussing a paper on the attributes of relational value, described as integrity, respect, fairness, compassion and trust.  The question, from a theologian present, was ‘what about love?’  Lacey offered this paper as a response to that question.

The paper explored how love forms a foundation for relational thinking, when considered from the perspective of a Christian theology. Lacey drew particularly on the work of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) to outline a ‘radical, love-centric, understanding of relational thinking’ grounded in the concepts of imago dei and Trinitarianism. He contrasted this with individualism as understood in current mainstream philosophical thought.

The paper argued further that individualism has robbed us of richer insights into the nature of ‘being human’ and therefore on how we understand and engage in ethical decisions. Specifically Lacey argued that individualism and its ‘in-orientation’ has encouraged an ethic that seeks clear right and wrong answers when the ‘test’ of what is right should be an actions’ contribution to building positive relationships.

As a challenge to the ethics of individualism, Lacey suggested that the concept of relational value, and the identification of behaviours that build attributes of relational value, which are consistent with the theological propositions made, are helpful in building a means by which to challenge individualism in a wide range of settings.

Paper 3 – Lorna Zischka, ‘Helping without trusting: the role of other-centred attitudes’[6]

Zischka’s presentation begun with the observation that recent developments in behavioural economics tell us that humans are social creatures; they do not make decisions based only on their individual advantage, they also take other people into consideration in their resource allocation decisions. This provides a critique of individualism, but care is needed here – the rejection of individualism here does not necessarily mean that we should use a model where giving tendencies are simply determined by society.

Zischka & Della Giusta’s paper offered evidence for these ‘other-centred’ (non-individualistic) inclinations driving giving behaviours, whilst arguing that these inclinations are not evidence that we are helpless products of our social environment. The paper then explored the impact that the existence of such motivations has on society.

The authors examined the drivers of prosocial behaviours like giving, distinguishing between drivers that depend on the social environment and drivers that can be attributed to an unobserved individual propensity to give, arguing that the latter is compatible with the existence of other-centred (non-individualistic) attitudes, which significantly influence all forms of giving.

They further considered how relevant structural and cognitive factors that affect giving likewise affect trust; considering giving and trust in parallel. Importantly, their findings suggest that the other-centred attitudinal component of giving is able to stimulate giving even when the wider social environment is unfavourable (and the giver’s trust consequently low). This suggests that givers with a strong other-centred attitude might be agents of change, acting to maintain and to improve a high-trust, cooperative social environment. Whilst even individualistic people might act in prosocial ways if the reciprocal benefits make it worth their while, these mutual benefits will break down as soon as any opportunism and free riding associated with individualism becomes evident. People with other-centred motivations may be able to kick start a more collaborative social environment again however, since people who are not individualistic are willing to help even when the social context is unfavourable.

In summary, Zischka argued that other-centred (non-individualistic) motivations do exist, and that they have a statistically significant influence on the way that a person handles his or her resources. The fact that other-centred motivations inspire people to give even when they do not trust suggests that people who are not individualistic are a key positive force in their social environment. Although our behaviour is certainly influenced by the social environment, we appear to retain some capacity to act or react independently of that environment.

Paper 4 – Bjorn Lous, ‘Income inequality, life satisfaction inequality and (social) trust: a cross-country analysis’[7]

Lous & Graafland’s paper started from the presupposition that the main philosophy and concepts in economics are still much defined from an individualistic perspective, despite the fact that research on ‘social cohesion’ shows that this approach is incomplete and even harmful. Their aim in this paper is to increase the knowledge on the interpersonal aspects of economics, that could shift the focus on individuals towards a more communal approach. Their research has focused on the question: How does income inequality affect social trust and, more specifically, is this relationship mediated by life satisfaction inequality?

While a significant amount of research has been published on the link between income inequality and trust, mostly by public health and sociology scholars, empirical research into the relationship between income inequality and trust is, however, rare.

Lous argued that trust may be affected by inequality in life satisfaction. While income inequality is a measurable and a reasonably objective phenomenon, life satisfaction inequality should better capture how income inequality is perceived, which is more important than the actual situation (Schneider 2012). The authors’ empirical analysis shows that there is only a weak relationship between income inequality and life satisfaction inequality. Furthermore, they have found that income inequality has a strong negative impact on social trust, whereas inequality in life satisfaction has not. This shows that relative income differences should be a serious subject of concern to politicians, rather than considering only economic growth and individual incomes.

Paper 5 – Dr Stephen F. Copp, ‘Economic and Relational Perspectives on Corporate Law: Conflict, Convergence or Commonality’[8]

Copp’s paper noted that prima facie economic and relational analyses at first sight appear to have little in common. They make different assumptions about people’s behaviour and goals. Economic analysis is based on the individualistic assumption that people are rational actors, driven to maximise their own welfare, often expressed in terms of wealth. Relational analysis is based on the equally individualistic assumption that people find their ultimate fulfilment through morally good relationships with others. The normative goal of economic analysis is economic efficiency, defined in terms of productive, allocative and dynamic efficiencies, all of which must be achieved simultaneously for efficient resource allocation. The normative goal of relational analysis is the quality of relationships in society. The effect of public policy on the quality of relationships can be measured in terms of their closeness, according to Schluter and Lee, by using the concept of “relational proximity”. This involves five factors: directness, i.e. quality of communication; continuity, i.e. frequency, regularity and amount of contact, and length of relationship; multiplexity, i.e. variety of context of meetings; parity, i.e. mutual respect and fairness in the relationship; and commonality, i.e. shared goals, values and experience.

Copp suggested that the main perceived conflict between economic and relational analysis of the company is the doctrine of limited liability. This is valuable in economic terms because it reduces transaction costs, enables assets to be partitioned, shifts risk to the most efficient risk-bearer and facilitates efficient stock markets and investor diversification. Superficially it appears to conflict with good relationships because ultimately creditors run the risk of non-payment. However, Copp argued, apparent conflict is over-rated when seen in a contractual context and in the light of statutory and judicial interventions.

However, Copp went on to argue that there is much in common between economic and relational analyses of the company. Companies encourage the division of labour and so encourage co-operative rather than isolated working. Companies provide a legal hub for parties to transact with and so provide a means to solidify an otherwise ill-defined mass of potentially unstable transactions/ relationships. Companies provide a governance structure to allow for change in the face of uncertainty that can lead to close on-going relationships.  Insofar as companies bring with them inefficiencies they relate primarily to principal-agent costs and problems of collective action, issues that spring from rational self-interested decision-making. Legal regulation of the company is largely characterised by a response to such behaviour. Examples include collective decision-making, directors’ duties, directors’ disqualification and shareholders’ remedies. Because corporate law so robustly addresses such self-interested behaviour, mechanisms have been created that also serve to improve the quality of relationships within a company. Copp offered a comparison of the normative bases of economic and relational analysis and an evaluation of core doctrines of corporate law, for example, limited liability, the corporate constitution, corporate decision-making, directors’ duties and shareholders remedies. He concluded that, whilst there are conflicts, there are also promising signs of convergence and commonality.

Paper 6 – Dr Bertrand Pauget, ‘Relational Innovation’[9]

Pauget’s paper identified that although ‘innovation’ is a foreground concept in current understandings of organizations, it is notable that from an academic perspective, exploration of the relational processes around innovation or innovation related to relations, still remain relatively marginal. Pauget argues that this more marginal work is crucial to developing sustainable innovation, and offered a case for ‘relational innovation’, arguing that special attention needs be paid to relational processes generally and to ‘relational heritage’ and ‘relational patterns’ related to the organization specifically.

Pauget invited us to consider why on equal terms, some organizations manage to adapt to change when others cannot? He suggested that relational innovation is relevant here, where relational innovation is the manifestation of a larger set: a relational heritage in which people within organizations have the capacity to deal with unexpected situations or problems they have to solve.

Pauget identified two important implications of thinking in terms of relational innovation. First, he identified a trend in which organizations are becoming more relational, arguing that knowledge and relations are the basis of contemporary organizations strongly marked by service production. Yet, the design of the current organizations (e.g. professional bureaucracies) dates from the mass production era. The transition from one design to another leads to resistance, because relational organizations are particularly more collective and less hierarchical, while traditional organizations are more hierarchical.

Pauget’s second point identified possible dangers for the individual in ‘new’ types of organisation. An individual may find themselves facing a myriad of possible relational choices. Those multiple possibilities constitute a compelling but also ‘scary horizon’. Employees are summoned to be committed relationally in service activities but aren’t capable of sustaining such a relational burden. The consequences here are that relationships are more likely be simulated but will lack real relational value.

Paper 7 – Dr Tatiana Hansbury, ‘Human rights and gift relationship’[10]

Hansbury’s paper considered a ‘relational critique’ of human rights, arguing that the concepts surrounding human rights are based on an atomistic and possessive conception of human nature, which favours contentiousness and pursuit of self-interest to the detriment of a more generous, socially mindful way of living. She argued that this conjunction between possessive individualism and human rights remains entrenched.

Hansbury went on to propose an alternative conception of human rights whereby we consider that the origins of human rights lie in mutual recognition, that is, they are constituted and justified relationally. Using Paul Ricoeur’s theory of recognition as reciprocal gift, she suggested that it is legitimate to perceive human beings as givers and receivers of such recognition. On the other hand, the classical conception of rights as absolute property of persons can be reinterpreted as ‘given property’, with the balance of freedom and obligations characteristic of the gift relationship. This means being able to modify the meaning of ownership inherent in rights, namely the balance of freedom to use rights and obligations towards the others with regard to such use. As such, proper exercise of rights is mindful of their relational origin and includes others’ interests and claims as part of their meaning rather than as an unwelcome external constraint. Hansbury acknowledged that while it may be difficult to translate the system of tacit moral understandings inherent in gifts into the language of ‘hard’ legal obligations, this could be a step towards a different human rights practice and theory.

Conclusion: Roundtable Discussion 

The concluding debate was chaired by Sarah Pawlett Jackson. In inviting general reflections on the day all present were agreed that the day had been fruitful and that it would be worthwhile running a similar symposium in 2017 if possible. At the suggestion that the following year’s meeting could focus on a few specific disciplines, people reflected that they valued the multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary nature of discussions and expressed a desire that this continue if possible.

Participants reflected a desire to communicate and work together as a network beyond an annual symposium, perhaps by creating online platforms where people can communicate, and through circulation of working papers on relevant topics.

Pawlett Jackson invited participants to refer back to the Radbruch’s values as outlined by Dr Rivers in his introductory remarks and to consider his invitation to think about where relational thinking may be situated in that framework. Participants reflected that the various papers had highlighted that relational thinking speaks to all three of the values highlighted. It was noted in particular that while there is a tendency to pit ‘relationships’ and ‘the individual’ against one another, that this is fallacious, and that a thread running throughout the papers highlighted how distorted accounts of the individual are connected to distorted accounts of collectivity, while relational thinking always takes seriously its need to give a more philosophically and practically robust account of human individuals. This led to further discussion about possible worthwhile themes for next year’s symposium, or for other collaborative work in the future. These possible themes included:

  • Exploring connections between pathological individualisms and pathological collectivisms.
  • Relational utopias (and dystopias): What is ‘utopia’, on a relational thinking model? How should relational thinking and practice navigate utopian ideals in a messy world? Should we think in terms of ‘utopias’ at all?
  • ‘Challenges to using relational approaches in different disciplines’ – or something similar that is more geared towards the application of relational thinking in the real world.
  • The distinction (and relationship) between the ‘relational’ and the ‘social’.

[1] Relational thinking as understood in this institutional context builds on the work established by Michael Schluter, David Lee and others from 1993 onwards.

[2] See the Report for the 2015 Symposium for a more detailed explanation of these three guiding questions. The report can be downloaded at http://relationalthinking.net/academic-symposium/ [Last accessed 06/03/2017]

[3] The Philosophy of Law (1932).

[4] The Revd Dr Jeremy Ive is Extraordinary Senior Lecturer at North West University, South Africa, and Director of  Political Process of Relational Peacebuilding Initiatives.

[5] Peter Lacey is Co-founder of Whole Systems Partnership.

[6] PhD candidate, Department of Economics, University of Reading. The paper was co-written with Assoc. Prof. Dr. Marina della Giusta.

[7] PhD candidate, Tilburg University. The paper was co-written with Prof. Dr. Johan J. Graafland.

[8] Associate Professor of Law at Bournemouth University and Visiting Professor at St Mary’s University.

[9] Professor of Management at the European Business School, Paris.

[10] PhD candidate, Birkbeck University of London.

The Relational Academics Network

The Relational Academics Network connects scholars interested in exploring relational approaches to their studies. Located within Relational Research, it is part of the Relational Thinking Network, which is a global association of individuals, corporations, NGOs and think-tanks committed to developing and applying relational thinking in all areas of life. The Relational Academics Network began life as an informal gathering of scholars from a range of academic disciplines, but 2015 saw the first official and public Symposium. The Network is intentionally multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary in make-up and ethos.

Relational Research

Relational Research is a not-for-profit think tank based in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It works with individuals, organisations and policy-makers to work towards its vision of building a more relational society. It is currently involved in projects with schools, businesses and policy-makers.

The Relational Thinking network

The Relational Thinking network is a growing movement of individuals and organisations committed to exploring and developing a relational perspective on life. Building on several books and numerous other publications from the early 1990s onwards, this approach puts human relationships at the heart of all forms of knowledge and action.


An idea that transforms lives, organizations, and society

JOIN-Moreaboutjoining JOIN-Individual2


  • admin

    This Forum will be open for participants. More details, including registration, to follow after 15 May.

  • Tom Kimmel

    Will papers and proceedings be available in any form to the broad public? If so how?

  • Marjon

    HI Tom, thanks for your note and question! We are currently looking into this and will let you know the answer as soon as possible. We definitely like to make contents of the Symposium available, it is just a matter of deciding how and when. So keep an eye on this website in the coming days.