The Relational Academics Symposium 2015 – a report

The Relational Academics Forum is a network of scholars interested in exploring relational approaches to their studies. On the 16th September, at St. Catharine’s College Cambridge, the inaugural Symposium of the Relational Academic Forum took place on the theme ‘Relational Research in the Social Sciences: concepts and methodologies.’

The Relational Academics Forum 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. Relational thinking as understood in this institutional context builds on the work established by Michael Schluter, David Lee and others from 1993 onwards.[1] A number of scholars from a range of academic disciplines had been meeting privately on previous occasions, but this Symposium was the first event for which there was a public call for papers.

The theme of the Symposium was deliberately broad; even the restriction to ‘social sciences’ was arguably too narrow, as the interests of participants extended to humanities and human sciences. The purpose of the event was to draw in to the emerging network scholars hitherto unfamiliar with relational thinking, particularly the younger generation of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers.

The day was chaired by Julian Rivers, Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Bristol. As he explained in his opening remarks, the motivation behind the Symposium was highly ambitious: to trace a Big Idea through a series of subjects and disciplines usually kept separate. But the coherence of the event was anchored in three overarching questions:

  • What are the connections and distinctions between relational thinking in the narrow sense as developed over the last 20 years by members of the Relational Thinking Network, and the wider phenomenon of a recent ‘relational turn’ in many areas of the social and human sciences? This could be called the Family Resemblance Question.
  • What difference does relational thinking make to the motivation, methods, context and subject-matter of study? This is the Relevance Question.
  • Does relational thinking have sufficient explanatory power and normative salience to constitute a ‘grand narrative’ capable of competing with others such as liberalism, Marxism, feminism or discourse-theory? Is there such a thing as Relationism? This is the Grand Theory Question.

Eight papers were then presented and discussed.

Paper 1: Dr. Jeremy G.A. Ive, ‘A Philosophical Basis for a Relational Methodology’[2]

In this paper, Ive sketched out a philosophical basis and the outline of a relational methodology for the social sciences.

He argued that there are three ‘transcendentals’, i.e. necessary conditions for any possible experience:

  1. That there are persons/things/social entities
  2. That these are related according to certain universal ways of relating.
  3. That both a. and b. are subject to a series of changes and development.

If any one of these conditions is not met, we cannot speak of created existence or experience – it is impossible to conceive of created existence or experience without all these conditions being met together. A fruitful correlation can be made with the ‘Analogies of Experience’ in Immanuel Kant’s ‘Transcendental Analytic’ in his Critique of Pure Reason. Slightly changing Kant’s order, these are: the principle of succession in time, the principle of co-existence at any one moment in time, and the principle of permanence or continuity through time.

Ive then drew on and developed the insights of two Christian philosophers Dirk Vollenhoven (1892-1978) and Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) who together provide a comprehensive ontology and epistemology for the analysis of the social order, and indeed the created order as a whole.  Between them they developed a thoroughly pluralistic understanding of the world. Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd start with experience in its rich and irreducible diversity and identify different levels of description or explanation called ‘modalities’. Together, in their mature thought, Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd identified fifteen modalities ranging from the numerical (quantitative) to that of faith.  These identify the different ways in which particulars function, are related to one another, and in which relationships develop and unfold over time.

Using this, Ive traced three different points of entry, or what he called ‘descriptive views’.  These allow us to uncover the relational richness of the social order through looking at society as persons or entities in relationship, and then as the development of those persons or entities, and, complementary to this, the unfolding of the many different relations which connect those persons or entities.  This affirms relationships, in all their richness and diversity within the whole diversity of social structures without undue emphasis on any at the expense.

Paper 2: Sarah Pawlett Jackson, ‘Measuring ‘Relational Proximity’: The Importance of Multi-Person Contexts’[3]

Pawlett Jackson’s research, in the discipline of philosophy, attempts an analysis of basic intersubjective structures. Relationality, a richer and more specific concept that intersubjectivity, nevertheless presupposes these intersubjective structures. In her paper, she laid out some of her own ongoing doctoral thesis work in the philosophy of intersubjectivity. She demonstrated how the concepts and methodologies employed by the metric of Relational Proximity are underpinned by fundamental philosophical assumptions about the nature of human subjectivity and intersubjectivity. She attempted to show that the overarching claims and vision of the Relational Thinking movement, namely that ‘good relationships are not simply a desirable extra; they are fundamental to the stability and wellbeing of our societies,’[4] are well supported by philosophical reflection on current interdisciplinary research into the nature of intersubjectivity.

The second and more substantial part of this paper attempted to outline the argument that there is nevertheless a ‘dyadic paradigm’ in the philosophy of intersubjectivity: an emphasis on the relationship between two individuals remains in predominant models of philosophical analysis, sometimes implicitly. Jackson argued further that other disciplines tend to analyse relationships under this paradigm. More attention needs to be paid to multi-person contexts, i.e. relational interactions between more than two people.

The authors of the Relational Proximity metric are clear that they do want to speak to multi-person contexts with their metric, and the importance of networks, groups, organisations and communities is often made much of. However, Pawlett Jackson argued that the metric of Relational Proximity as it stands can be developed further in order to account for the fact that the different types of intersubjective structures involved in multi-person interactions are themselves a necessary component of the relationships in question, and therefore must be incorporated into the analysis. She outlined different varieties of multi-person intersubjective structures, and explored how these might be integrated into the Relational Proximity metric itself, both in the content of the category of multiplexity, and in the method of the application itself in multi-person contexts.

Paper 3: Henk Hadders, ‘Relational Sustainability: Measuring and Reporting Organizational Sustainability Performance with Relational Footprinting’[5]

Hadders’ starting-point is that sustainability is about the quality of our relationships, but everywhere in this world we see the ecological divide (between self and Nature), the social divide (between self and Others) and the spiritual-cultural divide (between self and Self) as visible signs of our current reality. We deplete natural, social and human vital capital resources needed for a fair and safe operating space for humanity and its health and well-being.

Why do we collectively create these unsustainable results that nobody wants? Meeting the challenges of this century requires updating our relational logic, -thinking and -intelligence and a shift of our Relational Operating System from an obsolete “ego-system” focussed entirely on the well-being of oneself to an eco-system awareness that emphasizes the well-being of the whole.

Relational Thinking and the Economics of Mutuality are two promising possibilities to help solve our wicked problems in the world. Relational Thinking involves learning to see life from the perspective of relational well-being and “thriveability” as opposed to viewpoints of individualism and materialism. The Economics of Mutuality recognizes that value is more effective and sustainable when all of the stakeholders are considered, not just the shareholders. In this paper Hadders added a third promising possibility to the mix: Context-Based Sustainability (CBS), as developed by Mark McElroy (2008). CBS-theory can be used to explore relationships “in sustainability-context” and to clarify what the concepts of “Relational Sustainability” and “Relational Footprinting” look like.

How to describe, analyze and measure relational sustainability performance? This theoretical paper dealt with these questions at an organizational level. The first part of the paper was about the conceptualization of “sustainability” and “relational sustainability”. The second part was about operationalizing, quantifying and measuring relational sustainability by introducing a Relational Quotient. Here, Hadders used Relational Footprints as an analytical tool for impact measurement and developed a new Relational Strategic Performance Scorecard, as a successor of the Balanced Scorecard.

Thus CBS-theory can be used to conceptualize and operationalize the notion of “corporate relational sustainability”. Hadders gave an example of water use to illustrate the Relational Footprint for the relationship of an organization with its local community as stakeholder in an ecological area of impact. This paper was a contribution to the dialogue about an emerging transformation of business thinking, where the purpose of business is to enhance the well-being of society. It ended with some conclusions and suggestions for further research.

Paper 4: Brendan Bromwich, ‘Institutional bricolage as peacebuilding: theory and practice of a relationships-based contribution to resolving conflict over natural resources in Darfur’[6]

This paper was written based on the premise that conflict, governance and peace can be described in terms of the improvement and deterioration of relationships: between people, communities and institutions.    Conflict comprises a process of contesting relationships; governance is a process of regulating relationships; and peace carries the notion of a quality in relationships.  The paper reviewed a theoretical approach to describing relationships developed in a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) programme in Sudan supporting Darfur to make the transition to peace.  UNEP drew on relationship descriptors identified by Schluter and Lee to enable analysis and reporting of work to develop collaboration amongst diverse actors in the environmental sector in Sudan.[7]  The notion of governance as a complex network of relationships informed the development of UNEP’s theory of change on governance and peacebuilding.[8]

The paper compared UNEP’s analytical framework with the academic literature.  Of particular relevance is the notion of institutional bricolage developed by Cleaver, which highlights the complexity of social and institutional interaction; the importance of inequalities in power; and the way that institutions evolve, fragment and re-form over time.[9]  The paper argued that this process is relevant to peace-building, as well as the broader development processes Cleaver describes.

Another focus in the paper was how the development of collaboration between parties can be described over time.  Discrete transactions, once negotiated and implemented, may or may not lead to ongoing collaboration. This is relevant to peacebuilding given the potential of external actors to incentivise discrete acts of collaboration in the hope that these lead to lasting collaboration.  Understanding this dynamic is essential to many forms of peacebuilding. The pattern is seen in traditional local peace-processes in Darfur and is also important in the role of peace-keeping missions.[10]  UNEP used a “relational pathway” as yardstick to describe the emergence of these relationships in peacebuilding and governance contexts. The paper reviews the use of this pathway as an indicator in aid programming.

The paper was written as the third in a series on natural resources and peacebuilding in Darfur.[11]  Building on the contextual analysis provided in the first two papers, this paper described in practical terms how a response to the complex problems of conflict and failed environmental governance may be developed.  Recalling the immense challenges faced as a result of social and environmental change in the Sahel and Horn of Africa, the paper concluded by highlighting the need to support environmental governance initiatives that enable inclusive transitions in livelihoods and society, thereby mitigating the risks of violent conflict.

Paper 5: Zolile Mlisana, ‘Relationships, Power Abuse and Humanity’s Psychomutation’[12]

Zolile Mlisana’s paper drew on his experience in child psychology to consider the longer-term impact of child (including sexual) abuse.  The abuse of power is a pervasive social challenge which is both cause and effect of ‘relational disease’. Power abuse reshapes the ‘collective unconscious’ (Jung). It threatens the material future of humanity and next generations by reshaping ‘reality’, i.e. values, choices and actions. This ‘mutation of psyche’ derives from social pressure on a template of relationships over time. Mlisana argued that abuse inflicted within an intimate relationship is the most toxic to the psyche and offers the best lessons in analysis.

Different roles can be identified in the dynamics of child abuse: perpetrator, victim, passive witness, accomplice, the system (since some vulnerabilities are systemically prescribed) and ‘evil mercenaries’ (who intentionally commercialise the evil). A standard progression can also be identified in the mind of the victim: startle/shock – disbelief – fight or flight – surrender (predisposing to self-deprecation) – ‘drift of psyche’ in accepting a new perceptive reality. The last step can be supported by social condonation or pontification facilitated by intricate permutations of systemic stakeholder collusions in abuse.

This model is capable of application in a range of areas. In economics, politics and the domain of the psychosocial one can see patterns of self-perpetuating, psycho-mutative social abuse as societies get locked into sophisticated processes of legitimization, glamorization and obfuscation. The result is that elites continue to dominate victims. The paper closed with a bleak view of the future of humanity. Humanity seems to have an intrinsic self-preserving and self-indulging instinct which pivots on the mutation of psyche. The abuse of the child in particular recreates psychosocial reality and steadily grooms a psychologically mutant breed of human beings to the detriment of our collective well-being.

Paper 6: Dr Paul Grimshaw, Dr Elaine McNichol, Prof. Linda McGowan and Peter Lacey, ‘Exploring the role of relational value in health and care’[13]

The authors argue that there is a growing need within healthcare policy and management to understand the essential role that human relationships play within and around health and social care systems, which exist and influence at a number levels; individual to health institutions, organisation to organisation, group to group e.g. inter-professional and interpersonal e.g. GP/patient interaction.  Each person and each system is nested within each other, interacting and changing, hence any attempt to understand any part of the system needs to take account of the others.  It is fairly well established that social or relational factors play an important role in individual health & well-being outcomes. With social support providing access to resources both psychological and material, and social integration providing benefits through the mechanism of buffering and more general effects that are in place regardless of stress. However relational factors also cascade through social systems to influence organisational performance and community cohesion.

This paper summarised ongoing research by Whole Systems Partnership and the University of Leeds which aims to develop a framework for enabling leadership and management to define and conceptualise intangible elements of relationships that span across the whole system in differing health & care environments. The research explores a number of relational attributes, focussing on integrity, respect, fairness, empathy and trust and seeks to find out which potential behaviours, activities and processes support these attributes and potentially lead to improved system level outcomes. This project is part of a process which over time will develop repeatable routines for measuring the pattern of these behaviours with the aim of revealing what WSP are describing as a systems’ ‘relational value’. Underpinning the research is the working concept that relational value can be a component of a relationship, and that relational value ‘does work’ within a system that is dependent upon but distinct from the individual actors.

The research examines the extant research from the management and health fields for behaviour, activities or processes that underpin healthy relationships and seeks to build on this by validating and extending the work in an elderly care context. Residents, staff, family and wider stakeholders in the care setting will make sense of the derived statements, e.g. “There are opportunities to begin activities with others outside the unit”. This statement expresses (i) the potential behaviour of maintaining social relations (ii) that requires some degree of the relational attribute of trust to enable positive risk taking (iii) which in turn relates to a particular element of the organisational system, in this case community and (iv) a consideration of the physical space or infrastructure. These statements are arranged across two further categories (1) organisational level (organisation, community and intra-personal) (2) a socio-technical framework comprising of 6 headings (Vision/People/Process/Culture/Technology & Infrastructure). The system-wide validation (across stakeholders) of these statements will position the importance of the associated behaviours, activities and practices and provide the bedrock for a framework that can be applied in other similar settings, and ultimately begin to enable comparison of differing patterns of relational value across different contexts.

Paper 7: Alexandre Sayegh, ‘Relational Justice in a Non-ideal World: the problem of illicit financial flows’[14]

Sayegh’s paper explored a distinct way to answer the question ‘what does global justice consist in?’

In the global justice literature, growing attention has been given to problems particular to a globalized economy such as tax competition and illicit financial flows. Political philosophers have begun to reflect on how these problems intersect with theories of global justice (Brock and Pogge 2014). These recent philosophical attempts represent a shift from the canonical debate between statist and cosmopolitans, whose central concern was on determining whether the scope of justice is global. Indeed, in reply to the question ‘what does global justice consist in?’, the global justice debate has been structured around three main positions: cosmopolitans, statists and what has been called ‘relational’ or ‘internationalist’ positions. Cosmopolitans claim that principles of global justice should be the extension of principles of domestic justice. Prominent cosmopolitan positions interpreted global justice in a ‘monistic’ way. They formulated one set of principles of justice for the global order (Beitz 1979; Tan 2004; Caney 2005). Statists on the other hand argue that there are no obligations of justice at the global level (Blake 2002; Nagel 2005). More recently, relational or internationalists positions contemplated the possibility that while justice considerations arose at the global level, principles of global justice needed not to be egalitarian in nature (Sangiovanni 2007; Valentini 2010).

Sayegh terms his approach a ‘relational non-ideal theory’ of global justice. The methodology of this theory is relational in nature. It argues that principles of justice are formulated according to the practice they intend to regulate. With regard to the content of principles, the relational non-ideal view put forward in this paper rejects the notion that non-ideal theory is simply applied ideal theory. Instead, it explores the main features of a conception of justice designed for a non-ideal world. This paper argued that the role of non-ideal theory in our theorizing about global politics is not limited to seeking compliance with ideal principles. Its purpose is rather to address non-ideal circumstances particular to the problems of global background injustice. By applying relational non-ideal methodology and content to the problems of tax competition and illicit financial flows, this paper sought to provide insights about how this theory could both contribute to the progression of justice while also evaluating the feasibility and desirability of ideal theories of global justice.

Paper 8: Lorna Zischka, ‘Relational Stocks, Giving Flows and Welfare Outcomes’[15]

This was a paper about the power of philanthropy to transform communities. Data from the Citizenship Survey of England and Wales was used to research the link between giving behaviours and welfare. ‘Giving’ is the time and money voluntarily offered into relational activities, or transferred to other people and to charity. ‘Welfare’ is measured in private terms (life-satisfaction) as well as in communal terms (higher levels of trust, lower levels of crime and deprivation).

The data revealed that giving interacted positively with all expressions of welfare. The sort of giving that made the most difference constituted regular giving; in multiple ways; and across social boundaries (giving across social boundaries counteracts the social exclusion of vulnerable groups). On creating an index of giving by the 10 regions of England and Wales defined in the data, we find that the level of giving by region has a 0.8 to 0.9 correlation with higher levels of trust, with lower levels of crime and with lower levels of deprivation by region. Whether or not a community was ‘giving’ was found to be more closely correlated with these factors than differences in income, in employment, in the racial mix of the community or in any other social factor. In other words, giving behaviours were found to be one of the key indicators of community health.

Giving is significant because it is indicative of positive relationships between parties. It is an indication that the giver is including other people into the decisions they make over the way they spend their time and money, and this ‘consideration for others’ captures an essential feature of relationship. Their giving does not guarantee a personal return, but it does improve the social environment for others. With reciprocation, this may eventually feed back into better outcomes for everyone. In our analysis we quantify how ‘cohesive civic sector relationships’, reflected in giving behaviours, lead to better outcomes for the community.

Relationships are complex and hard to measure, but the giving that flows to and from them is easier to trace. By monitoring giving behaviours in different neighbourhoods, decision makers might therefore gather information about the state of the relationships behind those giving patterns. It provides them a basis by which to evaluate which interventions help and which hinder social cohesion in the civic sector and its associated quality of life. Moreover focussing attention on giving may in itself put people in mind of what they could do for others or for their community (nudge theory). In this sense, including giving behaviours in measures of community health is both informative and prescriptive.


In spite of the wide range of ideas and disciplines represented during the symposium, in closing discussion participants agreed that there was sufficient commonality to make the Forum intellectually worthwhile. It was agreed that attempts should be made to extend the network of scholars interested in relational approaches to their work, and aim for another symposium in September 2016. Paper presented at this event would be published in due course in the journals and other scholarly contexts most suitable for their subject-matter.

[1] See David John Lee and Michael Schluter, ‘Briefing paper on relational analysis in academic discourse’ (2015).

[2] Jeremy Ive is Extraordinary Senior Lecturer at Northwest University, South Africa, and Director of the Relational Peacebuilding Initiative, UK.

[3] Sarah Pawlett Jackson is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the Open University, UK, and a tutor in the Department for Continuing Education at the University of Oxford.

[4] [Accessed 07/08/2015]

[5] Henk Hadders is former Executive Director of the Board of the Mental Health Institute GGZ Drenthe, Netherlands, and a PhD candidate at the University of Groningen.

[6] Brendan Bromwich is a PhD candidate, Department of Geography, King’s College London, before which he was programme coordinator for UNERP in Sudan, 2007-2013.

[7] Schluter, M., Lee, D. (1993). ‘The R Factor’. Hodder and Stoughton, London.

[8] UNEP (2014). ‘Relationships and Resources: Environmental governance for peacebuilding and resilient livelihoods in Sudan’. UNEP, Nairobi.

[9] Cleaver, F., (2012) ‘Development Through Bricolage: Rethinking Institutions for Natural Resource Management’. Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, New York.

[10] Smit Duijzentkunst, B.L. and Dawkins, S.L.R. (2015) ‘Arbitrary Peace? Consent management in International Arbitration’. The European Journal of International Law, Vol.26 No1, 139-168.

[11] See Bromwich, B., (2015) ‘Nexus meets crisis: a review of conflict, natural resources and the humanitarian response in Darfur with reference to the water–energy–food nexus’. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 31:3, 375-392.

Bromwich, B., (Forthcoming) ‘Darfur conflict and environment revisited – what are the implications for peacebuilding?’

[12] Dr. Zolile Mlisana is Head of Paediatrics at Zola Jabulani Hospital, Soweto, South Africa.

[13] Paul Grimshaw, Elaine McNichol and Linda McGowan are at the University of Leeds, UK. Peter Lacey works for Whole Systems Partnership Ltd.

[14] Alexandre Sayegh is a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy, University College London, and a Visiting Scholar on the Global Justice Program at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University.

[15] Lorna Zischka is a PhD candidate in the Department of Economics at the University of Reading.

Migration and the issue of trust

Migration is an often discussed issue but in the last weeks it dominated the headlines. As the British public tried to make up their minds ahead of the General Election, with immigration one of the key issues, thousands of people from the Middle-East and Africa, desperate for a better future, lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean, forcing Europe’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs into ‘crisis talks’. At the same time, ‘xenophobia’ raised its ugly head again in South Africa, with the government sending in the military to protect migrants from violent mob attacks by locals.

Mike Batley from the Restorative Justice Centre in South Africa writes that sending in the military, although perhaps necessary to restrain violence, will not fix the problem: “What is needed now more than ever is the understanding from the field of conflict transformation that incidents of violence cannot be understood in isolation from the deep historical, structural, cultural, relational and personal contexts within which they occur. It is only when these roots are identified that a horizon of the future can begin to be imagined. Such an approach goes beyond negotiating solutions and builds towards something new, to quote John Paul Lederach, a pioneering thinker in the field. This approach indicates the need for reflective inquiry, for opening up spaces for debate, dialogue and conversation.”

Talk to each other

At a symposium held by the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in South Africa, participants acknowledged that South Africa is still a deeply traumatised nation that needs the kind of leadership from government, private and public sector that will help it to find healing. Another important outcome was the call for engagement, “to begin to have difficult conversations”.

South Africans, IJR says, “need to honestly and openly talk about race, racism, white privilege, xenophobia and the social capital of a white skin. We encourage you to talk to each other and not to use online platforms to share your opinions about these topics. And not to talk about the issue from the outside – but have debates and engagements in township communities. It is easy for outsiders to propose solutions if they stand outside the lived realities on the ground.” Engagement also “actively contributes to up-skill less fortunate communities through engaging with local community and culture groups. And understand your country – act not only when things happen but be involved consistently and participate on an ongoing basis to contribute to change in South Africa.”

Not to be trusted

Talking to each other and engaging with the issues together with those are who affected by it most are all tools for building trust and strong relationships. Sociologists Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley go a level deeper and argue that it is the lack of relationships that has fueled the kind of violence South Africans and their foreign guests have witnessed in the last weeks.

They write:

The breakdown of family cohesion in mostly fatherless township households has eliminated shame and neutralised moral inhibitions. Overburdened mothers, often without maintenance payments by the absentee fathers, are unable as sole breadwinners to provide the emotional intimacy and security needed by youngsters. Gangs function as family substitutes and identity enhancers. Underqualified township teachers have utterly failed to instill in pupils the political literacy that would help them comprehend global migration.

South Africans of all hues cultivate the exceptionalism of being in Africa but not of Africa. Newcomers from the alien, dark continent are not to be trusted. Well-qualified foreign science and mathematics teachers could function as role models, besides raising standards, but the teachers’ union does not welcome cosmopolitan non-nationals into its ranks, let alone being lectured on political education.

Competition for jobs by unemployed youth amounts to a cliché. Looting schoolchildren are not yet in the job market. Neither does alleged inequality between foreigners and locals explain the antagonism. Somali tenants mostly start from scratch with loans from relatives; they frequently employ locals, extend credit to customers and pay their rent on time. They work longer, harder and sell cheaper, because of the small profit margin and an ethos of “collective entrepreneurship”.

Self-hate by locals fuels envy of successful foreigners. In economic terms, societies around the world have benefited from the skills and hard work of newcomers. Yet such reasoning does not persuade losers in the competition for scarce resources, which is perceived as a zero-sum game.

Why can’t locals emulate the foreigners and learn from them? Why can’t they also buy wholesale and introduce smaller mark-ups? “We don’t trust each other,” answered many local respondents in our research. In an atomised space of marginalised people, mutual trust of responsible citizens amounts to a delusion. The very notion of community is problematic. At the most, an exclusionary solidarity exempts local shops from being looted, but not equally poor blacks from outside being attacked.”

Although very complex in some communities, to counter the ‘fear of foreigners’ (which is what ‘xenophobia’ amounts to), there needs to be a concentrated action on building trust between people, a foundational aspect of any relationship, whether it is in Africa or in Europe.

Question:  Is there anything you can do to build trust in your family and community?

Image of South African flag from the Constitutional Court by arboresce, Wikimedia

Relational Living (4): Forgiveness

Ill-health and even violence in a relationship between individuals, groups, tribes and nations is likely most often due to an asymmetry in power. More likely it’s due to an abuse, real or perceived, of that asymmetry by the powerful over the powerless. And even more likely it’s due to an acute sense of injustice over past abuses and an unwillingness or inability to forgive.

When you’ve been the victim of what you perceive to be an injustice you feel like someone owes you something. There’s a debt outstanding. And until that debt is paid, until “justice is done”, you cannot rest easy and certainly your relationship with that person or tribe or institution will not be happy or healthy. The deep tragedy of those unwilling to forgive, however, is that non-forgiveness represents a holding on, almost a dependency, almost a sense of powerlessness. It’s as though the offender dominates you, controls and manipulates you, keeps you from sleeping, keeps you from enjoying yourself, keeps you from “moving on” to form new and better relationships. And all this while they, usually, walk around blissfully unaware they’ve done anything wrong!

Relational Proximity Dimension #4 is Parity or Balance. The greater the asymmetry of power between me and someone else, the greater the potential for difficult and strained relationships. This asymmetry can be real or perceived, and its affect on relationships can be more about the use and misuse of power than the mere existence of power disparity.

That all sounds like a major power asymmetry to me. But in this case the exercise of that power, in what almost feels like even further abuse, is entirely self-inflicted. Yes, of course, if the offender somehow repays something then in a sense justice is done. But their attempts at righting the wrong mean nothing if you don’t forgive them.

It seems that one of the major reasons for relational problems caused by power asymmetry is that we equate power with value. The second major reason is that we ascribe or devolve power to another simply by not forgiving them. These two things we can evidently do something about. Can you imagine the mental and relational liberation if we saw people as equally valuable (no matter how powerful they were) and if we forgave them (even if they didn’t seek forgiveness)? These things are within our responsibility and ability to do.

However, the Power problem of forgiveness also works the other way, maybe more so. It’s less about you having a sense of powerlessness because you can’t let go of the offense of the other person. Rather, YOU hold the power over the offender because you refuse to forgive. This is where the language of ‘debt’ is helpful. Who holds the power, the lender or the person with the debt? If you know what it feels not to be forgiven when you’re desperately sorry, you know how much power the offended person has.

In any case, whether you’re the offender or the offended, whether you feel powerless or powerful, an awareness of this dynamic can help explain why the relationship feels as it does. It also points to the need for candid and courageous conversation where confession and forgiveness can happen.

In the series Relational Living, Simon Fowler explores what Relational Thinking means in our day-to-day lives. The articles appeared earlier on his personal blog and are republished with his permission. The first three in this series were published on 9,  16 and 23 January.