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.

Why giving is good for you

Making time for people brings us happiness on the side. That’s what I wrote in my post on 20th Feb 2015, “In pursuit of happiness”. But just how powerful is this link? Are we really better off when we give into the lives of others? Are other people better off? Are we all as a community better off?

We can test it out by looking at data from the ‘Citizenship Survey.’ Over 38,000 people in England and Wales were interviewed face to face between 2007 and 2011. They were asked questions about their giving, and also about their community. The Citizenship Survey also included official statistics regarding the deprivation levels of every ward in which the people were interviewed. With this data then, we can make some credible assessments regarding whether giving behaviors in a region relate to how well those regions are doing (see fig.1).

Giving Charter - article Lorna Zischka

Fig1: The correlations between giving behaviors and community welfare (all correlations are statistically significant).

Key:Table LZThese diagrams give a flavor of just how closely giving behaviors are linked to community wellbeing. Firstly we see that giving and trust go together. ‘Giving’ sends a message of care for others, which is a trustworthy behavior and stimulates trust in others. Having said that, ‘giving’ and ‘trust’ are also mutually reinforcing and neither is likely to keep going for long without the other. Secondly we see how giving is linked to reduced deprivation. For a start giving is a way of counteracting deprivation and so people in giving/supportive networks are likely to be doing better than people without them. As before though, ‘giving’ and ‘low deprivation’ might also be mutually reinforcing; well situated people in a pleasant social environment are freed up to give.  (Source: Citizenship Survey data, 2008-2011. Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Supplied by the UK Data Archive. Calculations drawn from a paper presented by Zischka at ‘Relational Academics,’ September 2015, Cambridge.)

We can test the same trust and deprivation data against other variables that might potentially explain why welfare differs in different regions. Try for example average income, health, education, employment or ethnic mix – all of which are known to be important social variables affecting welfare. The data indicates that none of these could predict trust and deprivation quite as precisely as giving behaviors could. In other words, whether or not people ‘give’ is right up there with the very most important socio-economic indicators of wellbeing.

And these figures are just a start. Many other studies have been carried out to show that people who give time or money away to others actually feel better afterwards than those who spend that same time or money on their own private consumption. Personal consumption makes people feel good for the moment, but (unless that consumption is essential to life) the feeling does not last for long. However, small, repeated expenditures of time and money with or for other people stack up to a greater sense of wellbeing over time.

So why is this? What is it about giving that makes such a difference? The key is the link between giving and relationship. Relationships take time and money to build, and they won’t go far without a bit of give and take. Giving, when it comes down to it, is an indication that the giver is including other people in the decisions they make over the way they spend their time and money, and it’s this consideration for others that comprises the heart of relationship. To turn this around, we can tell how good a relationship is by whether or not a person is putting time and money into others instead of spending exclusively on him or herself. Good relationships and giving people go with better outcomes for the community. Note that giving does not guarantee a return to the giver, and to expect one is to miss the point, but we can see that our giving makes the world a little bit better for someone else. This leaves the eternal question of priorities for every individual to grapple with: what really matters to me, me or us? We shouldn’t just be looking at what we get out of the system – let’s also measure what we put into it!

By Lorna Zischka


Changing the Game for Drug Addicts

In January, we posted an article that briefly discussed a new book by Johann Hari about drug addiction. Today, Andre Van Eymeren, who worked for one of our member organisations ‘Partnering for Transformation’, writes a more in depth article based on Hari’s work.

What comes to mind when you think of drug addiction? Spaced out people, down and outers, alley ways littered with tags and needles, mental health issues, violence, the drain on society, people experiencing a lack of purpose and meaning, runaways. I guess for the most part the term conjures up fairly negative images and causes us to hold people suffering from drug addiction at arms length or further.

Some of the outcomes can of course be very scarey. People addicted to Ice for example can become violent at the slightest (perceived) provocation and the researchers are saying that the drug even begins to change brain chemistry. Currently they are not sure if this is reversible. All of this paints a pretty grim picture.

Enter into this dark landscape an article by Johann Hari, featured recently in  The Huffington Post. Based on the research for his book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, he “learned… that almost everything we have been told about addiction is wrong and there is a very different story waiting for us, if only we are ready to hear it.”

For Hari the journey has been a very personal one, beginning as a child trying to wake up a relative and not being able to. From that time he has mulled as I’m sure many of us have on what causes some people to become fixated on a drug or a behavior until they can’t stop? Learning from friends who have first hand experience, the pain of seeing a loved one battle with the ups and mostly downs of addiction and attempting to loose themselves from it and falling over and over again is excruciating. And in no way to blame them, for self-protection, eventually most family and friends remove themselves from the lives of the addicted person. Unfortunately this tends to have the effect of further cementing a lifestyle of addiction.

Hari writes, “if you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: ‘Drugs. Duh’” As you would be aware drugs have a strong chemical hook and so if we were to take them for a period of time and suddenly stopped the belief is our body would crave them.  This theory was established through tests on rats, carried out in America. A rat placed in a cage on its own with two water bottles, one plain water, the other laced with heroin or cocaine. Time and time again the rat would become obsessed with the latter bottle till essentially it killed itself.

In the 1970’s some alternate experiments were run by, Vancouver Professor of Psychology, Bruce Alexander. He built what came to be known as Rat Park. This cage had coloured balls, the best rat food, tunnels and friends. And again the two bottles were set up. This time the results were significantly different. The rats residing at Rat Park mostly shunned the drug laced water bottle, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. None of the rats living in the second happy environment became heavy users.

According to Hari and the studies he uses as evidence, returning soldiers from the Vietnam war provided a useful human equivalent. Many soldiers on deployment (20%) understandably used drugs to combat fear etc. When they returned 95% of that 20% simply stopped without the use rehab. What was different? Their environment. From being terrified everyday the soldiers returned to relatively pleasant home lives which left the need for the drug redundant.

Professor Alexander made a fascinating observation challenging the view that drugs are a moral failing as well as the more liberal opinion that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. He argues that addiction is an adaption. It’s got more to do with your environment than what is going on inside you. Of course your reactions to your environment may be another story. He re-ran the old experiments with the isolated rats, they became hooked, then he placed them in Rat Park and after a few twitches they got on with a happy life, addiction free, with no desire for the drug.

A further case for this theory of addiction is pain relief in hospital. For severe pain, patients effectively receive heroin at a much higher purity and potency than addicts on the street. After months of use hospital patients can simply stop. It virtually never happens that a patient then transfers their addiction to the street and they leave hospital trying to score on the way home. But the same drug wreaks havoc in the lives of users on the streets.

Hari points out, “…the drug is the same but the environment is different.” The hospital patient for the most part is going home to an environment where they are loved and cared for. The street user suffers continual isolation and rejection.

The issue then, according to Professor Peter Cohen, is not the drug but human bonding. We are created to bond to others, to form attachment, relationship. If these essentials go missing then we will bond with other things. For some this includes drugs of all sorts and others gambling and alternate addictive behaviours.

If we accept this theory of addiction then it is a huge challenge to the way we work with addicts. By in large the social services are not equipped to adapt to a relational approach to service delivery. Professionalisation of care and the perceived need for professional distance has meant in some cases a de-personalisation, particularly around people with complex needs, which are often compounded by drug addiction.

If we are to believe the points that Hari raises and take on board people’s need for bonding relationships, then as service providers the concern will not only be for the individual but for their network of relationships, their community if you like. Now many of these might be burnt but focusing on their relational web will be a starting point in the recovery process. Quite often people addicted to drugs will find themselves homeless and in boarding houses. How can housing providers work to ensure positive environments where relationships and attachments will form, which will negate the need for the drug. In Melbourne there are an increasing number of rooming houses that focus these concerns. Servants of Hawthorn and Magpie’s Nest are two examples.

This approach to working with people addicted to drugs also provides a window for churches, Rotary, Lions and other welfare minded community organisations. People with addictions often need new networks of relationships, opportunity to connect with people who will share life and journey with them. Obviously if there are family and friends left in the addict’s life who can provide these relationships in a positive environment that is a better option. But if these relationships have been burnt alternate connections are needed.

As humans we have an innate need to connect meaningfully with others, why then do we seem to have the propensity to deny this connection to people who it could be argued need it the most?