The Art of Presumption Versus the Work of Relating

It is my sincerest hope, as part of my own interest in public sociology, to shape much of the analysis that appears in the blog to the principles of relational thinking. In this post I intend to develop further what I have come to understand by this concept of ‘relational’ but first I will deal with its opposite, which is substantialism. These interpretations are mostly drawn from Manifesto for a Relational Sociology by Mustafa Emirbayer (1997) and from Pierre Bourdieu’s attempts at developing a relational approach.

Defining Substantialism: the Antithesis of Relationalism

Substantialist social scientists treat their research objects as though they are somehow unaffected by the world around them and theorise in a manner given to unexamined preconceptions concerning said object.  Drawing upon a discussion, between Dewey and Bentley, Emirbayer (1997) comes to disapprovingly define a substantialist method as consisting of a priori objects or essences which are static components of what is being studied. These are presumed independent of the world of relations (the systems of material, social and symbolic relations which constitute the universe) and thus lack a sense of history or process (Emirbayer, 1997, 283-6).

A prime example of substantialist approaches can be found in the research methodologies that reduce the analysis of behaviour and perception to the individuals themselves: something of which psychology and economics are often guilty.  Sometimes this is accompanied by a presumption of some fixed human nature such as individual self-interest or an evolutionary hardwired behavioural reflex or bias. The latter’s fight-or-flight explanations are supported by other presumptions, such as the theory that the miniscule nature of civilisation’s 12,000 years on earth in comparison to the vast period spent as hunter gatherers somehow proves  evolution has anachronistically locked the reflexes of our brains (Camakaris, 2012; Gardner, 2008; Hagens, 2010). This leaves little room for acknowledging socialisation and the impact of being part of a complex civilisation. It is as though emerging from the social histories of Catholicism, capitalism, nationalism, the English language, mass media etc., has had absolutely no effect on who we are or where we’re going.

The idea that humans are rational calculating beings bent on the conscious fulfilment of certain intentions forms another substantialist a priori. Rational or consumer choice models from economics subscribe to and reinforce this notion. However, human beings are as Bourdieu states “not in possession of the totality of the meaning of their behavio[u]r as an immediate datum of consciousness and their actions always encompass more meaning than they know or wish” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 8, fn 14). The a priori assumptions of conscious intentions, or choices, aimed towards evaluated actions and outcomes, ignores “the intentionality without intention” or “practical intentionality” whereby actions can occur through a pre-reflective practical mastery (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 20). Deep down we have a sense from past experiences of how to act without necessarily deliberating on a planned outcome (this stems from being dispositional beings out of necessity; if we were instead inclined towards conscious deliberation it would takes us much too long just to get out of the bed and dress ourselves in the morning).

To compensate for the shortcomings of rational choice explanations for behaviour, psychologists included the personal factor of ‘attitude’ in their models. The addition of attitude is indicative of the trend in behavioural models for an expansion of variables towards an array of variable-centric approaches (Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2002). These approaches all subscribe to an ABC formula whereby values and attitudes (A) are seen to “drive the kinds of behaviour (the B) that individuals choose (the C) to adopt” (Shove, 2010: 1274). The ABC formula is predominantly based on the famous Ajzen and Fishbein Theory of Reasoned Action model (Shove, 2010)[1](Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2002). Along with attitude, this model incorporates a social component consisting of “normative beliefs concerning the prescriptions of others” (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980, p. 239): i.e., whether others, important to the person, think they should or should not carry out the behaviour. In the model intention to act is driven by normative beliefs and the attitudes that emerge from the expectations and values held concerning the behaviour’s outcome. Intention is seen as “the immediate antecedent” to carrying out the actual behaviour (Jackson, 2005, 46).

This ABC logic underlies much of the variable-centred research (Emirbayer, 1997, 285-6) which has become common in researching public attitudes, opinions and responses: e.g., the EU’s Eurobarometer surveys on European attitudes or the typical opinion poll that regularly pop-up in national broadsheets.

However, despite the add-ons, Ajzen and Fishbein’s and other ABC models, maintain much of the rational (Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2002) choice component, such as behaviour based on planning, choice and intention. The social components are elusive and under-theorised. Unlike Bourdieu, they do not offer any model of the relations of society itself but exist solely to prop up futile attempts to model a ‘universal’ individual.

Bentley and Dewey also characterise this variable-centred approach as substantialist because it depicts variables as repetitively causing the movement between agents irrespective of the agents themselves and their social context. The depiction is of actors, “much like billiard balls”, propelled against each other by their properties of income, gender, education, or personal variables such as attitude (Emirbayer, 1997). Bourdieu also recognises this substantialism when he critiques the “illusion of the constancy of the variables” (Bourdieu, 1984: 18). In reality, he states, that the independent variable (e.g., age, income) and its connection to behaviour is dependent upon sociocultural relations, which can transform the import of this relationship. The significance of age for example changes as society changes. The extension of the age of retirement or average time spent in education can alter what a specific age comes to represent (ibid) along with the dispositions of those bearing the age. Hailing from a culture and community geared to empowering the elderly is liable to encourage much different associations with regard to age than a person whose socio-cultural space nullifies them. Hence many variable-centric surveys which link such variables as income, age, gender to specific perceptions or behaviours remain confined within the substantialist umbrella, as they fail to examine the socio-historical relations behind their independent variables. As Bourdieu notes behaviour is never totally explained through some linear connection to an isolated factor (Bourdieu, 1984: 378). Instead there are “systems of factors” involved (Brubaker, 1985: 767). For Bourdieu these systems are found in the external societal relations and in the internal systems of dispositions of groups and individuals (ibid).

Essentially the inherent weakness in individualizing substantialist approaches[2] is the rendering of society as the ‘forgotten other’. The evolutionary psychology explanations tend to obliterate the role of societal contexts by standardising individual psychologies; over-emphasising ancient pre-civilisation legacies and selfish gene survival strategies. The rational-choice model presumes that people act as atomised individuals, according to their self-interests, using cognitive deliberation to achieve outcomes. These three uncritical assertions also form the bare bones of all the value-attitude models, or attitude, behaviour and choice (ABC) models (Shove, 2010): despite their claims to distinction.  Even if the social is mentioned the individual remains the central object of research whilst society is externalised through some vague “passing references” (Shove, 2010: 1276): “normative beliefs” [3] (Ajzen and Fishnein, 1980), “social norms”, “contextual factors” etc., (Jackson, 2005, 48, 60, 92).

Substantialist views such as these are not merely resigned to the social researchers but are widespread in society. A potential consequence of viewing the world in this very limited manner is that the public, policy makers, campaigners overemphasise the immutable nature of human behaviour and under-appreciate the role of society. When seeking to bring about mass behavioural change this outlook only serves to support the reduction of options to mere appeals to fixed assumptions about humans and their supposed values, concerns, interests etc. A radical transformation of societal structures is left off the agenda. With the substantialist omission of society, power is generally seen as resting in each individual via their behaviour, choice and psychological make-up. Such an outlook supports individualisation of responsibility for social problems such as the Power of One campaign that was set up in Ireland to encourage the lowering of carbon emissions. This campaign appealed to individuals to change energy-related behaviour: the primary incentive being financial savings accruing from energy efficiency (SEAI, 2013). Thus the campaign classed the carbon footprint of Ireland’s über-emitters – an upper echelon which contains the holders of private jets; superyachts and colossal mansions (Irish Independent 2013: 18-19, 21-22) – as effectively the same as persons living in small semi-detached houses in suburban Galway. This is an example of just how this outlook overlooks any workings of power in society and the possibilities for structural social change (of course the campaign may also reflect that politicians are not interested in significant changes that would alter the status quo).

The Countermanding Relationalism and the Significance of Relations within Our Everyday World

Resisting substantialism requires recognition that human drives, values, social structures and social norms change throughout history (recognition of this fact enables Foucault to critique contemporary reified notions of sexuality). Every entity is connected to society and susceptible to change as the relations it is immersed in change (Emirbayer, 1997) (as in the examples of age given above). Such recognition requires, not just reference to the individual, but to society’s historically unfolding processes of material and sociocultural relations (Emirbayer, 1997: 287) which influence the drives, values, structures and norms. Research that bases investigation on these relations subscribes to “relationalism” (ibid: 291).

Relational social science locates the object of research in terms of the systems of material, social and historical relations in which the object has undergone a process of development to reach the current condition of investigation. Take interest for example – the substantialist notion of interest reduced to material, economic or status gains fails to recognise how “historically variable” and socioculturally induced interests actually are. In contrast, a relational approach  such as Bourdieu’s, recognises the systems of social relations involved and thereby expands “the sphere of interest while reducing that of utility and consciousness[4] (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 25). Therefore rather than being an eternal absolute behind human motivation, self-interest[5] is an “historical arbitrary” where conceivably the capitalist promotion and rewarding of egoistical values breaths life to the disposition of individual self-interest itself (ibid: 116).

Relational sociology is far from straightforward (this is always the case with anything Bourdieu is attached to). Conceptualizing Relational Sociology – an edited publication that came out last year  – originally seems to have had ambitions towards some definitive elaboration of what relational sociology is, only to find widely varying views from what contributing authors considered to be social relations. In the rest of this post I limit my concerns to what Bourdieu seems to consider social relations to be. A key statement by Bourdieu which indicates where his understanding of social relations lies is as follows:

what exist in the social world are relations – not interactions between agents or intersubjective ties between individuals, but objective relations which exist “independently of individual consciousness and will,” as Marx said. (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 97).

These objective relations are central to Bourdieu’s work (bear in mind that he defines one of his core concepts field as “a network, or a configuration, of objective relations between positions” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992)). They reflect the influence of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure[6] as Bourdieu recognises that the universe is rendered meaningful through “differential relations”: “meaning is given to the letter ‘A’ by noticing that A ≠ B, C, and all other signs” (Schinkel and Tacq, 2004: 64). In the same way as a ‘tree’ is meaningless in a world of its own but makes sense through contrast in a world also containing ‘hedge’ ‘flower’ and ‘elephant’ “to understand a phoneme you must place it in a system of phonemes” (Bourdieu in Carles, 2002). The systems of signs and practices along with material relations (e.g., his oft referred to relations of necessity of the working classes) are the objective relations he is referring to. Making sense of the world requires a sense of how these innumerable objects relate and compare.

This act of comparison is essential to Bourdieu and goes right to the heart of his relationalism. A painting, for instance, should always be thought of “in relation to the space of paintings that were painted then”; “to understand what someone does you have to understand what that person is not doing too” (Bourdieu in Carles, 2002). Bourdieu’s “field of class relations” (Bourdieu, 1991: 186) can be seen as the broad societal configuration of differential homologies of social space. Social space is another Bourdieusian concept: referring to spaces where groups and individuals hold homologous, economic, social, symbolic, educational and cultural resources (Bourdieu, 1989: 17). For example, agents that share a social space would include budding Irish sociologists, with middle-class backgrounds, nearing the end of their doctoral thesis.  All of these differences are ultimately based on different configurations of objective relations: i.e., the differing systems of objective relations of fields (e.g., field of education, field of sport) and of class or social space and the routine experience and reaction to these objective relations, which leads to the formation of the dispositions which guide peoples’ responses to the world.

Although much of Bourdieu’s work concentrates on the reproduction of class structure, via maintaining power relations through the structured imbalance of resources, this relationality renders his sociology sensitive to continuous change. Changes in the validity of certain objective relations can have knock on effects throughout his mutually dependent concepts (i.e. habitus, capital and field). New or previously overlooked practices, technologies, issues etc., are assimilated into sections of society, toppling old legitimacies. Such developments as recognition of the subconscious; the internet; neoliberalism – along with the rise of environmentalism and the crisis of climate change  – have all become interwoven into new objective relations, bringing societal, dispositional and aspirational transformations.

It is through difference, founded  on differing configurations of objective relations, that societal symbolic power is able to wield its effect: when certain objects – discourses, skills, consumer goods, etc – accumulate a level of status and legitimacy above other objects, powerful symbolic hierarchies are established. Thus the scientificity of the visiting academic can garner greater attention and validity on the departmental corridor than the words of a passing cleaner spoken in the local dialect. Often these differences are structured around pre-existing cognitive divisions such as “masculine/feminine, young/old, noble/common, or rich/poor” (Bourdieu, 1999: 336). Using such “principle[s] of division”, a symbolic profit is to be had by legitimating and attaching oneself to a particular distinction. A particular lifestyle can enrich the bearer with symbolic power by way of deviation from lifestyles equated with “ordinary, common, banal, ‘average’” (Bourdieu, 1999: 337).

The effect of power founded on these relations of difference is supported by the large role of the practical or the unconscious in how human beings operate. The often unwitting nature of how we come to sense or perceive the world means that the underlying relations and work of history involved in bolstering contemporary variants of honour, prestige or status that certain groups emit is often not recognised (their privilege, the arbitrary origins of their ‘heightened sense of fashion’). This recognition of the role of the unconscious in relational sociology adds to its complexity. The unconscious raises the question as to whether human perception and behaviour is merely the outcome of particular configurations of objective relations (hierarchies, homologies, value systems, lifestyles) being absorbed into the unconscious or are relations negotiated in a conscious manner? For Bourdieu the unconscious and conscious are generally co-existing through a “practical apprehension” or a “fuzzy logic” (Wacquant, 1992: 11, 19). (This is another part of his relationalism which sees Bourdieu talk of transcending artificial dichotomies such as freedom/determination, conscious/unconscious, individual/society). Consciousness is co-dependent on unconsciousness: for example thinking discursively requires access to an unconscious repository of language stored in the unconscious. In this way the absorption, of societal configurations of objective relations and our reactions towards them, into our minds and bodies (i.e., into the habitus) is both restrictive and enabling. The dispositions we acquire limit expectations and possibilities on the basis of how they have been shaped in this manner while at the same time they provide us with capacity, a resource of dispositions and classificatory guides (Lizardo, 2004: 7-8), to be drawn upon in the immediacy of a moment. In this way “mastering an art” that one has access to via the “inheritances and acquisitions” of their social space expands liberty (Bourdieu, 1999: 340). For example absorbing the complex terminology of the economic field within habitus enables a person to articulate themselves through a powerful economic discourse.

This nuanced reading of objective relations allows Bourdieu to develop a conception of agency based upon his notion “strategy” which (again more practical than conscious and calculative) utilises a sense (a feel for the game) of objective relations’ hierarchies to produce an effect of agency upon the world.  Consequently academics can, in using the close fit of their theories to “common expectations” and the “façade of scientificity”, “exploit the plurality of principles of hierarchization and the low degree of objectification of symbolic capital” so as to “impose their vision” (Bourdieu and Collier, 1988: 13-14).

The same relations of difference and conception of strategy are true for Bourdieu’s position on interactions. Just like the individual is not purely determined by the configuration of objective relations neither are interactions (which is pretty much the opposite of what Bottero and Crossley (2011) have argued). Recognizing a relational society means that agents and their interactions are not conjured out of thin air within the social exchange. Instead, they come bearing traces of the outside world within their dispositions, and within the actions, their dispositional capacities enable them to carry out, by virtue of the socio-historical practices reproduced and adapted on the occasion:

[e]very confrontation between agents in fact brings together, in an interaction…systems of dispositions (carried by “natural persons”) such as a linguistic competence and a cultural competence and, through these habitus, all the objective structures of which they are the product, structures which are active only when embodied in a competence acquired in the course of a particular history (with the different types of bilingualism or pronunciation, for example, stemming from different modes of acquisition) (Bourdieu, 1977: 81).

This quote highlights how the outside world also enters the social exchange via interactions themselves being so many objective relations. The discourses used, overt emotions, accents, ways of being, are all part of the systems of relations crossing paths in the moment of the exchange. When activated, they and, by extension, the interaction becomes “an effective relation, a relation actualized in and by a particular exchange” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 113). Thus returning to the ‘key statement’ above “what exist in the social world are relations” and interactions are just such relations.

Recognising interactions as objective relations offers many implications as to the significance of our daily routines and actions. As part of systems of objective relations, broader societal power relations enter the interactions: this bears social hierarchies into the exchange. The objective relations pertaining to the interaction carry symbolic power. This means that they are ranked and valued via their position in the dominant societal symbolic order, but also via the order of the field and the social space of the agents. Through a practical sense of how the objective relations within an exchange are configured or hierarchised communicators can adapt their contributions so as to position themselves – or their ideas, arguments, beliefs etc., – favourably within the exchange: e.g., “the rhetoric of scientificity”[7] can be employed to consecrate a particular argument. The latter amounts to the strategy, that is, – the agency – of the communicators.

Consequently everyday social exchanges are not simply ‘interactions’, as the narrow definition of the word defines them, but subtle manoeuvrings of relations of power “that oppose individuals and groups in the routine interactions of daily life”. Constituting “a stake in the struggles”[8] are “the systems of classification” (Wacquant, 1992: 14): “mental and bodily schemata that function as symbolic templates for the practical activities ­conduct, thoughts, feelings, and judgments ­of social agents” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 7). The objects of the occasion, the internalised systems of classification of agents, and the strategies employed, hierarchically configures the interactive moment[9] and contributes to the ranking of objective relations present. Due to these everyday “relational interactions” (Fox, forthcoming) members of the public have possibilities at a local level, of partaking in the continuous struggle over the legitmacy of certain relations. Certain stances, interpretations or particular ways of being, which are constituted in the broader world of sociocultural relations, have their – often unwitting – followers who during an interaction are engaged in the dissemination or advocacy of that which they follow. Consequently the participants of any interaction or discussion are involved, largely unbeknownst to themselves, in a struggle to impose a certain vision of the world (Wacquant, 1992, 14): e.g., over what are the legitimate discussion topics, justifications, tempo, intonation, gestures, emotions etc., for certain situations.

I must confess that this was merely intended to be few paragraphs. As always my attempt to render discussion of Bourdieu as accessible has led to overwriting. I believe this to be a central cause as to why my PhD candidacy has carried over into its fifth year. Anyway to develop my understanding of relational sociology further I am looking forward to getting my hands on Conceptualizing Relational Sociology. The work also contains a chapter by Emirbayer which looks promising. There is also a need to combine into this account of relational sociology the role of inner dialogue and emotions. I’ll be sure to return to this concept again at a future date.



[1] Ajzen and Fishbein’s Theory of Planned Behaviour that Shove focuses on is itself based on their earlier prototype of Reasoned Action.

[2] Emibayer also refers to socially substantialist approaches wherein social structures push interminably their changeless determinants upon passive agents or the public is viewed in terms of its zombie-like adherence to static social norms.

[3] Beliefs about what others think concerning how you should act.

[4] Italics are from the original source.

[5] Economists might argue that their rational action theories are merely for guidance and that the approach is open to recognition of many interests beside material and economic interests. This is where the notion of ‘preference’ comes in (Economist, 1998). Preferences are supposedly multi-variable and so a preference for environmentally friendliness can trump that of economic self-interest. However, Bourdieu is aware of the problems with that. Firstly the approach pays no heed to the social origins of the preferences or the practices behind the preferences and that its continuous use of these guides (especially with the interest reduced to economic interest) means that economists are wont succumb to the “dogmatic temptation”: “Forgetting the abstractions that they have had to bring into operation in order to produce their theoretical artefact, they give it as a complete and adequate explanation; or else they claim that the action whose model they have constructed has this model as its base. More generally, they seek to impose universally the philosophy which implicitly haunts all economic thought” (Bourdieu, 1990: 47-8). In essence he is saying here that the use of the model becomes confused with reality.

[6] Although Bourdieu takes issue with the Saussurian distinction of ‘langue’ (i.e., an autonomous and homogenous system of signs) and ‘parole’ (i.e., the performative realization of that system through speech) (Thompson in Bourdieu, 1991: 4-5). This detachment of langue analytically renders it as devoid of socio-historical and situated relations “which have established a particular set of Linguistic practices as dominant and legitimate” (Thompson in Bourdieu, 1991: 5-7).

[7] For Bourdieu “scientificity” involves cloaking an object – an occupation; an argument – in anything that intimates the appearance of being scientific, thereby legitimating the object through being associated with science’s prestige. This can involve the use of expert labels such as “heat engineer” (Bourdieu, 2005: 64) or the use of opinion polls to bolster the facade of objectivity (Bourdieu, 1991: 177, 273). The rhetoric of scientificity “receives part of its properties” through how these employed scientific associations objectively relate to – e.g., contrast, reflect, outrank – other possible discourses and objects that constitute a different style  (Bourdieu and Collier, 1988: 29). In short the rhetoric of scientificity becomes distinguishable by what it is not, such as a literary rhetoric. It also gains power through being legitimated, in certain situations, above other styles of rhetoric. Objective relations are composed of such systemic and often hierarchical relations

[8] Italics are from the source.

[9] For an analogy see description of televised discussion (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 256- 9).


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