To Relate Is to Constitute, Not Just Cause: Bringing Relations Back to Social Science Methodology

Tuesday, 17 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Peeter SELG, Tallinn University, Estonia
In the paper I outline two major understandings of “relational approaches” in the social sciences, which I refer to as “inter-actionalism” and “trans-actionalism” with reference to Dewey and Bentley’s distinction between three understandings of social action (self-action, inter-action, trans-action). I argue that the major difference between these understandings is not in their emphasis on the centrality of social relations in making sense of social phenomena but in their implicit understanding of the form of those relations. In addition to outlining the major differences between those two understandings I also discuss possible dialogue between them and illustrate it with examples from sociology as well as political science and governance. I argue that the major difference between inter-actionalism and trans-actionalism is that the former sees the form of social relations to be causal in nature, whereas the latter sees them in terms of constitution. By bringing out this distinction between causation and constitution (and their interconnection) that leads back to at least Immanuel Kant, and articulating the methodological consequences of causal and constitutive theorizing/explanation I aim to clarify in a concise vocabulary the core of deep relational or trans-actional version of relational sociology (promoted among others by Emirbayer, Dépelteau, and the author of the current paper) and put forth some concrete guidelines for conducting trans-actional empirical research. I also argue that even though trans-actional approach might not be necessary for untangling every social problem, it is of special relevance for approaching hyper-complex problems (often referred to as “wicked problems”) that we ever increasingly encounter in our everyday political scene.