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7. Relational Sociology

 

The idea of ‘relational sociology’ might sound like a tautology. Surely sociology is, by definition, the study of social relations, and therefore ‘relational’? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Nick Crossley’s book Towards Relational Sociology (Routledge 2011), argues that the relationality which ought to be foundational to sociology is very often lost in a sea of abstractions which encourage us to think of both individuals and societies as self-sufficient atomic entities, blinding us to relationality. Meanwhile, in research practice we have settled upon approaches which have much the same effect. We tend to identify the properties of individual entities, whether human individuals or corporate entities such as organisations and nations, and having nothing to say about relations and interactions between them. At best this renders collective life a mere aggregation of multiple individual elements. The connections between those elements are rendered invisible. In response, Crossley argues for the primacy of interactions, relations and networks, arguing both that ‘social structures’ are networks of interaction/relations (and, as such, are always in process) and that individual actors and their actions are formed within such networks.

These ideas are not only intended for theory seminars, they should also inform research practice. This doesn’t mean throwing everything out and starting again. The way in which we use the methods we have is often as important as the methods themselves. Any approach might be useful. However, we do need to think more about methods which allow us to explore relational processes and structures, breaking out of the individualisation which is so strongly embedded in currently sociological research practice. A key method which Crossley argues will allow us to do this is social network analysis.

 

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