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Emirbayer, Mustafa. "Manifesto for a Relational Sociology."

Emirbayer, Mustafa. "Manifesto for a Relational Sociology." The American Journal of Sociology 103.2 (Sept 1997): 281-317.


Sociologists today are faced with a fundamental dilemma: whether to conceive of the social world as consisting primarily in substances or processes, in static "things" or in dynamic, unfolding relations (281).

The key question confronting sociologists in the present day is not "material versus ideal," "structure versus agency," "individual versus society," or any of the other dualisms so often noted; rather, it is the choice between substantialism and relationalism (282).

The relational point of view on social action and historical change can most usefully be characterized by comparing it with its opposite, the substantialist perspective. The latter takes as its point of departure the notion that it is substances of various kinds (things, beings, essences) that constitute the fundamental units of all inquiry (282).

Dewey & Bentley: 2 varieties of susbstantialism: self-action (doctrines of the will, rational choice theory, game theory, norm-following, structuralisms) and inter-action (variable-centered approach).

Fundamentally opposed to both varieties of substantialism is the perspective of trans-action, "where systems of description and naming are employed to deal with aspects and phases of action, without final attribution to 'elements' or other presumptively detachable or independent 'entities,' 'essences,' or 'realities,' and without isolation of presumptively detachable 'relations' from such detachable 'elements'" (Dewey and Bentley 1949, p. 108). In this point of view, which I shall also label "relational," the very terms or units involved in a transaction derive their meaning, significance, and identity from the (changing) functional roles they play within that transaction (285-6).

Relational theorists reject the notion that one can posit discrete, pregiven units such as the individual or society as ultimate starting points of sociological analysis (as in the self-actional perspective) (287).

(Niklas Luhmann in footnote on 288)

What is distinct about the transactional approach is that it sees relations between terms or units as preeminently dynamic in nature, as unfolding, ongoing processes rather than as static ties among inert substances (289).

Theoretical Implications: macro and micro

macro: rethink power, equality, freedom, agency

Goffman example of meso: Of paramount importance in "the proper study of [face-to-face] interaction," he argues, "is not the individual and his psychology, but rather the syntactical relations among the acts of different persons mutually present to one another" (Goffman 1967, p. 2) (295).

micro: individual, self-formation

Research Directions: In this section, I shall consider several of these more empirical lines of investigation, using as my main organizing principle the idea of three trans personal, relational contexts within which all social action unfolds: social structure, culture, and social psychology (298).

SNA "best developed" approach to analysis of social structure

etworks usually mean disparities in access to both information and control benefits. Network analysts draw heavily upon the methodologies of sociometry and graph theory (the mathematical study of structural patterns in points and lines) to formally represent social figurations (299).

Saussure, Peirce, Bakhtin, Jakobson (300)
Collins, Latour (302)

Challenges: Despite its many important contributions, this perspective still confronts a number of unanswered questions. In the section that follows, I shall survey the most significant of these problems, taking up in turn the issues of boundaries and entities, network dynamics, causality, and normative implications (303).

Boundaries: diff to match up observer's boundaries with perceptions of participants (Bourdieu "solves" it tautologically).

Dynamics: diff to preserve motion, avoid falling back into substantialism

Causality: diff to avoid positing invisible substances as causes

Normativity: is there a critical, debunking element to unfreezing static substance? should there be? description v prescription


I'm already following up on some of the citations from this article, so it's already been very useful in that regard.

There are definitely some places where it matches up for me with Latour's more recent work, and not just because of the citation. BL's emphasis on tracing associations and not falling back into "the social" as substance clicks with this article pretty well.

It's broader than I need, although it sticks to a really useful good, bad, site sort of outline structure that's helpful. And I can see where this will be helpful in framing some of the arguments I want to make about disciplinarity. Disciplines, as hybrid socio-textual networks, are heavily invested in a substantialist approach to knowledge, seems to me--theories and trends get nominalized very quickly into disciplinary currency.

So, not lots of additional thoughts, but I can see how this piece could function as something of a touchstone for me, keeping me from falling prey to an overemphasis on structure at the expense of dynamics.