Start Making Sense

Human beings cannot adequately function in the world without the use of their senses, sight, taste and the rest vital tools for comprehending external reality. Life itself would be virtually impossible to negotiate if the physical senses were removed from human
physiology. Combined with what are known as ‘internal’ senses (neurological receptors and the like), they constitute core and integral aspects of what it means to be human.

As alluded to in A sense of belonging, however, there is another set of core and integral senses that help make meaning out of reality, senses that are located in the relational world. There are many of these – a sense of honour, a sense of pride, a sense of shame, a sense of embarrassment, a sense of acceptance, a sense of betrayal, for example. Unlike touch and sight, these senses are not primarily physiological in nature – instead these senses belong in the realm of the relational. In the same way one can
sense light and physical pain instantly, one is finely tuned to the opinions and actions of others that reflect back on oneself. It is no wonder we can sense a dirty look through the back of our heads. The traditional senses like sight and sound, however, prove practically useless in this regard.

Just as the physical body provides a home for physical senses, the relational world provides a context within which relational senses play themselves out. If this is the case then (a case Dirty Looks is keen to explore in depth), why has it not received sufficient attention? Why has the relational played second fiddle to other worlds that cannot adequately explain why other people matter so much to us?

There are a number of possible reasons for this oversight:

  • Cartesianism (see Bourdieu contra Bourdieu and future posts)
  • the relational world is so close one is unable to perceive its existence
  • rationality, or at least extreme versions of it – i.e., the use of reason as a buffer
    against emotion
  • embarrassment over what the relational world means (who wants to be reminded of personal shame, humiliation, jealousy?)
  • the concept of culture.

All of these reasons have played some role in the marginalising of relationality. But special mention must be made of the last, culture. A popular concept in the social sciences for decades, culture has been used (knowingly or unknowingly) to cover up a multitude of sins, the concept used as a theoretical and political football between left and right through the never ending (and aptly named) culture wars. The predominance of culture as a methodological and theoretical framework has helped to saturate the potential space available to the relational as an analytical tool. The good news is that, if culture, a vague and ill-defined concept, can find favour in the realm of modern ideas, surely there is hope yet for the relational to stake its own claim.

By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.