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The Power of Words

(c) Peter Asquith

As evidenced on this site numerous times, understanding the relational world has proven a challenge to the social sciences – for disciplinary as well as ideological reasons. It doesn’t help that it lacks its own discipline, relying instead on the half-empty promise of inter-disciplinarity to come to the rescue. Neither does it help that the concept of culture has effectively monopolised the relational ‘turf’, culture proving a worthy intellectual nemesis. It may have its blind spots and a troubling way with conceptual vagueness, but culture has proven a durable concept in the absence of anything else remotely adequate to the task of explaining social behaviour.It may be the case that culture has endured because of the intellectual battles fought and won to secure its exalted position – i.e., too important to fail now. But this of course is not sufficient justification to turn a blind eye to its shortcomings. The fact that culture rarely makes people do anything (how could it?) should be justification enough to dramatically rethink its utility.

A closer and more detailed analysis of the relational world can help overcome the shortcomings of culture and inject some much-needed emotional colour into our definitions of publicness and public space. But just as the content and processes of culture can be difficult to define, so it is with the relational. Well that is, if you don’t know where to look. The set of senses that comprise the content of the relational world are slippy, moveable objects that shift shape depending on context, motive and personality. But analytically speaking, they have an achilles heel that prevents them from forever hiding in the shadows – language. Evidence of this forced visibility can be witnessed, for example, in the kinds of words and phrases used to keep people in their place – examples of which are included in a previous post, Crabs in Barrels. Phrases such as keep it real, don’t forget your roots and don’t get too big for your boots are linguistic manifestations of the senses at their most powerful, the regulatory power of such phases giving a lie to the tired notion that ‘words will never hurt me’. Words can and do hurt, their emotional strength the very reason why.

There is a debate worth having about what you might call the linguistification of the relational (to borrow and warp a phrase from Habermas). This will have to wait, however, but the power of language as a relational weapon will certainly surface in future posts – the notion of ‘enough’ [think Winnicott for starters] the subject of the next one.

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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.