Relational constructivism and relational social work

Björn Kraus

Systemic and constructivist ideas have gradually established themselves in social work discourses.1 In this context, there are other dominant perspectives which seem to advocate a complete individualization of responsibility. In this chapter, this notion will be contrasted with relational constructivism which allows us to see individuals as persons in environment. Furthermore, in this chapter I will plead for a relational social work that — by considering and working on the interrelations between individual and society — will maintain its competence (Kraus, 2017c).

This chapter reimagines the concept of power for critical social work. It aims at unfolding a relational-constructivist epistemology' which helps to critically analyse the social conditions for social work. For this, both epistemological bases and practical consequences will be illustrated by differentiating between life-world (Lebenswelt) and living conditions (Lebenslage). Based on this, the key points of a relational-constructivist theory of power will be developed (instructive power vs. destructive power). Hopefully, by this, the potential of a relational-constructivist epistemology in terms of social theory will eventually be disclosed.

Relational perspectives

Over the last two decades of socio-scientific discourses, a noticeable trend towards relational perspectives has been observable. The ways in which this term is used are as varied as are its origins.

Relational perspectives are relevant for instance in constructivist thoughts about the term system (Maturana, 1982: 141—142), in epistemological approaches (Kraus, 2017a), in systems theory (Luhmann, 1984: 41), in the field of social work (Dewe and Otto, 2012; Lowenstein, 2016; Kongeter, 2009; Kessl, 2013; Kraus, 2013; 2017c), in educational science (Herzog, 2001) or in relational sociology' (Emirbayer, 1997),2 where, as quoted by Simmel, reciprocity becomes the fundamental element when it comes to accounting for social circumstances (see HáuBling, 2010: 64). In the following discussion I will plead for the epistemological perspective of a relational constructivism. Its relationality is disclosed by the fact that its focus is neither solely on the perceiving/acting subject nor on the social/material environmental conditions and structures, but on the relations between the two.

Although this double focus should actually help avoid solely examining either the subject or the environment, it should by no means be reduced to the relations themselves by excluding the constructing subjects and the environment. Thus, the approach is about giving equal consideration to subjects, environments and their relations.3 This perspective suits social work’s concentration on the interrelations between individuals and their environments (person in environment).

Epistemological bases are essential for our understanding of how human cognition works. They are meaningful not only for our understanding of the possibilities of reception, but also for assessing the possibilities of interaction (communication and exertion of influence). In the field of modern-day social work, they are relevant for identifying and reaching objectives, as they determine the way professional goals are established and which of them can be achieved methodically.

Inasmuch as social work takes account of the individual in his/her environmental conditions, paying attention to the importance of social and material conditions for life-world constructions is essential (Kraus, 2013, 2016c, 2017c). For this, a relational social work understood in this way needs theories that allow reflection on the relations between persons and environments. The epistemological approach of relational constructivism may contribute a linguistic and analytic instrument which can be used in professional practice. This will be illustrated by the categories life-world, living conditions and power.4 Discussing these three categories from a relational-constructivist point of view is not about measuring or assessing the global status quo but about developing conceptual tools required for such measuring and assessing processes.

Constructivist framework

The thoughts outlined here are based on relational constructivism and its epistemological position (Kraus, 2013: 15—66; 2017a). Relational constructivism focuses on doubts regarding the possibilities of human perception, doubts that have been expressed in occidental philosophy time and again (Glasersfeld, 1996: 56—97).5 The idea of ever being able to be absolutely certain about the actual condition of an “object” is questioned, because human cognition only ever has access to the results of different perceptional processes, but never to their causes.

Immanuel Kant prominently unfolds this thought, when he states that we can’t experience reality directly, but only within the scope of our abilities of perception (Kant, 1798, [1968]). Which is why, in general, it cannot be verified whether the objects as they appear to us (see l.c. BA 26) (i.e. the results of our reception process) correspond with the objects as they are (see l.c. BA 26) (i.e. the process’s cause). To achieve this, we would have to be able to bypass our standards of reception by comparing the results of a perceptional process with its underlying perceptional causes without using the instruments of perception affected again.6 This requirement was already questioned by Pre-Socratics (Glasersfeld, 1996: 158). Within the constructivist discourse it is emphasized that cognition does not have direct access to the world itself, but only to one’s own states of consciousness.' Thus, the construction of reality is a subjective accomplishment, but by no means a random one. This can be made clear by considering thoughts about viability and structural coupling.

Especially among the popular scientific type of constructivist discourse(s), an arbitrariness regarding cognitive constructivist processes seems to be being propagated. This can be considered as an overstatement of basic constructivist conceptions, as it can easily be refuted even by radical constructivist models. Ernst von Glasersfeld’s “viability” concept (Glasersfeld, 1978: 65—75) points out that even though constructions of reality don’t have to conform to reality in order to be successful, they mustn’t conflict with it either. The fact that informationally closed systems can influence each other allowing tor the creation of “structural congruence” (Maturana and Varela, 1987: 196—197; Maturana, 2000: 115fF.) can be accounted for by Maturana’s model of structural coupling. Thus, the human structural development is subject to a categorical double bond (Kraus, 2013: 105):

On the one hand, a person’s life-world is his/her own subjective construction. On the other hand, this construction is not arbitrary, but affected and limited by environmental conditions.

Life-world and living conditions

To further outline the epistemological bases and to illustrate their relevance for social work practice, let’s take a look at the relational-constructivist reformulation of the terms life-world and living conditions. The starting point was ideas about the orientation towards the addressee’s lifeworld, which is of vital importance throughout the field of social work (Schugurensky, 2014).

The critical reflection of the use of the term life-world in social work eventually not only led to an examination of its phenomenological roots but also to a constructivist reformulation of the terms life-world and living conditions and the emergence of a relational-constructivist life-world orientation (Kraus, 2006, 2015)/ I will not reconstruct the discourse nor the entire genesis and argumentation here — there simply isn’t enough space to do so (see Kraus, 2006, 2013: 151 ff.) — but 1 will, nevertheless, elucidate some essential results and their consequences for interactions.

Phenomenology, critical theory and social sciences: terminological roots

In social work discourse references are made mainly to two traditional lines of the use of the term life-world. First to the term life-world as rooted in Husserl’s phenomenology. Husserl uses the term life-world as early as 1917 to describe the world of pure experience, resulting from the natural act of humans exploring their environment (Husserl, 1962). Schütz refines the term and emphasizes that a person’s life-world is always the result of his/her preoccupation with the social world (Schütz and Luckmann, 2003). Schütz then changes from the term life-world to the term “common sense world” (Alltagswelt). It is this term that is adopted by Thiersch, he himself being a prominent representative of a life-world orientated social work. He explicitly uses the terms life-world and common-sense world synonymously (Grunwald and Thiersch, 2011: 854; Schugurensky, 2014). Yet another understanding of the term life-world is unfolded by Habermas, who opposes the term life-world to the systems term within his “theory of communicative action” (Habermas, 1981) and asks, in terms of social theory, to what extent the system causes a “life-world colonization”.

As long as there is an awareness of the phenomenological origin of the life-world category, the focus is on its subjective character (Hitzler, 1999: 232). Nevertheless, the term life-world involves a certain danger of confusion. On the one hand it emphasizes the subjective character of the life-world category; on the other hand, it refers to the basic requirements of subjective perception itself. Owing to this double reference, the term life-world is — apart from differing main focuses — very similar to the term “living conditions”. The term living conditions, borrowed from Karl Marx, was introduced to the socio-scientific discourse above all by Otto Neurath (1931) and Gerhard Weisser (1956). Weisser defines a person’s living conditions as “the space within which humans can pursue the interests that give meaning to their life” (Weisser 1956: 986, translated B.K.).

In this respect, both the term life-world and the term living conditions refer not only to an individual’s (specific) external circumstances, but at the same time to the subjective perception of these circumstances. However, while the term living conditions focuses on the frame conditions, the term life-world emphasizes the subjective conditions of perception. Problems arise, as soon as this very different frame of focus is no longer kept in mind and, in extreme cases, both terms are used synonymously. When the term life-world is used for no more than to describe a person’s external circumstances, terminological indefiniteness has reached a level that will thwart any form of effective communication. The thoughts outlined above were the starting point for a relational-constructivist reformulation of the terms life-world and living conditions.

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