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Social relation

Social relation can refer to a multitude of social interactions, regulated by social norms, between two or more people, with each having a social positionand performing a social role. In sociological hierarchy, social relation is more advanced then behavior, action, social behavior, social action, social contactand social interaction. Social relations form the basis of concepts such as social organisation, social structure, social movementand social system.


  • 1 Specific meaning
  • 2 Examples
  • 3 Theorists
  • 4 Understanding social relations
  • 5 Types of social relations
  • 6 See also
  • 7 References

Specific meaning

Although HarvardUniversity has featured a "Department of Social Relations" (in which Talcott Parsonsplayed a prominent role), and although the term "social relations" is frequently used in social sciences, there is in fact no commonly agreed meaning for this concept (see also the entry social). "Social" connotes association, co-operation, mutual dependence and belonging.

It could be argued that a social relation is, in the first instance, simply a relation between people, but more specifically

  • a relation between individualsinsofar as they belong to a group,
  • a relation between groups of people, or
  • a relation between an individual and a group of people.

The group could be an ethnicor kinshipgroup, a social institutionor organisation, a social classor social stratum, a nation, a population, or a genderetc.

This definition contrasts with the relationship between people and inanimate objects.


In this sense, a social relation is therefore not necessarily identical with a unique interpersonalrelation or a unique individual relation of some type, although all these kinds of relations presuppose each other; a social relation refers precisely to a condition which groups of people have in common or share.

For example, the simple statement "Jack and Jill love each other" might refer to a unique interaction between two people, the meaning of which might be difficult to define for an outsider. Yet, Jack and Jill may also be socially related in many different ways, insofar as they both are, as a matter of fact, members of the same or different social groups, and thus their identity is shaped in good part by the fact that they belong to those groups. If we wanted to understand and explain their behaviour, we would need to refer to those social relations. We might establish the milieu they grew up in, their ancestors, the jobs they do, where they lived, who their friends are, and so on, all of which helps explain why they necessarily interact in the way that they do, and not in some other way.

At a higher level of abstraction, we might consider two groups which are socially related, for example, although they live in different places, they depend on each other in trading goods and services.

At an even higher level of abstraction, we might consider the relationship between an individual and the whole of the world population, or the relationship of the world population to itself.

Some might indeed argue that a social relation exists between mortals and God(or the Gods), though others would regard this more as an imaginary relation. In flights of fancy, we could extend the analysis to the relation of all sentient organisms in the universe.


However, the difficulties only start here, because now it needs to be established how these social relations exist, how we know they exist, what kinds of social relations there are, and how we can find out about them, verify them or identify them. About these questions researchers often disagree and debate, proposing different kinds of methodologyto obtain knowledgeof social relations.

At one end of the spectrum, Karl Marxapprovingly quotes Giambattista Vico's argument that humans can understand their societyin its totality because "they made it themselves"; the limits to what humans can know are mainly practical in nature. At the other end of the spectrum, Karl Popperrejects the possibility of objective knowledge about society as a whole, suggesting that methodological holismmust lead to totalitarianism; progressive social changecan only be achieved through the small steps of piecemeal social engineering.

Understanding social relations

There are at least three problems in understanding social relations.

  • many social relations are not directly observableby an individual, and can only be inferred with the aid of abstractions. This raises the question of how we know they exist, and how they exist.
  • reflexivity: in the case of social science, the scientist is in a very obvious way himself or herself part of the social world being studied (this occurs also in natural sciences; not just in the sense that a biologist is also a biological being, but also even in theoretical physics - cf. the reflections of David Bohm).
  • animaland insectpopulations for example also display a kind of "social" behaviour, so that social relations are not necessarily uniquely humanrelations (cf. the insights of sociobiology), and social relations might exist between humans and animals (though some dispute this; they argue that associative relations are confused here with true social relations; a human being could associate with all sorts of things or organisms, without a social relation being involved).

Types of social relations

In broad terms, we can distinguish six basic levels of human awareness:

  • sub-conscious awareness (studied by e.g. Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Milton Erickson).
  • conscious subjective awareness (dissociated, focusing inward on the inner world, or expressing an inner state outwards) (studied e.g. in phenomenologyand general psychology).
  • intersubjective awareness (an awareness which occurs in association with other people and is internal to that association) (studied e.g. in social psychologyand sociology).
  • objective awareness (dissociated, focusing outward to a world that exists mind-independently, as is developed e.g. in scienceto a high level).
  • reality-transforming awareness (transitions in practical action reframingthe boundaries of different forms of awareness and changing consciousness, or connecting different forms of awareness - occurring in work, play, love, activism, politicsetc.
  • transcendent awareness (going beyond personal knowledge or experience - some would include intuitionand spiritualityunder this heading; it is the subject of much writing in religionand New Agethought).

Corresponding to these levels of human awareness, we could also define different kinds of social relations, i.e. the different ways in which humans might experience the connections among their own kind:

  • subconscious social relations (for example at the level of the collective unconsciousor between parentsand children,
  • social relations which exist only in subjective awareness or subjective perceptions (a person might act as though a social relation exists),
  • intersubjective social relations involving shared meanings conveyed through communication,
  • objective social relations which exist whether someone is aware of them or not (they might nevertheless be communicated insofar as we communicate with everything we are and do);
  • social relations in the process of being transformed from one kind into another, or being interrelated with each other;
  • spiritualor intuitive social relations of some kind.

As illustration, we can apply the foregoing to the notion of a group.

  • A person might almost out of instinctidentify with a group or relate to it;
  • s/he might imagine being a member of a group, regardless of whether this is really the case;
  • a group might exist only in the form of intersubjective relations among its members;
  • a group might exist as an objective description, or as an objective reality, even regardless of whether one was aware of belonging to it;
  • a group might be forming or dissolving, or both at once, and it might be changing its boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, perhaps overlapping with other groups;
  • a group might also exist at the level of a common spiritual affinity or identification (Cf. the notion of a noosphere).

However the group may exist, or be perceived to exist at some level - with the obvious consequences that has for the kinds of social relations involved - it is clear that understanding different kinds of group relations require different methods of inquiry and verification.

Precisely because social relations may be experienced at different levels of awareness, they are not necessarily transparentat all. Indeed, Karl Marxwrote ironically in this respect that "science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided".

See also

  • Chinese social relations
  • Forms of activity and interpersonal relations
  • Relations of production
  • Social
  • social order
  • social change
  • Timescapesdepicting societal-time measured by data clocks


  • Dick Houtman, Class and Politics in Contemporary Social Science: Marxism Lite and Its Blind Spot for Culture
  • Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
  • Karl Marx, The German Ideology
  • Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies
  • Frank Furedi, Where have all the intellectuals gone?
  • Piotr Sztompka, Socjologiapl:Stosunek_spo?eczny
Retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/Social_relation"

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It uses material from the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social+relation Wikipedia article Social relation.

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