Narrative, Rhetoric and Possible Worlds

Narrative, Rhetoric and Possible Worlds

‘Time has no being since the future is not yet, the past is no longer, and the present does not remain.’ (Ricoeur 1984: 7)

A rhetorician, I take it, is like one voice in a dialogue. Put several such voices together, with each voicing its own special assertion, let them act upon one another in cooperative competition, and you get a dialectic that, properly developed, can lead to the views transcending the limitations of each.

“Rhetoric-Old and New” (1950)

Connecting Scenarios with Strategy and Action

How to bring about social, organizational, and strategic change?

For several years now, I have been attempting to piece together various strands of knowledge scattered around in boundaries of institutions and academic disciplines. I see a pattern emerging as to how we can attempt to bring about social, cultural, organizational change for strategic management.

More I read and learn, I find astonishing that all we need now is ability to read past knowledge hidden in old books correctly.

Dialectic (Alternatives/Scenarios) + Narratives (Stories) + Rhetoric (Persuasion) = Effective communication and action with scenarios for strategic management.

Narrative Scenarios

Source: Creating narrative scenarios: Science fiction prototyping at Emerge

Scenarios are stories. In the diverse field of scenario planning, this is perhaps the single point of universal agreement. Yet if scenarios are stories, their literary qualities are often underdeveloped. Scenarios used in business and government frequently do not contain a relatable protagonist, move a plot toward resolution, or compellingly use metaphor, imagery, or other emotionally persuasive techniques of literature. In these cases, narrative is relegated to an adjunct role of summarizing the final results of the workshop. While this neglect of narrative may be reasonable in some contexts, the power of narrative should not be underestimated. Scenario planning methodologies can benefit from using diverse narrative techniques to craft compelling and infectious visions of the future. This article explores the relationship between science fiction and scenarios as story genres and investigates a creative story-telling technique, ‘‘Science Fiction Prototyping’’ (Johnson, 2011). While the method is promising, it is an ultimately problematic means to incorporating narrative into scenario planning.

Key Terms

  • Possible Worlds
  • Futures
  • Narratives
  • Meaning Making
  • Temporality
  • Scenarios
  • Alternatives
  • Rhetoric and Dialectic
  • Acts of Meaning
  • Actual Minds, Possible Worlds
  • World Views
  • Beliefs
  • Culture
  • Meaningful
  • Competition
  • Cooperation
  • Coopetition
  • Socially Extended Mind
  • Six Degrees of Separation
  • Strategic Management
  • Law of Requisite Variety
  • Explicit vs Implicit
  • Tacit Knowledge
  • Assumptions
  • Contextual Environment
  • Operative Environment
  • Many Futures
  • Possibilities Space
  • Uncertainty
  • Complexity
  • Ambiguity
  • Normative Futures
  • Strategic Change Management
  • Social Change
  • Organizational Change
  • Cultural Change
  • Images of the Future
  • Subjunctivization
  • Jerome Bruner
  • Kenneth Burke
  • Strategy as Practice
  • Narrative Scenarios
  • Narratives and Strategy
  • Matti Hyvärinen
  • Victor Turner
  • Groups
  • Boundaries
  • Hierarchies
  • Inclusion and Exclusion
  • Networks

The narrative turn and Bruner’s contributions.

Source: Jerome Bruner and the challenges of the narrative turn

I take Jerome Bruner’s books, articles, and chapters that relate to narrative as a starting point for my contribution. He published most these texts between 1985 and 1991 (Bruner, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991). Later, at 80 years of age, Bruner published a book on culture, education and narrative (Bruner, 1996), and more recently, a monograph on narratives (Bruner, 2002). The texts he wrote in the second half of the 1980s are at the heart of his contribution to the narrative field. The two later books mentioned are reworked texts on the same subject matter, though with a focus on education and law, on which he also co-authored another important book (Amsterdam & Bruner, 2000).

In the mid-1980s, drawing on the discipline of psychology, Bruner sets criticism of cognitive psychology as a basis for his work, stressing that cognitive psychology had betrayed and narrowed down its initial agenda, to which he himself had so resolutely contributed. Its approach progressively had morphed into a simplistic approach to the processing of information; or, in other words, into a computational model of the mind.

Bruner throws into these foundational texts his theoretical and ideological interests, in a search for connections between psychology on the one hand, and literature, humanities and anthropology on the other. This is an innovative, courageous approach that aimed at shaking the foundations of the psychological study of language, cognition, education, personality, self and identity.

Bruner places himself within the framework of a tradition which he upholds and to which he wants to contribute. A classical precedent among the ancestors of this tradition would be Aristotle’s Poetics, in addition to the much more recent L. S. Vygotsky, A. Schütz, M. Weber, K. Burke and C. Geertz. The interpretive turn, according to Bruner, started in the first quarter of the 20th century, first surfacing in literature, then moving on successively to history, social sciences and epistemology, and eventually reaching the domain of education between the 80s and 90s. Towards the mid-70s meaning became a central element in social sciences. The moment of transition specifically related to the narrative turn (understood as the growing interest in narrative in both research and practice) occurred over the course of the 80s, which, according to Bruner, is when the idea of self as a narrator or a storyteller became more evident. This new momentum was reflected in a short space of time in various influential books from different disciplines: oral history (P. Thompson, F. Ferrarotti), anthropology (C. Geertz), sociology (D. Bertaux, K. Plummer, N. Denzin), philosophy (P. Ricoeur), education (I. Goodson, G. Pineau), and the humanities (D. Polkinghorne). It is interesting to note that all of these books were published within a seven-year period, which shows that the ecology of ideas shapes emerging paradigms based on a set of new, shared assumptions across different fields.

These epistemological transformations form part of a broader intellectual movement – the qualitative approach. This approach has been characterized by its critical stance vis-à-vis positivism, the broader redefinition of the concept of human sciences, a focus on interpretation and on the construction of meaning, as well as the use of qualitative research methods and techniques, such as the open interview, participative observation, action research, and life stories. Constructivism, postmodernism and literary studies on their part have influenced the development of these tendencies, and the said approaches have had a major impact on psychology and education. It is therefore in this grand panorama of epistemological and methodological renovation where we are to place Jerome Bruner, as the innovator of the narrative paradigm that he is (Spector-Mersel, 2010; Domingo, 2005; Shore, 1997).

Bruner has highlighted the importance of meaning as a central process of the individual mind as well as of social interaction. In psychology there can be no avoiding of the problem of meaning, and when it is tackled, the creation of meaning needs to be placed within a community of practice. Culturalism assumes a shared and symbolic mode of preserving, creating and communicating the human world. Meanings have a situated character and this allows their negotiability and communicability. Bruner frequently mentions C. Geertz when specifying his own conception of culture, and emphasizes Geertz’s idea of cultures as texts (Lutkehaus, 2008; Mattingly, Lutkehaus & Throop, 2008). Within this cultural perspective, Bruner’s contribution finds itself placed within the vast domain of cultural psychology, in which he connects with researchers such as as M. Cole, B. Rogoff and J. V. Wertsch.

Characteristics and functions of narratives.

Bruner returns to earlier studies on narrative, he redefines them and brings them into the sphere of social sciences, and into cultural psychology in particular (for a synthesis on narrative and psychology until 1980, see Polkinghorne, 1987, pp. 101-123). In taking on this task, Bruner is conscious of the difficulties and the risks of his intellectual venture. But he also considers his initiative a way to invigorate the intellectual and methodological situation of psychology and other social sciences in the mid-80s. Bruner begins this phase with a text of enormous influence (Bruner, 1985), in which he defends the existence of two basic modes of thinking: paradigmatic or logical-scientific thinking and narrative thinking. The two modes operate with different means, ends and legitimacy criteria. The narrative mode is based on common knowledge and stories; it is interested in the vicissitudes of human actions, it develops practical and situated knowledge; it has a temporal structure and it emphasizes the agentivity of social actors (Bruner, 1985, 1987, 1991).

Bruner has shown great interest in literature and has explored the potential contributions of literature to social sciences. He points out that modern science has become less ontological and more epistemological, adding that literature has developed in the same direction. Literature offers a new and open outlook on the world. This is crucial for education, a field that can be characterized by the development of critical conscience and by the search for alternatives and possibilities. This is why Bruner affirms that democratic classrooms are the ideal place for novelists and poets, while dictatorships control literature and hinder creativity.

By concentrating on narrative, Bruner maintains and deepens his interest in language. This does not solely entail language development in babies and children but also the acquisition and evolution of narrative competence, a subject linked to the understanding of the minds of others. It also refers to philosophical and sociocultural dimensions of human language. Language is not neutral and this has profound implications when it is used in scientific, educational, social and political contexts. The visibility that Bruner has given to language and cognition is also important to note. He highlights the significance of speech and orality – which taken in their everyday contexts can be described as processes of expression, negotiation and exchange – out of which the theories emerge that guide people in their everyday lives to understand themselves as well as to understand others and to interact with them. This is related to studies on folk psychology, which are based on the contents and processes of knowledge of ordinary people. Here we find also, as part of a broader movement, the so-called linguistic turn. Contrary to Saussure’s conception of language as an abstract, balanced system, the new tendencies take an interactive and dialogical perspective, and underline the functions of speech in real, natural, everyday communicative contexts. In this field we can also not forget the influence of Bakhtin and his circle.

In addition, narratives are characterized by their complexity. Stories are about problems, dilemmas, contradictions and imbalances. They connect the past, the present and the future, and they link past experiences with what may be yet to come. Bruner calls this process of imagining and creating alternatives subjunctivization. For this reason he insists on the importance of the possible worlds, even in sectors such as law, in which the possibility of contemplating or foreseeing alternatives seemingly does not exist (Bruner, 2002). This capacity of narratives for imagining and constructing other worlds, and for trying to make them a reality, is an essential feature of the human capacity to transform our own selves as well as our social contexts. Narrative reality has a high level of complexity, which manifests itself through its specific characteristics: temporality, generic particularity, interpretability, implied canonicity, negotiability, ambiguous reference and historical extension (Bruner, 1996, 133-147).

Bruner has emphasized and criticized our ignorance of the subject of narrative. The knowledge of the ways in which we interpret, construct and use stories has been nonexistent or marginal in the education system as well as in other areas. Bruner also criticizes the lack of interest in narrative and the emphasis on logical-scientific knowledge modes (we know more about the right-angled triangle than about Aristotle’s Poetics). In an attempt to change the situation, Bruner has invested much effort into introducing narrative to research, teaching, law and social debates. Teaching the art of narrative and storytelling represents a necessity but, at the same time, a challenge given the difficulty of the task.

Books by Jerome Bruner

Source: Wikipedia

Narratives in Organizational Studies

Source: A Review of Narrative Methodology

Case studies of narrative in organisational studies demonstrate how narrative can be used to effect cultural change, transfer complex tacit knowledge through implicit communication, construct identity, aid education, contribute to sense making, act as a source of understanding, and study decision making.

This review of storytelling positions narrative research largely within the postmodernist paradigm. Postmodernism came into use during the late 20 century, and questions the modernist philosophical assumptions of rationality and universal truth, and the application of scientific empirical methods to problem solving. Instead, postmodernism emphasises that knowledge is value-laden, and reality is based on multiple perspectives, with truth grounded in everyday life involving social interactions amongst individuals. Context plays a crucial role in the social construction of reality and knowledge. Its criticism of the modernist or positivist (empirical, rational) paradigm is based on the concept of social representation. Postmodernism is said to account for this limitation in modernism by acknowledging that stories told through language as the medium are constitutive of reality. Postmodernism emphasises the social nature of knowledge creation.

There is some indication that the narrative approach is gradually gaining recognition in various disciplines including those outside the social sciences. The approach is said to enable capture of social representation processes such as feelings, images, and time. It offers the potential to address ambiguity, complexity, and dynamism of individual, group, and organisational phenomena.

Rhetoric in Organizational and Social Sciences

Affective Rhetoric: Unity and Division

Source: Affective Rhetoric in China’s Internet Culture

According to Burke, rhetoric is “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (Rhetoric 43). Rhetoric induces cooperation through symbols to effect an identification between a speaker and an audience and among members of organizations and social groups. It therefore also, and necessarily, both unifies individuals and groups and divides them from one another. It is thus a “simultaneous identification-with and division-from” (46). As recent scholarship has demonstrated, however, Burke’s view of language encompasses both its symbolic and affective dimensions (Hawhee 83-86). In Permanence and Change, Burke observes the “remarkable affective responsiveness” required “to be terrified at a gun the first time in one’s life a gun is pointed at one, and without ever having been shot” (149). This affective responsiveness is not solely a bodily reaction but is a consequence of “our interpretations of the signs, [which,] be they true or false, can instigate the most intense affections” (149). Debra Hawhee explains this affective responsiveness as “a serialized process of meaning making whereby affect enters at every step, forming and reforming what is called rational” (84). In Language as Symbolic Action, Burke insists that computers are incapable of this kind of affective responsiveness. Computers, he explains, “not being biological organisms, . . . lack the capacity for pleasure or pain (to say nothing of such subtler affective states as malice, envy, amusement, condescension, friendliness, sentimentality, embarrassment, etc.)” (23). Contemporary theories of affect show, however, how computers can facilitate and enable the serialized process of meaning making that Hawhee attributes to Burke.

Persuasion in the Rhetorical Tradition


List of selected studies

Source: Strategy as Practice and the Narrative Turn

Key References

  • Introduction to Narrative For Futures Studies
  • Creating narrative scenarios: Science fiction prototyping at Emerge
  • Strategy as Practice and the Narrative Turn

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Key Sources of Research:

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Bar-Ilan University

In TELLING STORIES: Language, Narrative, and Social Life 

Deborah Schiffrin, Anna De Fina, and Anastasia Nylund, Editors

The Narrative Construction of Reality

Jerome Bruner

Critical Inquiry 18 (Autumn 1991)

Click to access bruner1991narrative.pdf



New York University

Jerome Bruner and the challenges of the narrative turn

Then and now

José González Monteagudo University of Seville, Spain

(Narrative Inquiry, Clark University/USA, 21, 2, 295-302, ISSN: 1368-6740).

Life as Narrative

Jerome Bruner

Click to access Bruner_J_LifeAsNarrative.pdf

Chapter 1
Narrative Inquiry: From Story to Method

Margaret S. Barrett and Sandra L. Stauffer

In Narrative Inquiry in Music Education : Troubling Certainty

Jerome Bruner. A psychologist beyond any border

Piero Paolicchi

Introduction to Narrative For Futures Studies

Vuokko Jarva

University of Helsinki Finland

Journal of Futures Studies, March 2014, 18(3): 5-26

Reaching for Meaning : Human Agency and the Narrative Imagination

Jens Brockmeier
Theory Psychology 2009 19: 213

DOI: 10.1177/0959354309103540

Click to access Reaching-for-Meaning.pdf

Complexity Thinking, Complex Practice: The case for a narrative approach to Organizational Complexity

Mary J Hatch

Conversation at the Border Between Organizational Culture Theory
and Institutional Theory

Mary Jo Hatch and Tammar Zilber

Journal of Management Inquiry
21(1) 94–97
DOI: 10.1177/1056492611419793

Cultural Paradigms in Management Sciences 

Łukasz Sułkowski

Management and Business Administration.Central Europe


Click to access MBA_03_2013_Sulkowski_050.pdf


Yiannis Gabriel

School of Management Imperial College

Cassell, Catherine and Gillian Symon (eds.), An essential guide to qualitative research methods in organizations, Sage Publications, London

Making Sense of Stories: A Rhetorical Approach to Narrative Analysis

Martha S. Feldman

University of California at Irvine

Kaj Sko ̈ldberg

Stockholm University

Ruth Nicole Brown Debra Horner University of Michigan

The Sociology of Storytelling

Francesca Polletta, Pang Ching Bobby Chen,

Beth Gharrity Gardner, and Alice Motes

Department of Sociology, University of California, Irvine, California 92697; email:,,,

Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2011. 37:109–30

This article’s doi: 10.1146/annurev-soc-081309-150106

Click to access Polletta,%20Chen,%20Gardner%20&%20Motes%20(2011)%20-%20The%20sociology%20of%20storytelling.pdf

Strategy as Practice and the Narrative Turn

Christopher Fenton

HEC Montréal

Ann Langley

HEC Montréal

Organization Studies 32(9) 1171–1196 /2011

Click to access GePS-08-06.pdf

What Is Complexity Science? A Possible Answer from Narrative Research

 John T. Luhman & David M. Boje

EMERGENCE, 3(1), 158–68

Phenomenology of embodied implicit and narrative knowing

Wendelin Ku ̈pers
Wendelin Ku ̈pers is a Senior Lecturer and Researcher at the Open University Hagen, Hagen, Germany.



The University of Texas at Austin

The University of Texas at Austin and University of Nordland

Academy of Management Review 2014, Vol. 39, No. 1, 22–43.

Narrative Temporality: Implications for Organizational Research

Ann L. Cunliffe, John T. Luhman and David M. Boje

Organization Studies
25(2): 261–286 ISSN 0170–8406 /2004

Time and Narrative Volume 1

Paul Ricoeur


Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer

The Handbook of Narrative Analysis, First Edition.

Edited by Anna De Fina and Alexandra Georgakopoulou.

© 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


Anniina Rantakari

University of Oulu

Eero Vaara
Aalto University School of Business EMLYON Business School Lancaster University

A Review of Narrative Methodology

Narrative and Rhetorical Approaches to Problems of Education.

Jerome Bruner and Kenneth Burke Revisited

Kris Rutten • Ronald Soetaert

Published online: 24 August 2012

Stud Philos Educ (2013) 32:327–343 DOI 10.1007/s11217-012-9324-5

Applying Burke’s Dramatic Pentad to scenarios

Allan W Shearer

Department of Landscape Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design, 48 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

Available online 21 May 2004.

Creating narrative scenarios: Science fiction prototyping at Emerge

Michael Burnam-Fink 

Futures 70 (2015) 48–55

Gramma of Motives: The Drama of Plato’s Tripartite Psychology

John J. Jasso

Philosophy & Rhetoric Vol. 53, No. 2 (2020), pp. 157-180 (24 pages) 

Published By: Penn State University Press

Kenneth Burke on Dialectical-Rhetorical Transcendence

James P. Zappen

Philosophy & Rhetoric 

Vol. 42, No. 3 (2009), pp. 279-301 (23 pages) 

Published By: Penn State University Press

Affective Rhetoric in China’s Internet Culture

10th Triennial Kenneth Burke Society Conference Conflicts & Communities: Burke Studies in a World Divided East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, June 8-11, 2017

James P. Zappen

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Persuasion in the Rhetorical Tradition

J. Michael Hogan

Click to access 51183_CH_1.pdf

Kenneth Burke’s New Deal

Dries Vrijders Ghent University

‘Dramatistic to the Core’: Allen Tate and A Grammar of Motives

M. Elizabeth Weiser Ohio State University

The Space Between, Volume V:1 2009 ISSN 1551-9309

Rhetoric of Motives

Kenneth Burke

Click to access kenneth_burke_-_a_rhetoric_of_motives_1950.pdf

Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative.

Jahn, Manfred. 2005.

English Department, University of Cologne.

Click to access 0cef85a3-0b78-4bf8-8fa2-f2e8e57f5092.pdf

‘Roleplaying to Improve Resilience’. 

Shearer, A. W.

Architecture_MPS 18, 1 (2021): 6. DOI:

Does the intuitive logics method – and its recent enhancements – produce “effective” scenarios?

George Wright a,⁎, Ron Bradfield b, George Cairns

Technological Forecasting & Social Change (2012)

The Handbook of Narrative Analysis

Edited by

Anna De Fina and Alexandra Georgakopoulou

From Ritual to Theater

the Human Seriousness of Play

Victor Turner

Victor Turner’s Postmodern Theory of Social Drama:

Implications for Organization Studies

David M. Boje, Ph.D., New Mexico State University

August 1, 2003

A Narrative to Approach to Strategy as Practice: strategy making from texts and narratives.

Valérie-Inès de la Ville, Eléonore Mounoud.

Damon Golsorkhi; Linda Rouleau; David Seidl; Eero Vaara.

Cambridge Handbook of Strategy as Practice, Cambridge University Press, pp.249-264, 2015, 978- 1107421493. halshs-01390100

Rhetoric, Discourse and Argument in Organizational Sense Making: A Reflexive Tale

Tony J. Watson

First Published September 1, 1995

A narrative approach to strategy-as-practice.

Brown, A.D. & Thompson, E.R. 2013.

Business History 55, 7: 1143-1167

Kenneth Burke’s Dramatistic Pragmatism:
A Missing Link between Classical Greek Scholarship and the Interactionist Study of Human Knowing and Acting1

Robert Prus

University of Waterloo, Canada

2017 QSR Volume XIII Issue 2

Click to access QSR_13_2_Prus.pdf

Jerome Bruner


History of Classical Rhetoric – An overview of its early development (1)

Posted on October 16, 2012

Boundaries and Networks

Boundaries and Networks


Boundaries precede Networks.

It is the difference which makes the difference.

Boundaries in

  • Regionalism, Globalization, Multinational Firms (Trade/Economics)
  • Social Networks Theory/Relational Sociology (Sociology)
  • Complex Systems Theory – Micro/Macro Links (System Sciences)
  • Autocatalysis, Autopoiesis and Relational Biology (Biology)
  • System and Its Environment (Strategic Planning/Management)
  • Functional Silos (Supply Chain Management/Operations Management)
  • Individual and the Collective (Philosophy)
  • Self, Nature, Culture (Meta Integral Theories – Ken Wilber/Roy Bhaskar)
  • Fractal/Recursive/Holographic Paradigm (Cosmology)



Key Terms:

  • Order
  • Class
  • Identity
  • Culture
  • Meaning
  • Difference
  • Boundaries
  • Networks
  • Hierarchies
  • Heterarchy
  • Control
  • Power
  • System/Environment
  • Inside/Outside
  • Interior/Exterior
  • Included/Excluded
  • Multi-Level
  • Fractals
  • Scale
  • Multiplex
  • Ties
  • Chains
  • Silos
  • Connections
  • Links
  • Netchains
  • Operational Closure
  • Inequality
  • Information Asymmetry
  • Categories
  • Domain
  • Social Structure
  • Interaction
  • Interlocks
  • Institutions
  • Memory
  • Agency
  • Limits
  • Relational
  • Intra/Inter
  • Process
  • Subjective/Objective


Chapter 2
The Relational Turn in Social Sciences

Recent times have witnessed relational sociology, as arguably the major form of relational scholarship, gain considerable scholarly momentum. There is a forthcoming major handbook (Dépelteau, 2018), significant edited collections such as Conceptualizing relational sociology (Powell & Dépelteau, 2013), Applying relational sociology (Dépelteau & Powell, 2013), and in the broader leadership literatures Advancing relational leadership research (Uhl-Bien & Ospina, 2012).  In addition, there have been key texts from Crossley (2011), the work of Donati (1983, 1991, 2011) has become more accessible in English (to which he thanks Margaret Archer for, stating she “greatly encouraged and assisted me in presenting my theory to an international audience (Donati, 2011, p. xvii)), and – although less engaged with by English-speaking audiences—Bajoit’s (1992) Pour une sociologie relationnelle.

The Canadian Sociological Association has established a research cluster for relational sociology, with regular symposia, meetings, and events. Significantly, in 2015 the International Review of Sociology/ Revue Internationale de Sociolgie published a special section on relational sociology. Edited by Prandini (2015) and with contributions from Crossley (2015), Dépelteau (2015), Donati (2015), and Fuhse (2015), this special section sought to ascertain whether an original and international sociological paradigm entitled “relational sociology” could be identified. Prandini (2015) argues:

A new and original social paradigm is recognizable only if it accedes to the world stage of the global scientific system constituted and structured by networks of scientific scholars, scientific contributions published in scientific journals, books, internet sites, etc., fueled by a vast array of international meetings, seminars, conferences, and so on. It is only at this global level that we can decide if a new paradigm is gaining a global stage or not. Put in other words: are we really witnessing a new and emergent sociological ‘school’, or are we observing only a sort of ‘esprit du temp’ which is able to catalyse similar intuitions and sociological insights? (pp. 1–2)

At the end of his paper, Prandini (2015) contends that there is less a paradigm (in its precise Kuhnian meaning) and instead it is better to speak of a “relational turn” in sociology. Built on a strong and clear convergence toward a common critique of classic sociological theories, it is possibly the early stages of an emerging paradigm but such a label is currently premature. The real breakthrough of this turn is in forcing social scientists to specify “accurately the ontology of society and social relation and to discover new methods and research techniques well suited to study it” (Prandini, 2015, p. 13).

Relational theory is, as Emirbayer (1997) declares, beyond any one disciplinary background, national tradition, or analytic and empirical point of view. Outside of the major centers of Europe and the USA, Yanjie Bian hosted the International Conference on Relational Sociology at the Institute for Empirical Social Science of Xi’an Jiaotong University, and Jan Fuhse hosted the international symposium Relational Sociology: Transatlantic Impulses for the Social Sciences at Humboldt University of Berlin. Donati (2011) claims that interest in social relations can be found in philosophy (from the metaphysical point of view), psychology (from the psychic point of view), economics (from the resource perspective), law (control by rule), and even biology (bioethics). The interest is also not limited to the social sciences, with Bradbury and Lichtenstein (2000) noting:

The interdependent, interrelated nature of the world has also been discovered by physicists in their study of quantum reality. In their quest to identify the basic building blocks of the natural world, quantum physicists found that atomic particles appeared more as relations than as discrete objects (Capra 1975; Wolf 1980), and that space itself is not empty but is filled with potential (Bohm 1988). Heisenberg’s discovery early this century that every observation irrevocably changes the object being observed, further fueled the recognition that human consciousness plays an irreversible role in our understanding of reality (Bachelard, 1934/1984; Wilber 1982; Jahn & Dunne 1987). (p. 552)

Apart from its widespread contemporary appeal, relational thinking has a long history. The North American stream arguably finds its roots in the New York School, European scholars such as Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, Gabriel Tarde, Norbert Elias, Niklas Luhmann, Pierre Bourdieu, Bruno Latour, among others, have long argued for various relational approaches (even if not using that label), and Emirbayer traces the tradition of privileging relations rather than substances to pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus. What is consistently germane across these various scholars is a critique of substantialism in classic sociological accounts. This also arguably speaks to the proliferation of relational scholarship in the past few decades as globalized forces are causing a rethink of spatio-temporal conditions (e.g., the nation state and geographic borders). In breaking down the substantialist approaches, and their underlying analytical dualisms, relational scholarship asks questions of the ontological and epistemological as much as the empirical.

Contemporary thought and analysis in social theory is overrun with “turns.” In this chapter, rather than be seduced by contemporary attention to a relational turn in the social sciences, I seek to highlight some major events, trajectories, or streams of relational thought. In doing so, I am critically aware of the difficulty of arguing for relational understanding and then constructing significant events as though they are entities in and of their own right. Within the confines of a single chapter, and mindful of the role that this chapter is playing the book (e.g., setting some context/trajectory for developing my argument), my goal is to cite key developments and how they relate to one another and my argument. Given my particular interest in organizing activity, my focus is on the Human Relations Movement of the early twentieth century, the New York School of relational sociology, and then contemporary developments in sociology, leadership, and to a lesser extent, the natural sciences. While I concede that there is increasing interest in what has come to be known as “relational sociology” (see also the following chapter), relational scholarship has a long and diverse intellectual history. Importantly though, as Powell and Dépelteau (2013) note, relational sociology is not a heterogeneous label and as a collection of scholars, is still quite some way from achieving any form of  consensus. Whether consensus is required, or even desirable, for relational scholarship is questionable. The diversity of ontological and methodological starting points allows scholars to investigate a wide range of phenomena. This diversity, complexity, depth, and vitality enable dialogue and debate without requiring consensus. What binds them together is their scholarly focus on relations rather than alignment with a specific empirical object and/or method of inquiry



The Relational Turn in Sociology: Implications for the Study of Society, Culture, and Persons

Special issue of the academic journal Stan Rzeczy [State of Affairs]

The relational approach, which has a long tradition, has re-emerged and strengthened, forming a new, vital movement of divergent variants in sociology. Initiated and systematically developed by Pierpaolo Donati, it has grown into what is called the Italian relational turn, later followed by a proliferation of relational sociologies of various origins, including the works of Harrison C. White, Charles Tilly, Mustafa Emirbayer, Pierre Bourdieu and others. After the postmodern diffusion and beyond the stagnation of interpretative against normative conceptualizations of social life, relational sociology offers new conceptual tools and plays a leading role in reconstructing sociology both on theoretical and applied planes.

Modern sciences are founded on the study of relations, rather than essences or substances. From the outset, the relational approach has had to pave its way in sociology against holistic (“science of society”) and nominalistic (“science of individuals”) orientations. Social relations are among the key sociological concepts and have been studied as constitutive for social bonding. On the micro-level, interpersonal relations have been in the center of attention in the area where sociology and social psychology overlap. The relational turn consists not only of focusing on social relations; it also involves introducing relational categories of analysis.

The category of social relations is certainly not new in social theory. What is new is the way of looking at them. Contemporary relational thinking assumes radical changes in the ontological, epistemological, and phenomenological status of social relations. Refocusing on social relations, on their constitution and emergent effects leads us to a new way of describing, understanding and explaining social and cultural phenomena as relational facts.

A particularly significant feature of relational sociology resides in its capacity to broaden the theory of the human subject not only as a self, agent, and actor, but also through the development of the concept of the person; more precisely, through deeper research on the relational constitution of the human person as a social subject emerging from relational reflexivity (dialogue between ‘I’, ‘Me’, ‘We’, ‘You’ in a situated social context) – in other words, a view of the human person as homo relatus. Analyzing these processes leads to a sui generis relational theory of agency.

Various or divergent theories of contemporary social and cultural processes evoke relationality, but relational analysis differs from “relationistic” positions. Most existing approaches, both historical and modern, cannot be considered relational sociology in a true sense unless the social relation is conceived as a reality sui generis and society is conceptualized as a network of social relations.

“Turn” refers to a gradual transformation of the field of scientific theories, rather than to a scientific revolution. Several characteristic features of a “turn” appear to correspond well with significant traits of the relational turn: an epistemological rupture, which is brought about by introducing an innovative vocabulary that opens up new analytic perspectives;  an attempt to reconstruct the scientific domains of knowledge under conditions of their growing fragmentation; introduction of a novel perspective that shows existing knowledge in a new light; moving on from the research object to the category of analysis. These are the features of a genuine new intellectual movement that enters into debates and polemics, particularly as regards various ways of understanding relations and relationality.

The synergetic effect of a creative exchange of ideas between the founders of theories that have been independently pursued – the relational theory of society developed by Pierpaolo Donati and the theory of morphogenic society, developed on the basis of critical realism by Margaret S. Archer – proves particularly fruitful for the study of the after-modern and the new possibilities of a morphogenic society, in which the challenge of re-articulating social relations remains of central importance.

The aim of this special issue is to reflect upon the innovative potential of contemporary relational theorizing of society, culture, and persons and to go beyond superficial statements on relational sociology by addressing these issues through in-depth investigations. We invite authors to take on problems of relational sociology by discussing its main assumptions, by conceptual clarifications, by re-articulating the concepts pertinent to understanding social phenomena in relational terms, and by empirical studies guided by methodological rules of relational analysis.



Please see my related posts:

Boundary Spanning in Multinational and Transnational Corporations

Relational Turn in Economic Geography

Networks and Hierarchies

Boundaries and Relational Sociology

Autocatalysis, Autopoiesis and Relational Biology

Society as Communication: Social Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann

Art of Long View: Future, Uncertainty and Scenario Planning


Key Sources of Research:




Chapter of Book ME++

Click to access 9780262633130_sch_0001.pdf



Relational Sociology: Transatlantic Impulses for the Social Sciences

International Symposium, Berlin, September 25/26, 2008




Symposium on Relational Sociology


Relational sociology




Networks and Boundaries

Athanasios Karafillidis

RWTH Aachen University

Paper presented at the International Symposium
„Relational Sociology: Transatlantic Impulses for the Social Sciences“,

September 25-26, 2008

Click to access Netbound.pdf



Theorising Borders as Mechanisms of Connection

Anthony Cooper

Click to access 2013cooperaphd.pdf



Boundaries, Hierarchies and Networks in Complex Systems



Click to access Cilliers-2001-Boundaries-Hierarchies-and-Networks.pdf


Fractal Boundaries of Complex Networks

Jia Shao, Sergey V. Buldyrev, Reuven Cohen
Maksim Kitsak1, Shlomo Havlin, and H. Eugene Stanley

Click to access boundaries.pdf


Rethinking the Financial Network

Speech given by
Andrew G Haldane, Executive Director, Financial Stability, Bank of England

At the Financial Student Association, Amsterdam

28 April 2009

Click to access speech386.pdf




Knowledge, limits and boundaries

Paul Cilliers

Click to access cilliers%202005%20knowledge%20limits.pdf



On the Status of Boundaries, both Natural and Organizational: A Complex Systems Perspective

Kurt A. Richardson & Michael R. Lissack

Click to access 6b5711dc6782e451ad32078b799cd487cb3b.pdf

Exploring System Boundaries: Complexity Theory and Legal Autopoiesis

Thomas Edward Webb

Click to access T.E._Webb_Exploring_System_Boundaries_accepted_version_.pdf



The Role of Leaders in Managing Organisation Boundaries

Click to access v10286-012-0001-0.pdf




Managing Boundary Spanning Elements: An Introduction

Sunil Sahadev, Keyoor Purani, and Neeru Malhotra





Boundary-Spanning in Organizations: Network, Influence and Conflict

Edited by Janice Langan Fox, Cary Cooper

A Borderless World and Nationless Firms?

Click to access prism_chapter.pdf






Arnaud Costinot
Lindsay Oldenski
James E. Rauch

January 2009

Click to access w14668.pdf


The Boundaries of Multinational Enterprises and the Theory of International Trade

James R. Markusen


Incomplete Contracts and the Boundaries of the Multinational Firm

Nathan Nunn

Daniel Trefler§

June 2008

Click to access NunnTreflerPaper.pdf



Complexity and Philosophy




Click to access 0604072.pdf




Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism

Paul Cilliers

Click to access The_importance_of_a_certain_slowness.pdf



Towards an Economy of Complexity: Derrida, Morin and Bataille

Oliver Human

Stellenbosch University, South Africa

Paul Cilliers

Click to access Human_Complexity.pdf




The architecture of complexity

Herbert Simon

Click to access Thearchitectureofcomplexity.pdf





Complexity and postmodernism

Understanding complex systems

Paul Cilliers

Click to access Paul-Cilliers-Complexity-and-Postmodernism-Understanding-Complex-Systems-1998.pdf



Complexity, Difference and Identity
An Ethical Perspective

Paul Cilliers, Rika Preiser (Eds.)


Introduction to Critical Complexity. Collected Essays by Paul Cilliers

Click to access Introduction-to-Critical-Complexity-Collected-Essays-by-Paul-Cilliers.pdf



Chapter 2
The Relational Turn in Social Sciences

Beyond Leadership
A Relational Approach to Organizational Theory in Education

Authors: Eacott, Scott



Relational Sociology: A New Paradigm for the Social Sciences

By Pierpaolo Donati




Conceptualizing Relational Sociology: Ontological and Theoretical Issues

edited by C. Powell, F. Dépelteau


Applying Relational Sociology: Relations, Networks, and Society,

edited by Francçois Depélteau and Christopher Powell.
Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan,




Birth and development of the relational theory of society:
a journey looking for a deep ‘relational sociology

Click to access donati_birth_and_development_of_the_relational_theory_of_society.pdf




Beyond the Manifesto: Mustafa Emirbayer and Relational Sociology

Lily Liang Sida Liu

Click to access Working-Paper-2017-02.pdf





Towards Relational Sociology

By Nick Crossley





Manifesto for a Relational Sociology

Mustafa Emirbayer

The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 103, No. 2. (Sep., 1997), pp. 281-317

Click to access Mustafa%20Emirbayer_Manifesto%20for%20a%20Relational%20Sociology.pdf





by Josef Langer (Klagenfurt)

Click to access JLanger3.pdf






Michele Lamont and Vira ́g Molnar

Click to access m.lamont-v.molnar-the_study_of_boundaries.pdf




Beyond “the relationship between the individual and society”: broadening and deepening relational thinking in group analysis

Sasha Roseneil

Click to access 11305548.pdf




The Relational Turn in Sociology: Implications for the Study of Society, Culture, and Persons

Special issue of the academic journal Stan Rzeczy [State of Affairs]

Click to access relational_turn_speakers.pdf





Networks and Hierarchies

Networks and Hierarchies


From  Networks and Hierarchies: Approaching Complexity in Evolutionary Theory

The natural world is infinitely complex and hierarchically structured. Hierarchy theory is an approach to understanding the way complex systems work by identifying levels of organization and their relationships in the context of scaling. In a broad sense, a system is a network of functionally interdependent and structurally interconnected components comprising an integrated whole. The complexity arises from intricate, nonlinear interactions of a large number of parts that such systems have, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts: That is, given the properties and the laws of interactions of parts, it is not a trivial matter to infer the properties of the whole.

Coining the term “hierarchy” is attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a philosopher and a theologian of the late fifth–early sixth century, who used the Greek word εραρχ α (“rule by priests”) in reference to ranks of celestial beings and ecclesiastical power in early Christian church (Hathaway 1969). Despite its narrow original meaning, hierarchical organization can be recognized in almost every system in the world from the structure of the natural world to all the domains of human life. Hierarchies are manifest in the physical composition of natural and artificial objects, engineered mechanisms, genealogical relationships, classification schemes, and socioeconomic organizations. The relative arrangement of levels and the nature of their interactions vary greatly depending upon the specific kind of hierarchy considered.

That hierarchy is a key structural principle of biological systems was first recognized by Woodger (1929), whose work influenced the development of hier- archical approaches across biological disciplines (e.g., Hennig 1950, 1966; Pattee 1973; Whyte 1969). In biology, the concept of hierarchy acquired a plethora of disparate meanings ranging from the descriptions of organization of knowledge to models of functional interactions of living systems to taxonomic classifications. The pervasiveness of hierarchies in nature was amply captured by Francois Jacob’s maxim, “every object that biology studies is a system of systems” (Jacob 1974).

Biological evolutionary theory is ontologically committed to the existence of nested hierarchies in nature and attempts to explain natural phenomena as a product of complex dynamics of real hierarchical systems. Consistent with the general tendency of complex systems to attain and remain in equilibrium, living systems display remarkable metastability despite non-equilibrial dynamics at all levels of organization triggered by extrinsic disturbances, suggesting that hierarchical systems have some common properties that are independent of their specific content and can be applied across physical, biological, or social sciences.

2.2 Hierarchical Dynamics

Two major types of interactions can be distinguished in a hierarchy: within and between levels. Entities at a given level interact directly with each other in the same dynamic process, whereas entities at different levels only interact in an aggregate fashion (Eldredge and Salthe 1984). The differences in the dynamics of processes between versus within levels ultimately arise from scalar differences (frequently of different orders of magnitude) in process rates, yielding a distinction between strong interactions with high-frequency dynamics within levels and weak interactions with low-frequency dynamics among levels (Simon 1962, 1973). Such non-transitivity of direct effects across levels (Salthe 1985) establishes the levels as quasi-independent (“nearly decomposable” sensu Simon 1962) systems allowing for investigating dynamics of individual levels on their own right (Bunge 1979; Levins 1970). Consequently, the details of within-level interactions can be ignored when considering between-level dynamics (Simon 1962). Scalar differences are also responsible for weaker integration of more inclusive units and weakening the strength of interactions at successive, higher levels of a hierarchy, making it more difficult for the investigator to draw boundaries around and characterize these units from the epistemological standpoint.



Key Sources of Research:


Networks and Hierarchies: Approaching Complexity in Evolutionary Theory

Ilya Tëmkin and Niles Eldredge


Click to access 54e4bd020cf22703d5bf37a4.pdf


“Networks: between markets and hierarchies.”

Thorelli, Hans B.

Strategic management journal 7.1 (1986): 37-51.

Click to access thorelli1986smj.pdf


Boundaries, Hierarchies and Networks in Complex Systems



Click to access Cilliers-2001-Boundaries-Hierarchies-and-Networks.pdf



Yaneer Bar-Yam, New England Complex Systems Institute, Cambridge, MA, USA


Click to access EOLSSComplexityRising.pdf


On the origins of hierarchy in complex networks

Bernat Corominas-Murtra, Joaquín Goñid, Ricard V. Solé and Carlos Rodríguez-Casoa


Click to access pnas.201300832.pdf


The Architecture of Complexity

Herbert A. Simon

Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 106, No. 6. (Dec. 12, 1962), pp. 467-482.

Click to access ArchitectureOfComplexity.HSimon1962.pdf


Self-organization, Emergence and the Architecture of Complexity



Click to access Self-OrgArchComplexity.pdf