Magazine article Soundings

The Relational Society: A Response to Michael Rustin: How Can We Make Relationships More Central to Services?

Magazine article Soundings

The Relational Society: A Response to Michael Rustin: How Can We Make Relationships More Central to Services?

Article excerpt

The welfare state was built on an idea of redistribution--economic redistribution between the rich and the poor, but just as importantly redistribution of social support between people at different stages of their life cycle. As Michael Rustin argued in his contribution to the Kilburn Manifesto (instalment three), our social institutions were founded on the recognition that human need and interdependence is a normal part of the process and progress of life.

This basic relational premise, however, has been increasingly undermined by the imposition of a neoliberal celebration of the autonomous individual and a valuing of market relationships to the exclusion of all else. This is the core of Michael Rustin's critique, and the basis of his compelling argument that strong social relationships cannot be seen as a tool or way to achieving a social goal, but rather as the goal itself.

In his critique, which draws on academic sociology but also innovative ideas around nature, Michael starts to create a vital space for different ways of looking, framing and talking. To change our world, we need to see differently; and rooting ourselves in different disciplines is a critical starting point.

Michael's arguments echo my own convictions and arguments for a relational approach to the provision of services (what I have called relational welfare, see my article in Soundings 48). (1) And yet, I have mixed emotions about many of those same institutions for which Michael has deep affection. Relationships are powerfully gendered, and it is my view that without exploring these dynamics head-on, we will push some of our deepest social challenges behind doors and back into the domestic sphere, just as happened in the 1950s welfare state, which in reality depended largely on women to shoulder the care of young and old, despite its promise of universal provision.

Michael writes beautifully about parenting and the life transitions of a young person. He also touches on the 'social death' of retirement. What follows this cycle for many are the challenges of care, and very often the accompanying social isolation for an extended period--something that was not foreseen when our current welfare institutions were designed.

Today, at both cradle and grave we see women at the centre, struggling to articulate the value of parenting and caring in a world where political debate over the care of children and the elderly alike has mutated into a conversation around market-making and commissioning. The expressed aims are no longer those of nurture, well-being and quality of life; rather, there is an ambition to keep as many of us as possible in the labour market for as long as possible--each day and over the years.

Relationships feel under siege. Friendships, partnerships, parenting--these are bonds that among other things require time (a scarce commodity, as research from the New Economics Foundation and Anna Coote and Jacob Mohun Himmelweit's contribution to Soundings 54 makes clear (2)); moreover most relationships do not have defined ends or market value, as Michael Rustin recognises.

In our everyday lives, relationships feel as if they are in conflict with the market and with state bureaucracy. And my experience of designing public services that build on relationships--Relational Welfare--leads me to believe that the challenge of care is certainly not one of market-making or even of citizen engagement: it is one of cultural change.

It is my practical work at Participle, designing exemplars of a future welfare state, which has brought me to the centrality of relationships. Spending time in people's lives, on their sofas, in their communities across Britain, it becomes clear of course--that it is social relationships and emotions which play a determining role in people's lives. This is something well understood by literature--and by disciplines outside economics--but something too often overlooked by policy-making. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.