Historical Frames of Relational Perspectives
Among interpersonal communication scholars, the term "relationship" often simply labels the association or involvement between persons that is of research interest. This involvement may be by reason of blood, affection, marriage, employment, ethnicity, or group membership, which means that the scholar may study family relationships, dating relationships, superior-subordinate relationships, intercultural relationships, or some other association. In other cases, however, the term "relationship" carries ontological freight in that it identifies something distinctive about the basic nature of the phenomenon focused on. Here, the term foregrounds the point that the object of study cannot be reduced to any individual party, because the scholar is interested in the association -- or, often more pointedly, the associating -- itself. In these cases, relationship is understood to be a systemic, irreducibly multiple, polysemous, situated, co-constructed event or phenomenon identifiable separate from the parties who constitute it. When the term "relationship" is used in the former sense, definitional issues may arise about, for example, what constitutes a family, couple, or interracial work group. However, the most difficult and, I believe, the most consequential questions about the meaning of relationship in interpersonal communication are raised when the construct is understood ontologically.
Increasing numbers of communication theorists and researchers are attempting to explicate and apply this ontological focus, often because