Debating Relationality and Individuality, part one: on the primacy of relationality

One of the popular categories in the P2P Foundation’s topical areas, is the one introducing and discussing ‘relational concepts‘.

One of the key tenets of P2P Theory is that contemporary society is undergoing a shift from the primacy of individualism, to the primacy of relationality; that just as modernity was about extracting the individual dimension out of everything; postmodernity was about extracting the relational dimension out of everything; we have now entered the constructive phase (after the destructive phase of deconstruction), where we are actually building the tools for this shift from the primacy of independence to the primacy of interdependence. But don’t misunderstand it: it is not about doing away with individuality, it is not regressive, but about enriching it, about divesting it from illusions that individuality can exist on its own, without a rich set of networked relationships.

The first contribution here below, tries to set the terms of the debate; in the second, we bring a definition of ‘relational identity’ by Paul Hartzog; in the third, Kenneth Gergen argues for the primacy of relationality.

CONTRIBUTION 1: Michel Bauwens

This articulation, based on a autonomous self in a society which he himself creates through the social contract, has been changing in postmodernity. Simondon, a French philosopher of technology with an important posthumous following in the French-speaking world, has argued that what was typical for modernity was to extract the individual dimension of every aspect of reality, of things/processes that are also always-already related . And what is needed to renew thought, he argued, was not to go back to premodern wholism, but to systematically build on the proposition that everything is related, while retaining the achievements of modern thought, i.e. the equally important centrality of individuality. Thus individuality then comes to be seen as constituted by relations , from relations.

This proposition, that the individual is now seen as always-already part of various social fields, as a singular composite being, no longer in need of socialization, but rather in need of individuation, seems to be one of the main achievements of what could be called ‘postmodern thought’. Atomistic individualism is rejected in favor of the view of a relational self , a new balance between individual agency and collective communion.

In my opinion, as a necessary complement and advance to postmodern thought, it is necessary to take a third step, i.e. not to be content with both a recognition of individuality, and its foundation in relationality, but to also recognize the level of the collective, i.e. the field in which the relationships occur.

If we only see relationships, we forget about the whole, which is society itself (and its sub-fields). Society is more than just the sum of its relationship parts. Society sets up a protocol, in which these relationships can occur, it forms the agents in their subjectivity, and consists of norms which enable or disable certain type of relationships. Thus we have agents, relationships, and fields. Finally, if we want to integrate the subjective element of human intentionality, it is necessary to introduce a fourth element: the object of the sociality.

Indeed, human agents never just related in the abstract, agents always relate around an object, in a concrete fashion. Swarming insects do not seem to have such an object, they just follow instructions and signals, without a view of the whole, but mammals do. For example, bands of wolves congregate around the object of the prey. It is the object that energizes the relationships, that mobilizes the action. Humans can have more abstract objects, that are located in a temporal future, as an object of desire. We perform the object in our minds, and activate ourselves to realize them individually or collectively. P2P projects organize themselves around such common project, and my own Peer to Peer theory is an attempt to create an object that can inspire social and political change.

In summary, for a comprehensive view of the collective, it is now customary to distinguish 1) the totality of relations; 2) the field in which these relations operate, up to the macro-field of society itself, which establishes the protocol of what is possible and not; 3) the object of the relationship (object-oriented sociality), i.e. the pre-formed ideal which inspires the common action. That sociality is object-oriented is an important antidote to any flatland, i.e. merely objective network theory, on which many failed social networking experiments are based. This idea that the field of relations is the only important dimension of reality, while forgetting human intentionality . What we need is a subjective-objective approach to networks.

In conclusion, this turn to the collective that the emergence of peer to peer represent does not in any way present a loss of individuality, even of individualism. Rather it ‘transcends and includes’ individualism and collectivism in a new unity, which I would like to call cooperative individualism. The cooperativity is not necessarily intentional (i.e. the result of conscious altruism), but constitutive of our being, and the best applications of P2P, are based on this idea. Similar to Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand, the best designed collaborative systems take advantage of the self-interest of the users, turning it into collective benefit.


In traditional atomistic/mechanistic ontologies, things are construed as having an independent existence apart from their relationships. Things have properties, and some of those properties may be relational. By contrast, the newer relational ontologies that pervade many disciplines from physics to biology, view relationships as part of what a thing is. In this light, a thing not only enters into relationships, but is in fact constituted by them. Relationships are fundamental to a thing’s identity, or self.”


Kenneth Gergen: a view of the relational self and bottom-up social processes

The following view stresses relationships as constitutive of social reality. On a superficial reading, this definition seems not to include the distinct existence of a social field, nor any object-centeredness, but the last paragraph shows a P2P-like understanding of social processes.

Traditional theory of the civil society is built upon an ontology of bounded units or entities – specifically “the individual,” “the community,” “the state,” and so on. Such a theory not only creates a world of fundamental separation, but invites the use of traditional cause and effect models to comprehend relations. One is either an actor, directing the course of events, or is reduced to an effect. How can we comprehend the social world in such a way that it is not composed of entities, but constituted by processes of relationship? This is no easy task for we at once confront the implications of Wittgenstein’s pronouncement that “The limits of our language are the limits of our world.” Our common language of description and explanation virtually commits us to understanding the world in terms of units (nouns) that act upon each other (transitive verbs). Even the concept of relationship, as commonly understood, is based on the assumption of independent units. If and when such units act upon each other we speak of them being related. Thus, for example, we say, “A relationship developed between them,” or “They no longer have a relationship.” If we turn to relevant social theory, we find that perhaps the most significant candidate for relational understanding, namely systems analysis, is lodged in the view of systems as a collective array of entities linked through processes of cause and effect. Thus, systems diagrams, flow-charts, feedback loops and the like… There is much to be gained by commencing our analysis with a focus on relational processes from which ontologies and ethics emerge, and from which certain actions become favored while others are forbidden. Such processes of creating and carrying out meaning/full worlds are at all times and everywhere under way. In this sense, civil movements are always in the making. As any two or more persons negotiate about the nature of their lives, what is worth doing or not, they are establishing rudimentary grounds for civil life in their terms

(source: Kenneth Gergen website)

1 Comment Debating Relationality and Individuality, part one: on the primacy of relationality

  1. Avatargravity7

    I’m looking forward to exploring concepts of relations, relationships, and relationality in this forum. While the concept itself is at risk of meaning so many things to so many people that it could easily lose its ability to mean anything at all, I will try to articulate, informally, the conceptual architectures of relation-oriented theory and practice. We’ll start this month. Here’s to the discussion!

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