A Relational Realist Vision for Education Policy and Practice: The Functionalist Symbolic Reference of UK Governance Models

Our books Sep 12, 2023

by Basem Adi

I am writing a series of blog posts that outline the contents and arguments presented in 'A Relational Realist Vision for Education Policy and Practice'. In this entry, I provide a brief account of the introduction and first chapter, which gives a detailed overview of the policy initiatives of UK governments operating within the conceptual infrastructure of lib/lab governance. The aim of providing these examples is to demonstrate the underlying epistemic and ontological claims that exist in these governance approaches.

Governance and the closure of knowing better in policy and society

Policy-making directs the paths taken within social domains as a networked and interactive reality. Yet seldom discussed are the epistemic and ontological presuppositions that shape these policy paths. Specifically, the bond between policy makers as observers (Ego) and the target of these policies (Alter) is negated as the two realities of state and market negotiate optimal outcomes.

The prevalent governance approach in modernity is centred on the nexus between the state (lab) and market (lib) that dictates the parameters of relationality and the public goods produced. The lib pole represents the market as "free competition and capitalistic production theories and practices based on liberalism as an economic doctrine" (Donati & Archer 2015: 233). On the other hand, the lab side represents the state's role in governance. It includes "state intervention theories and practices, aimed at guaranteeing equal opportunities and a bare welfare minimum as a right of citizenship" (Donati & Archer 2015: 233).

The resulting self-referential logic directs the structure of relations, viz. economic production (although the direction taken adapts based on the nature of the interplay between state and market). The goals pursued through the state organise social relations in ways guided by the acquisitive and instrumental focus of generative profit mechanisms of economic production (see diagram below).

The economic logic of lib/lab society (Donati 2021: 37)

Public goods represent the state's attempt to regulate the lifeworld of citizens as consumers and producers of goods and services. With the welfare arm of the state providing public goods (for example, education as skills training and the basis of a meritocracy of work-based social mobility), the citizen's place is to develop self-investing capabilities within the context of the lib pole.

The focus on work-based welfare - in the name of meritocracy - gains a greater focus in policy triangulation that rhetorically advocates the revision of the state's role as an enabler of citizens rather than a top-down provider. In 'A Relational Realist Vision for Education Policy and Practice', I cited examples of the enabling state from New Labour and beyond. These examples substantiate the ways successive governments sought to reach a new articulation between the lib and lab poles that transcends the dominance of either side. The state is envisaged as an enabler, with its directives providing opportunities for greater freedoms as part of upward social mobility. Yet, even attempting to transcend the templates of past governance, there is reproductive continuity within the lib/lab paradigm as the proposed revisions maintain both poles as the two realities of the social system.

Hence, in the case of lib/lab governance, knowledge claims are derived from a technocratic positivist mode of observation that begins from system outcomes and works backwards to the constitution of relations. The disconnection between outcomes and relations of emergence is due to the governance operating from the directives of the state and market, with the latter being the referential reality (the practical application of this referential reality can differ between different governments). Due to the negation of relationality, the implication is an institutionalised individualism as the basis of a dictated shared vision (We-ness).

What is institutionalised individualism?

With the neglect of the third space between state and market, the question of social integration represents the continuous problem of lib/lab governance. As noted above, the conceptual framework of lib/lab governance is inherently incapable of acknowledging the interplay between freedom (lib) and control (lab) as relational processes. Yet, the mechanisms existing in the third space between the state and the market are necessary for producing solidarity. Without first relying on the relationally reflexive role of active subjects within the interactive processes between market and state, the turn is to the structure of the relations. Therefore, the 'We-ness' of relations become directed by the institutionalised settings responsible for integrating the actor into the social system. The motivational mechanisms employed are part of the institutionalising process that articulates actors' roles and how they enact them.

Accordingly, the functionalist logic of institutionalised individualism is derived from technocratic positivism that works from sought outcomes as observable events. Institutionalised individualism is a direct implication of an epistemic logic of negation that articulates the contours of roles conducive to sought outcomes. The institutionalised fabric is designed to inculcate subjectivities that fulfil their role but do not play a substantive part in the making of the structure of relations they belong to, i.e., a positive conception of freedom (freedom for). In 'A Relational Realist Vision for Education Policy and Practice', the case of the Big Society agenda was cited as an example of a project that purported policy devolution while relying on the state apparatus to regulate the actions of those involved to ensure pre-drawn outcomes. Top-down mechanisms enacted by the state were introduced to make the right structures and environment for individuals and communities to help themselves. Instead of devolution and cultivating positive freedoms to make and remake their environment, the Big Society agenda turned into an initiative in which the state maintained a relation of a-symmetry to civil society.


Donati, P., 2021. Transcending Modernity with Relational Thinking, First. ed. Routledge, Abingdon.

Donati, P., 2011. Relational Sociology: A New Paradigm for the Social Sciences. Routledge, Abingdon.

Donati, P., Archer, M., 2015. The Relational Subject, FIrst. ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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A Relational Realist Vision for Education Policy and Practice
This volume argues that relational realism can help us to make better educational policy that is more effective in practice. Basem Adi draws on critical realism to thoroughly re-examine fundamental assumptions about how government policymaking works, developing an ontological basis from which to exa…

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