A Relational Realist Vision for Education Policy and Practice: Relational Realism as an Alternative General Sociological Approach

Our books Nov 30, 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 second chapter, which covers the underlying epistemic and ontological claims that underpin a relational realist understanding of education.

There are key terms italicised in the article – to access definitions of these terms, please refer to the glossary of 'A Relational Realist Vision for Education Policy and Practice'.

Relational realism as an alternative general sociological approach

As discussed in the previous article, lib/lab governance is underpinned by epistemic closure. Hence, it is essential to articulate a meta-theory that can conceptually maintain epistemic openness to the relationship between the observer and the observed in and with which they exist (Freire 1985: 54). The idea of an ontological starting point does not entail predefining the parameters of knowledge. Instead, articulating a general approach (a philosophical starting point) is a reasoned necessity. It is a reasoned necessity as all theories –acknowledged or not – must referentially detach when relating to a referent. An ontology of the world will impact the development of paradigms and research methodology. Thus, even theories that give up the idea of the subject as an entity distinct from the object rely on transcendental preliminaries through negation in which representations of the world are reduced to practical activity.

The main objection to philosophising meta-theories is that ontological presuppositions will restrict knowledge by setting the parameters on acts of knowing. However, this pre-definition of referential acts can be avoided if intransitivity is asserted between the act of knowing and referent within a general approach that affirms the relation as the first ontological principle. There is no positing of the parameters of knowledge beforehand, but the contingent world in and with which the observer and the observed exist mediates their relatedness. Nevertheless, the subject and object are considered determinants in a realist approach. Therefore, by considering the contingent dimension and relatively enduring realities of social ontology, relational realism does not fall into different reductionist fallacies that predefine the parameters of social reality by conflating to specific elements.

The epistemic quadrangle and judgemental rationality

As the relation is necessary for intelligible discourse, an epistemic framework is needed to articulate interchanges between the subject and object. The intransitivity between both means knowledge develops a posteriori at the level of active meditations and is open to revision. Judgemental rationality is a relationally reflexive process that constantly seeks to re-codify received mediations in their efficacy in generating transformational social realities. Hence, we have two triangles in this framework: the first triangle represents the process of judgemental rationality that reflexively monitors existing mediations; the second triangle represents the latent ontological reality of the observed. Between the upper and bottom triangles are existing socio-cultural mediations that consist of acts of knowing. These mediations consist of structures open to morphogenesis, regulating interactions between the observer and the observed. The structural order guides interactions, so participants reference the intransitivity of the bottom triangle (latent ontological reality) within the mediations existing in the domain of the actual. These interactions aim to generate potentially transformative structures and mechanisms (Donati 2021).

Fig. 1 For relational sociology, critical realism is an approach that extends the epistemic triangle (commonly used in sociology: observer–culture-observed reality) to the epistemic quadrangle (observer–culture–observed reality–latent ontological reality) (Donati 2011: 100),

Sociology as a knowledge system

As stated above, a meta-theory with a pre-supposing ontological view exists in all theories. Sociology as a knowledge system, therefore, necessarily begins from a general meta-theoretical approach. Derived from a meta-theory, it is a general explanatory paradigm that explains the encountered object as a complex and changing reality (in the case of relational realism, it is the morphogenetic paradigm). The explanatory paradigm influences methodological considerations through research methods and techniques. Applying research methods results in single empirical theories based on the set research questions, i.e., why does Y happen or why has Y happened?

Fig. 2 The components of sociology as a knowledge system (aimed at formulating a theory) built upon two axes, L-G and A-I (Donati 2011: 105).

Policy implications

A general understanding of social ontology underpins social policies. Acknowledging the irreducibility of human needs and nurturing these needs in the mediation between the upper and lower triangles means policies are emergent relational goods. These goods depend on the reflexivity of subjects and a structural order whose feedback mechanisms promote participative acts of knowing which responsibilise subjects for the outcomes of interactions (a positive understanding of freedom). Instead of operating backwards from the structural order – as is the case in lib/lab governance – the structure of the relation promotes associational arrangements in which the norms of relatedness are responsive to morphogenetic processes. Hence, as Freire (2000) observes, 'authority' must be "on the side of freedom, not against it" (Freire 2000: 80).

The interactive phase includes the judgemental rationality of the observer (personal and corporate) as they enter a relation with the observed – the resulting mediations are outcomes that fallibly reference the latent ontological reality of the epistemic quadrangle. In applying judgemental rationality, an explanatory paradigm is adopted that can account for the emergence of Y in a way that does not have predefined parameters of knowledge. Methodological considerations are practical tools in applying judgemental rationality and proposing re-articulations to the elements of the relation.


Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (1995). A Dialogue: Culture, Language, and Race. Harvard Educational Review, 65(3), 377–403.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Third). Continuum.

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

Donati, P. (2021). Transcending Modernity with Relational Thinking (First). Routledge.

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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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