Relationships Research at the Heart of Academic Work in the Global Era

January 01, 2004

Relationships Research at the Heart of Academic Work in the Global Era

“Who you are among the students is as important as your academic work”, wrote one CASE Associate in an encouraging email. Her wise observation is supported by research being carried out by the Relationships Foundation in Cambridge, UK, under the guidance of Dr Michael Schluter. Michael was at New College earlier this year, delivering lectures and participating in seminars considering the significance of relationships in the era of globalisation.

Michael’s thesis is broad and comprehensive and can be expressed in three points:

  1. That relationships are pivotal to the well-being of individuals and society as a whole.
  2. That the environment within which we live and relate has a profound impact on the quality of relationships.
  3. That much more could be done and needs to be done to strengthen relationships across public and private life.[1]

The Relationships Foundation has developed diagnostic tools for organizations to assess how relationships within the organization are affecting well-being, planning and performance.

In his CASE seminar address, Michael emphasized the difficulties of thinking ‘relationally’in an age of globalisation “which is hostile at many points to a culture of relational proximity”. After exploring some of the features of contemporary globalisation--the speed and volume of information transmission, the increased mobility of populations, growing income disparities between rich and poor nations and individuals, a breakdown of national, cultural and trade borders­—he examined the various consequences for relationships.

Described positively, Michael saw increased opportunities for new relationships across existing boundaries—the rise of internet chat rooms and email having facilitated relationships where none were previously possible. Negatively, there is less ‘relational proximity’ between individuals, professional teams and community figures. Whereas one might have known a bookseller ten years ago, now titles are supplied by mail from virtual ‘places’, such as Where banks used to provide service in physical locations, they are now located primarily in electronic services, be they phone or internet.

The concept of relational proximity is a key to redeveloping relationships in the global era, according to Michael. It is a complex notion, encompassing such factors as directness (intensity of relationship), continuity (length and stability of relationship), multiplexity (breadth and scope of relationship), parity (mutual respect and involvement in relationship) and commonality (shared experience, values and goals). Far from simplistically concluding that, for instance, technology has reduced relational proximity, Michael Schluter has sought to examine these various factors in working out what impact the global era is having on a key elements of our lives.

Rather than delivering a jeremiad, Dr Schluter offered a call to at least consider the relational consequences of change at every level. “Do you think about the relational implications of cooking by microwave?” he asked an intrigue audience. “Whereas cooking often used to be a time of conversation between parent and child, between partners or visitors, this time has now been redistributed—usually in the direction of watching more television.”

Globalisation doesn’t, according to Schluter, alter human needs in relationships, but it is having a deep impact on how and whether those needs are met.

The Relationships Foundation has found applications for its work in prisons, companies, churches and universities. Although there are some broad non-ideological principles at work, Michael Schluter outlined carefully in his seminar how his relational approach derives from a biblical understanding of theology, anthropology and community. He finds a basis for his work in the Christian doctrine of the triune God—that is, that God is a relationship of three persons in one being. This profound axiom for Christians is the starting point for an understanding of God as knowable, loving, faithful (making and keeping promises) and just (pursuing rightness of relations). From this ancient basis, the Relationships Foundation is developing remarkable tools for analyzing  the contemporary world.

I was struck by the comprehensive nature of the ‘R’ proposal, as it is often abbreviated. In an area of my own interest, continental philosophy, the consideration of relationships has moved into focus over the past fifteen years. Jacques Derrida is one responsible for the shift; recently, his philosophical writing has considered the value of friendships, the importance of mourning as an intellectual activity, and the nature of justice—all relational subjects. The work of Emmanuel Levinas has proposed that ethics is the first philosophy—in other words, “the most primordial datum in human experience is the face-to-face relation with the other human”.[2] Levinas’s concerns focus on the significance of ‘the Other’, and it is arguably not too far from such a human concern to the doctrine of the Trinity and the relationship of this divine triune being to other beings.

The relational framework seems to emerge from a Christian world view, but offer much to other world views, too. It provides applied knowledge across many disciplines, within a very stimulating and fruitful theoretical field. And it changes the whole way we think about microwave ovens.

[1] For a more detailed explanation of the ‘R’ philosophy, see the Relationships Foundation web site at

[2] Emmanuel Levinas, Basic Philosophical Writings, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1996, p.161.

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