The Relational Concepts Tool

45 Years of Shameless Recycling

Apart from a course component on philosophy of education and some reading for personal interest, there was no philosophy in my first degree. Writing my master’s thesis on education and rights embroiled me in trying to learn what was involved in doing Philosophy and trying to become a kind of philosopher. And while I did get a little way along a road while writing that thesis, it really was only a little way. So, when I embarked on my doctoral thesis on freedom and education, most of the work lay ahead. I enrolled in courses in the Philosophy department, studying philosophy of language and political philosophy, and set about writing the usual kinds of essays: reading relevant texts pertaining to the topic and developing a line of argument based on the reading. In doing this, I basically proceeded from an intuitive sense of what it meant to construct an argument: trawling the texts for ideas and lines of argument that were relevant to the topic and playing them off against each other in accordance with what I thought to be their relative merit.

But it never felt quite right. Specifically, it felt too generic – like the same kind of thing I used to do in writing English or Geography essays, i.e., content + argument = essay. I understood that more than just being a body of ideas that people read and talked about in various ways, philosophy and being a philosopher were also very much about methods and, importantly for me, tools. It wasn’t so much that philosophers differed from geographers in terms of the phenomena they investigated, but that, to investigate these phenomena, they had their characteristic methods and tools. And I was foggy about these but knew that learning the trade involved kitting up around methods, tools and techniques. I spent a lot of time reading books like John Passmore’s Philosophical Reasoning (1961) and wrestled with infinite regresses and the two worlds argument, all the while thinking there had to be something a little more concrete and, in a word, tool-like.

At the time, Anglo-Australasian philosophy of education was, of course, dominated by analytical philosophy and, in particular, conceptual analysis of a kind that presumed the meaning was ‘in’ the concept and could be brought forth by identifying paradigm cases and advancing counterexamples, and so on. This felt to me to be at about ‘the right level’ for what I was seeking. There was a method: conceptual analysis. And there were more or less specific and reasonably concrete tools: locating paradigm cases, identifying counterexamples, and so on. The problem was that these did not seem to me to have the kind of clout required for a concept as contested, wide open, and multiple as ‘freedom.’ For example, was freedom better understood as the absence of constraints to wants or the absence of constraint to choices. This was not about using tools to analyse out a core abiding meaning. Rather, it was a debate about substantive valuative standpoints. And I discovered that the history of ideas around freedom is a very long history of exactly that. What I believed I needed were tools to help me reduce and organise some of this massive data.

There was a thesis to complete, and I was going round and round in circles with the centuries (if not millennia)-old debate between proponents of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ freedom, looking for a resolution. Conveniently, a particular kind of analytic tool was available in the literature at about the kind of level I felt I could work with. Those who developed the tool were not attempting to solve the question of what freedom really meant, so much as to dissolve it. With ‘freedom’ having inherent positive connotations and meaning so many different things to different people that statements about often collapsed into hopeless ambiguity and vagueness, it provided a way of eliciting some specificity, case by case.

Building on Maurice Cranston’s 1954 claim that statements about freedom were often no more than ‘abbreviated slogans,’ and that, where they arise, we should ‘call for the(ir) full version,’ Gerald MacCallum argued in 1967 that whenever the freedom of human agents is being discussed, claims are intelligible only to the extent that reference is/can be made to three terms or variables:

Whenever the freedom of some agent or agents is in question, it is always freedom from some constraint or restriction on, interference with, or barrier to doing, not doing, becoming, or not becoming something. Such freedom is thus always freedom of something (an agent or agents), from something, to do, not do, become or not become something; it is a triadic relation. Taking the format ‘x is (is not) free from y to do (not do, become, not become) z,’ x ranges over agents, y ranges over such ‘preventing conditions’ as constraints, restrictions, interference, and barriers, and z ranges over actions or conditions of character or circumstance. When reference to one of these three terms is missing in such a discussion of freedom, it should be only because the reference is thought to be understood from the context of the discussion.

This argument was further developed and discussed by Joel Feinberg in Social Philosophy (1973).

In this ‘triadic relation analysis,’ I found the kind of thing that I had in mind with respect to methods and tools for kitting up to advance a position on freedom and education. The triadic relation analysis was a tool I could use to this end. It gelled with my temperament and gave me a sense of engaging in philosophy as a certain kind of social practice: one that used characteristically philosophical tools and methods. It helped me get my thesis going by allowing me to develop what I called ‘two perspectives’ on freedom. This was the idea that when we think about freedom in relation to education, we can consider MacCallum’s x, y and z variables in terms of formal arrangements within learning contexts – e.g., x is free from y (limits to online searching) to z (discover a topic of interest that genuinely engages her); and we can also consider these variables in terms of x becoming a particular kind of person that we might regard as a free person – e.g., x is free from y (e.g., dependence on authoritative sources) to z(develop innovative approaches to thinking about a particular phenomenon). And armed with these two perspectives, we might then be able to explore the relationship between the kinds of formal arrangements we establish for learning contexts and the kinds of people we want our learners to become. In this way, the triadic relation analysis tool helped me develop a conceptual framework for my philosophical investigation, in a parallel manner to how a qualitative social scientist might develop a conceptual framework for, say, investigating how ‘collaborative writing’ gets done within an English Language Arts classroom. It was a kind of tool I have come back to several times subsequently when faced with what seemed to me to be influential slogans and abbreviations or ellipses in educational discourse that cried out for some conceptual rigour.

Like many others, by the mid-90s, I was tired of vague appeals to or claims about ‘empowerment,’ which had become an education buzzword par excellence during the previous decade. Empowerment and an empowering pedagogy were increasingly invoked as a magic bullet for fighting educational causes on behalf of disadvantaged groups and individuals. Often it seemed to have too little meaning, as when it was used as a slogan to name a space where conceptual and theoretical work needed to be done, rather than to fill that space, as Roger Dale has argued: where the meaning and significance of empowerment was assumed to be self-evident. Conversely, at times it seemed to have altogether too much meaning because of the strong connotations of positive value attached to the term. Everyone could be for empowerment, but they might well subscribe to very different and even incompatible ideological and normative positions – as reflected in Concha Delgado-Gaitan’s initial refusal to embrace empowerment talk because it was often used to ‘to mean the act of showing people how to work within a system from the perspective of people in power.’

It seemed to be that if we were to avoid ‘empowerment’ meaning all things to all people and to try to fill a space where conceptual and theoretical work needed to be done, a potentially useful place to start might be with recognising empowerment as being – like freedom – a relational concept. But whereas freedom had been treated as a triadic relation, it seemed to me that empowerment involves at least four variables. I suggested that for claims about empowerment to be clear and arguable, they should spell out:

  1. the subject of empowerment
  2. the power structures, in relation to which, or in opposition to which, a person or group is being empowered
  3. the processes or ‘qualities’ through or by which empowerment occurs, and
  4. the sorts of ends or outcomes which can or do result from being thus empowered.

Rather than using MacCallum’s x, y, and z schema, I used the beginning of the alphabet. Hence, I argued that claims about empowerment should spell out the contents of AD in the following schema:

A (the subject) is empowered in respect of B (some aspect of the discursive structuring of power) by/through C (a process or quality) such that D (some valued ends or outcomes) may – and ideally will – result.

Drawing on James Gee’s (1990) concept of ‘powerful literacies,’ construed as ways of using language that provide us with meta-level resources with which to understand, analyse and critique discourses that constitute and position us within the social orders of our everyday and institutional lives, I distinguished three qualitatively different ‘modes of empowerment’ and their varying implications for life chances and the allocation of social goods.

Most recently, I used this conceptual tool in a paper with Michele Knobel (in press) to look at how some quotidian uses of a mobile phone and a Chromebook might be seen to enable their users in significant ways daily. This work was a response to what we saw as overused and underdeveloped talk of ‘enabling technologies’ in a lot of the EdTech and global policy literatures, where sweeping universal claims about the emancipatory, empowering, self-actualising, enabling and inclusive properties of digital devices and networks abound. Many of those who advance critiques of such monolithic and overblown claims emphasise the importance of paying attention to situated examples of ordinary people using digital devices and networks in their daily lives.

To this end, we explored some ways in which the use of low-end digital-electronic devices might be considered to play enabling roles in the everyday lives of a housebound 90-year-old woman in the US and an impoverished peasant family in México. As I had done previously with ‘freedom’ and ‘empowerment,’ we set out from the idea that ‘enablement’ is a relational concept involving multiple variables. To claim that something (someone, etc.) enables, or is enabling, is elliptical: it is a shorthand form that should be spelled out in ways that make explicit how something or other makes it possible for someone/something to do or be something they would otherwise not be, by means of its affordances. In other words, whenever a claim about enabling is made, those making the claim must be able to specify the variables and provide supporting evidence in accordance with the following format:

A (e.g., a digital device) enables B (a person, group of people, organisation, etc.) to do or be or achieve or realise C(some state of affairs or state of being, etc.,) by means of D (some quality or capacity, or affordance that A has).

This is as simple as the idea that a hammer (A) enables a carpenter (B) to frame up a wall (C) by means of its capacity to drive nails through timber (D). Hardly rocket science.

In the case of the peasant family, where both parents are illiterate, the phone is maintained on a minimal ‘pay as you go’ and used only to maintain connections with family, landowning employers, and for emergency purposes. The parents (Cecelia and David) rely on the children (Ana, Fernanda) to key and read the communications. Drawing on interview data, everyday observations, and a WhatsApp thread, a diverse range of ‘enablements’ – some very specific and others more general – were identified. In one dramatic example, David suffered a serious head injury when a branch he was cutting from a neighbour’s tree fell on top of him. With blood gushing and no passing traffic on their rural road, they called Cecelia’s father, who lived on the edge of the town where taxis are plentiful. He arrived rapidly in a taxi, and they proceeded immediately to the hospital, where a potentially life-threatening wound was treated urgently and successfully. In this case, which could easily have proved fatal, we argued that using the phone (A) enabled (B) Cecilia and Ana to (C) mobilise immediate transport to hospital by (D) communicating with someone who could access a vehicle on the spot. This might have amounted to enabling the family to save David’s life.

At a more general level, we trawled a WhatsApp thread that revealed interesting and complex ways in which interactions with actual and potential employers mediated the family’s precarious economic existence. Many of these interactions are straightforward, such as coordinating coffee picking with times that will be convenient for collecting the harvested beans for processing. Others are more complex, especially when the landowners are out of town. These include anticipating upcoming tasks like pruning the coffee plants, clearing the land for weeding and composting, getting the work approved, and arranging payment for it. Sometimes money is needed in advance. The thread of interactions mediated by WhatsApp provides an audit trail of responsibility, proactivity, reliability, courtesy and openness, and accountability of a kind that has generated and augmented relationships of mutual trust and dependability extending over years. For example, photographs are attached to messages to show work that should be done soon or that has been done and, often, results of work that communicate pride in work that has been well done – such as coffee plants that are healthy when it is known that other landholdings have suffered plagues; decorative work and magnificent blooms in the garden area. In some cases, trees in danger of falling and causing damage have been documented, the trees felled and photos provided of the site after clearing. From such data, we argued that a case could be made for seeing the family phone (A) as a device that enables (B) the family to (C) optimise their livelihood under precarious conditions by (D) using the phone’s affordances to communicate qualities that inspire trust and goodwill on the part of others who can contribute to their ongoing livelihood.

In the case of the 90-year-old housebound woman, Sally, who has severe mobility difficulties, we could trace the ways she used her ‘self-teaching’ and ‘easy to use’ Chromebook to continue to live independently, as enjoyably as possible, and with dignity. Sally keeps her mind alert by doing puzzles online, troubleshooting computer issues, and doing information searches around personal interests. She shops from home for things she needs, attends online church services, keeps in touch with family, friends, and neighbours and even socialises a little, and she manages health-related interactions with doctors, specialists and paramedical services. In all such cases, cashing in the four variables makes it possible to provide empirically sustainable, specific, and detailed claims about the ways in which the use of the Chromebook enables her to accomplish personally significant ends.

To this extent, and in these kinds of ways, a simple conceptual tool that has its home in analytic philosophy can become a robust analytic tool for use by social scientists in exploring everyday uses of digital tools and networks from the standpoint of ‘enablement at the social margins.’ In many ways, this is ‘just a tool’ and not an especially complex one at that. But, for me, it became a paradigm for what an academic tool looks like and how tools can be used and developed within academic practice. In many ways, I built my entire academic practice, over 45 years and counting, on locating, developing, and using such tools – initially, in the philosophy of education, and subsequently in qualitative research conducted from a broadly sociocultural perspective.

For better or for worse, it has served me very well.

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Full Citation Information:
Lankshear, C. (2021). The Relational Concepts Tool: 45 Years of Shameless Recycling. PESA Agora. https://pesaagora.com/columns/the-relational-concepts-tool/

Colin Lankshear

Colin Lankshear is an independent educational researcher, writer, and teacher based in México and an adjunct professor at Mount Saint Vincent University (Canada). His research and writing mostly draw on a sociocultural approach to understanding literacy practices that are mediated by new technologies.