Social Relations Research Paper

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Social relations are patterned human interactions that encompass relationships among individuals, informally organized groups, and formally organized groups, including the state. Modern-day approaches to social relations are represented by individualist, structuralist, and institutionalist theoretical frameworks. Exemplary thinkers have been selected in the field of labor relations and in the study of political processes to illustrate these different approaches.

Individualist theories explain social relations as the response of the rational individual to the outside environment. Individuals are assumed to be able to determine, and then act, on their personal self-interest. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) were key figures in systematizing individualist thought. In the social sciences, particularly in economics, individualist explanations have historically exerted great influence, and since the 1960s they have enjoyed renewed popularity in political science and sociology in the form of rational choice theory.

Structuralist theories emphasize the presence of underlying structures in human relations. These structures have a systematic character, including mechanisms of self-regulation and self-transformation. Karl Marx’s theory that capitalist development is driven by a contradiction between the forces of production and the social relations of production is a prime example of a structuralist theory. The forces of production refer to labor processes, such as mechanization, the reorganization of the workplace, and the education of the working class. The social relations of production refer to the relations between capitalists, who enjoy a monopoly control over the means of production, and workers, who rely exclusively on their own labor power. When the forces of production and the relations of production get seriously out of joint, revolution occurs and leads to the creation of a new system of production with different social relations of production.

Institutionalist theories, in contrast, focus on the role of institutions possessing organization, rules, and shared goals in the shaping of social relations. Institutions are not seen as reflections of underlying structures but as at least partially autonomous units. John R. Commons (1862-1945), Karl Polanyi (1886-1964), and Thorsten Veblen (1857-1929) are among the founders of institu-tionalism. Long a minority current and largely confined to economics, since the 1990s a “new institutionalism” has won growing support among economists, sociologists, and political scientists.

Labor Relations

These different approaches can be seen in labor relations, a field to which individualists, structuralists, and institu-tionalists have contributed significantly. They have all been concerned with labor militancy, but each analyzes militancy in distinctive ways and poses different central questions. Individualists ask why a rational worker would join a trade union or participate in strikes. The economist Mancur Olson, in The Logic of Collective Action (1965), questions why workers would join a trade union when the results of collective actions are “collective goods” (defined as goods that benefit all). These results are thus shared by all workers, whether or not they participated in the collective action. A rational worker would let others join and pay the costs of striking, while waiting to achieve any collective good their action might produce. To overcome a rational worker’s objections to collective action, Olson suggests that unions often use selective incentives, or benefits confined to group members, such as the exclusion of nonunion workers from employment (closed shops), to make sure that the rewards of collective action are confined to participants in collective action. While Olson’s analysis offers insights into some problems of labor relations, it conflicts with observed worker behavior. Strike-prone French and Italian workers have historically lacked benefit packages and closed shops.

In contrast to Olson’s individualist focus, John Kelly’s Marxist approach asks how militant collective identities are formed at the workplace. To Kelly, social relations play a big role. In Rethinking Industrial Relations (1998), he argues that capitalists’ monopoly over the means of production enables them to exploit workers, and that workers’ experiences at work give them a limited consciousness of their own exploitation. But when do workers come to see their exploitation as class injustices rather than as flaws of particular employers or the products of local circumstances? Emphasizing that consciousness emerges from the interaction of labor processes and social relations, Kelly focuses on the role of ideologically motivated activists on the workshop floor who persuade workers through talk and by collective action that their fate is inextricably bound up with that of the class collectivity. Kelly emphasizes that workers’ ideologies and workplace struggles— their social relations—are as important as productive forces in the evolution of worker radicalism.

While social relations play a major role in Kelly’s Marxist analysis of labor relations, structural forces also remain crucial. Kelly argues that the decline in labor militancy in the United Kingdom and much of the contemporary Western industrial world is a cyclical phenomenon produced by Kondratieff waves, which are decades-long waves of economic activity. During the upswing of Kondratieff waves, employment increases and the workers’ bargaining position strengthens. The opposite occurs during downswings, however, and turning points correspond to historical changes in systems of labor organization. The contemporary decline in unionism in the private sector in the United Kingdom and many industrialized nations does not constitute a dissolution of class as much as it represents the triumph of aggressive capitalism during a favorable historical period.

Kelly’s argument puts a good deal of weight on the role of radical political action within trade unions in promoting class identities, but little information is presented about what motivates activists or how militant organizations are sustained. A Kondratieff wave is a good example of a deep structure, one that exerts great influence but that may escape detection entirely by contemporaries. But Kondratieff waves are also problematic because so little is known about their causes. In addition, because the number of cycles is so small, the possibility exists that random forces are at work.

Institutionalist labor relations acknowledge both class and individualist concerns, but they focus major attention on institutional regulation, emphasizing the constructed character of social relations. Institutionalists ask why various industrialized nations possess very different systems of industrial relations. A good example of an institutionalist approach is that of Bo Rothstein, who argues that the character of unemployment insurance programs explains why Scandinavians have significantly higher union membership than other Europeans (1992). According to Rothstein, government-subsidized, union-controlled unemployment insurance programs prevail in Scandinavia, while compulsory national unemployment systems dominate elsewhere. A union-organized unemployment system, the so-called Ghent system, allows Scandinavian unionists to limit benefits to unionized workers, to decide what jobs are suitable for unemployed workers and, as a consequence, to increase labor’s control over the labor supply. In Sweden, for example, the union-dominated Ghent system was implemented by Social Democrats with these ends in view. The welfare system actually promotes unionization, accounting for as much as 20 percent of Sweden’s lead in unionization over major non-Scandinavian European nations.

Although individualists, structuralists, and institu-tionalists pose different questions about labor relations and pursue different research agenda, there is some room for common ground. Rothstein underlines the importance of the autonomous creation of Ghent system type welfare programs but also stresses that such institutions may be seen as an example of the selective incentives dear to Mancur Olson. Rothstein also adds that Marxist theories of class formation help explain why trade unionists entered politics to pursue class objectives in the first place.

Political Processes

Social relations concern not just questions of collective action but also issues of political process of concern to social scientists. Recent debates over the evolution and effects of democratization show how individualist, structuralist, and institutionalist approaches can be applied to political issues.

Many individualists emphasize the importance of reciprocity in understanding political processes, as well as the role of democratic polities in fostering norms of reciprocity. In democracies, such norms are formed in repeated social exchanges that define appropriate behavior and promote collective benefits. Over the course of repeated interactions, individuals learn the value of cooperation and can reasonably expect that their contributions will be rewarded by others’ contributions at a later stage of the game. An application of an individualist approach to politics processes can be seen in Consent, Dissent, and Patriotism (1997), Margaret Levi’s study of conscription and conscientious objection. Levi argues that, however patriotic, rational draftees might be expected to stay home and let others bear the brunt of the battle. Patriotism makes sense when prospective conscripts can be sure that others will also answer the call. Surveying military service in six countries over extended periods of time, Levi found that young men are most likely to respond when they trust that the government is making policy and implementing it fairly, when they see that others are obeying, and when they receive information that confirms government trustworthiness and popular responsiveness. Thus, faith in government’s equity and capacity breed civic trust.

A structuralist perspective on democratization and distrust can be seen in Quintan Wiktorowicz’s book The Management of Islamic Activism (2001). Wiktorowicz studied the response of Islamic movements to Jordan’s post-1989 democratic reforms, and he shows how Islamic movements that have adopted formal organizational structures and subjected themselves to state regulation have been systematically manipulated and denied the ability to articulate independent political positions. Charitable societies, religious judges, Mosque preachers, and the Ramadan religious period are carefully policed and regulated by the Jordanian state. One important political-religious group, the Muslim Brotherhood, benefits from state largesse, encouragement, and even facilitation, and it has become a politically moderate ally of the Jordanian state. In contrast, Salafi Muslims have avoided integration and have remained informally organized. Salafi networks possess significant influence in religious education where they advocate social justice and Islamic practices that contrast with the regime’s support of the status quo. Rejecting efforts at government control, Salafis have resisted formal organization and, in the underworld of informal organization, reformist Salafis have often established contacts and have been influenced by more radical Islamic Salafis.

Wiktorowicz shows that Jordan’s allegedly democratic reforms have not produced democracy. Still, changes in state structure have not been ineffectual. Changes in state structures have profoundly affected the character not only of Jordan’s quiescent formal political organizations, but also that of the government’s rebellious, informally organized opposition.

From an institutionalist perspective scholars have also been interested in how allegedly democratic reforms can actually restrict democratic politics and undercut the agents of state capacity. Ezra Suleiman’s book Dismantling Democratic States (1997) is a “new institutionalise study of governmental deregulation and de-democratization in some important industrial nations. Suleiman suggests that debates over governmental reform changed in the 1980s and 1990s. During these decades, encouraged by advocates of a “New Public Management” policy, attacks on bureaucratization no longer focused on creating a more efficient public civil service but on championing a privatization that, Suleiman believes, weakens democracy. Privatization, he argues, necessarily destroys the public space in which contemporaries can debate political options, while broadsides against bureaucratization undermine faith in the civil servants and governmental institutions that represent the most practical civic alternative to markets. At the higher levels of government, there is increasingly little place for the career civil servant, while business experience is taken as a desirable and sufficient qualification for those charged with serving the public good. But if states no longer foster institutions that possess autonomous power, why debate politics at all? When consumers replace citizens, political authority and democratic politics necessarily contract.

In the case of political processes, as in that of collective action, individualist, structuralist, and institutionalist theories all offer valuable insights. Levi’s study of conscription shows how democratic governments can build trust by creating institutions that treat citizens equally and that are sufficiently transparent to let citizens see they are being treated fairly. Wiktorowicz’s study of political integration in Jordan shows what happens when state administration is inequitable and when it denies equal treatment to political groups, bringing some into the government and condemning dissenters to the murky world of informal organization and secrecy. Finally, Suleiman demonstrates the growing danger of replacing democratic institutions with markets. Such a situation provides little room for citizens to engage in the kind of debate and civic interaction that Levi argues builds trust, and it provides no vehicles for integrating dissent into the political order.

In conclusion, a look at individualist, structuralist, and institutionalist theories shows a clear difference in their central organizing questions and their root conception of fundamental social relations. Yet each offers valuable insight into important aspects of collective action and political process. The current challenge seems to be not so much to dismiss or discard theories, but to look for new ways to integrate significant contending theories.


  1. Elster, Jon, ed. 1986. Rational Choice. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  2. Granovetter, Mark. 1985. Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness. American Journal of Sociology 91: 481–510.
  3. Kelly, John. 1998. Rethinking Industrial Relations: Mobilization, Collectivism, and Long Waves. London: Routledge.
  4. Lazonick, William. 1991. Business Organization and the Myth of the Market Economy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Levi, Margaret. 1997. Consent, Dissent, and Patriotism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  6. McAdam, Doug, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. 1997. Toward an Integrated Perspective on Social Movements and Revolutions. In Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture, and Structure, eds. Mark Irving Lichbach and Alan S. Zuckerman. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Olson, Mancur. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  8. Rothstein, Bo. 1992. Labor Market Institutions and Working- Class Strength. In Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis, eds. Sven Steinmo, Kathleen Thelen, and Frank Longstreth, 33–56. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Suleiman, Ezra. 1997. Dismantling Democratic States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  10. Wiktorowicz, Quintan. 2001. The Management of Islamic Activism: Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and State Power in Jordan. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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