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Social relation

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Social relation can refer to a multitude of social interactions, regulated by social norms, between two or more people, with each having a social position and performing a social role. In sociological hierarchy, social relation is more advanced then behavior, action, social behavior, social action, social contact and social interaction. Social relations form the basis of concepts such as social organisation, social structure, social movement and social system.

Specific meaning

Although Harvard University has featured a "Department of Social Relations" (in which Talcott Parsons played a prominent role), and although the term "social relations" is frequently used in social sciences, there is in fact no commonly agreed meaning for this concept (see also the entry social). "Social" connotes association, co-operation, mutual dependence and belonging.

It could be argued that a social relation is, in the first instance, simply a relation between people, but more specifically

  • a relation between individuals insofar as they belong to a group,
  • a relation between groups of people, or
  • a relation between an individual and a group of people.

The group could be an ethnic or kinship group, a social institution or organisation, a social class or social stratum, a nation, a population, or a gender etc.

This definition contrasts with the relationship between people and inanimate objects.


In this sense, a social relation is therefore not necessarily identical with a unique interpersonal relation or a unique individual relation of some type, although all these kinds of relations presuppose each other; a social relation refers precisely to a condition which groups of people have in common or share.

For example, the simple statement "Jack and Jill love each other" might refer to a unique interaction between two people, the meaning of which might be difficult to define for an outsider. Yet, Jack and Jill may also be socially related in many different ways, insofar as they both are, as a matter of fact, members of the same or different social groups, and thus their identity is shaped in good part by the fact that they belong to those groups. If we wanted to understand and explain their behaviour, we would need to refer to those social relations. We might establish the milieu they grew up in, their ancestors, the jobs they do, where they lived, who their friends are, and so on, all of which helps explain why they necessarily interact in the way that they do, and not in some other way.

At a higher level of abstraction, we might consider two groups which are socially related, for example, although they live in different places, they depend on each other in trading goods and services.

At an even higher level of abstraction, we might consider the relationship between an individual and the whole of the world population, or the relationship of the world population to itself.

Some might indeed argue that a social relation exists between mortals and God (or the Gods), though others would regard this more as an imaginary relation. In flights of fancy, we could extend the analysis to the relation of all sentient organisms in the universe.


However, the difficulties only start here, because now it needs to be established how these social relations exist, how we know they exist, what kinds of social relations there are, and how we can find out about them, verify them or identify them. About these questions researchers often disagree and debate, proposing different kinds of methodology to obtain knowledge of social relations.

At one end of the spectrum, Karl Marx approvingly quotes Giambattista Vico's argument that humans can understand their society in its totality because "they made it themselves"; the limits to what humans can know are mainly practical in nature. At the other end of the spectrum, Karl Popper rejects the possibility of objective knowledge about society as a whole, suggesting that methodological holism must lead to totalitarianism; progressive social change can only be achieved through the small steps of piecemeal social engineering.

Understanding social relations

There are at least three problems in understanding social relations.

  • many social relations are not directly observable by an individual, and can only be inferred with the aid of abstractions. This raises the question of how we know they exist, and how they exist.
  • reflexivity: in the case of social science, the scientist is in a very obvious way himself or herself part of the social world being studied (this occurs also in natural sciences; not just in the sense that a biologist is also a biological being, but also even in theoretical physics - cf. the reflections of David Bohm).
  • animal and insect populations for example also display a kind of "social" behaviour, so that social relations are not necessarily uniquely human relations (cf. the insights of sociobiology), and social relations might exist between humans and animals (though some dispute this; they argue that associative relations are confused here with true social relations; a human being could associate with all sorts of things or organisms, without a social relation being involved).

Types of social relations

In broad terms, we can distinguish six basic levels of human awareness:

  • sub-conscious awareness (studied by e.g. Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Milton Erickson).
  • conscious subjective awareness (dissociated, focusing inward on the inner world, or expressing an inner state outwards) (studied e.g. in phenomenology and general psychology).
  • intersubjective awareness (an awareness which occurs in association with other people and is internal to that association) (studied e.g. in social psychology and sociology).
  • objective awareness (dissociated, focusing outward to a world that exists mind-independently, as is developed e.g. in science to a high level).
  • reality-transforming awareness (transitions in practical action reframing the boundaries of different forms of awareness and changing consciousness, or connecting different forms of awareness - occurring in work, play, love, activism, politics etc.
  • transcendent awareness (going beyond personal knowledge or experience - some would include intuition and spirituality under this heading; it is the subject of much writing in religion and New Age thought).

Corresponding to these levels of human awareness, we could also define different kinds of social relations, i.e. the different ways in which humans might experience the connections among their own kind:

  • subconscious social relations (for example at the level of the collective unconscious or between parents and children,
  • social relations which exist only in subjective awareness or subjective perceptions (a person might act as though a social relation exists),
  • intersubjective social relations involving shared meanings conveyed through communication,
  • objective social relations which exist whether someone is aware of them or not (they might nevertheless be communicated insofar as we communicate with everything we are and do);
  • social relations in the process of being transformed from one kind into another, or being interrelated with each other;
  • spiritual or intuitive social relations of some kind.

As illustration, we can apply the foregoing to the notion of a group.

  • A person might almost out of instinct identify with a group or relate to it;
  • s/he might imagine being a member of a group, regardless of whether this is really the case;
  • a group might exist only in the form of intersubjective relations among its members;
  • a group might exist as an objective description, or as an objective reality, even regardless of whether one was aware of belonging to it;
  • a group might be forming or dissolving, or both at once, and it might be changing its boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, perhaps overlapping with other groups;
  • a group might also exist at the level of a common spiritual affinity or identification (Cf. the notion of a noosphere).

However the group may exist, or be perceived to exist at some level - with the obvious consequences that has for the kinds of social relations involved - it is clear that understanding different kinds of group relations require different methods of inquiry and verification.

Precisely because social relations may be experienced at different levels of awareness, they are not necessarily transparent at all. Indeed, Karl Marx wrote ironically in this respect that "science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided".

See also


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