NUMBER 512 • 24 MAY • RELATIONSHIP
Relationship is one of those words often used, but taken for granted. We ‘know’ what it means. We know relationships are important. We know relationships can be difficult. We know relationships can bring great happiness and sadness. But what actually is a relationship in the context of human behaviour?
George Goetschius and Joan Tash (1967: 137), in one of the classic texts of youth work, provide us with a good starting point: ‘A relationship is a connection between two people in which some sort of exchange takes place’. In other words, there is some sort of link between people – and it involves interaction. That connection may be something that we are born into, such as is the case with families, or it might arise out of a particular need. A classic example of the latter can be found in the marketplace. We might want to buy bread, so we look for someone who can sell us it. What is interesting about this is that the two sides have different interests (buying and selling). However, they can come together as their interests are compatible – both can be satisfied. There is advantage to both in the link. We can also see here the nature of the exchange – bread for money. At this sort of level there is at first glance very little emotion involved. As George Goetschius and Joan Tash (1967: 137) again say, a relationship ‘may be verbal, emotional, physical or intellectual, and is often all of these’. They further comment:
It may include an exchange of ideas, skills, attitudes or values, or even the exchange of things – money, tools or food. Relationships ‘happen’ at all times, in all places, in all parts of society, and in all phases of the development of individuals. We are involved in relationships all the time.
It is important to hold onto an appreciation of relationship as something everyday. However, we also need to recognize just how complex even apparently simple relationships such as buying and selling are. They entail cooperation and trust.
Building such cooperation and trust is a fundamental aspect of relationship. We have to work at them. Relationships are things people do, not just have (Duck 1999: 21). This said we should also recognize the contribution of our social instincts. As Matt Ridley (1997: 249) put it, ‘Our minds have been built by selfish genes, but they have been built to be social, trustworthy and cooperative’. He continues:
Humans have social instincts. They come into the world equipped with predispositions to learn how to cooperate, to discriminate the trustworthy from the treacherous, to commit themselves to be trustworthy, to earn good reputations, to exchange goods and information, and to divide labour… Far from being a universal feature of animal life, as Kropotkin believed, this instinctive cooperativeness is the very hallmark of humanity and what sets us apart from other animals. (Ridley 1997: 249)
To this extent, the cultivation of reciprocity, honesty and trust is less about building alien institutions and structures, than creating the conditions for their emergence. Relationships are strongly influenced by context.
Lastly, it is worth making the distinction between personal relationships and social relationships. The former are relationships between two people ‘who cannot be exchanged without changing the nature of the relationship (Duck 1999: 124). An example of this would two people who are ‘best friends’. In contrast, social relationships are where ‘two partners in an interaction could be exchanged and the relationship would be the same’ (op. cit). Here a classic example would be sales assistant and a customer in a shop. Informal educators largely work through personal relationships.
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