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internal relations

  Necessary relations between objects or practices; formally, \'a relation AB may be defined as internal if and only if A would not be what it essentially is unless B is related to it in the way that it is\' (Bhaskar, 1979). The relation between landlord and tenant, for example, is an internal relation; in this case each presupposes the other, so that the relation is symmetrical. To take a different example: the relation between the state and local-authority (or \'social\') housing is also an internal relation; in this case, however, the latter presupposes the former but the former does not presuppose the latter (it is perfectly possible to think of a state that makes no provision for social housing), so that the relation is asymmetrical. These distinctions are important for the process of rational abstraction which is the main-spring of the philosophy of realism, where they guard against the so-called \'chaotic conceptions\' which \'combine the unrelated\' and \'divide the indivisible\' (Sayer, 1982).

Sets of internal relations may be termed structures: an example is shown in the figure. Within geography, this terminology was first used by Harvey (1973, pp. 286-314). Drawing upon Ollman\'s (1971) exegesis of Marx\'s writings and Piaget\'s version of structuralism, Harvey proposed that a structure be defined \'as a system of internal relations which is in the process of being structured through the operation of its own transformation rules\'. This enabled Harvey to pose fundamental questions of ontology, to do with the nature of urbanism, of capitalism and of modes of production in general. Thus: \'Should we regard urbanism as a structure which can be derived from the economic base of society (or from superstructural elements) by way of a transformation? Or should we regard urbanism as a separate structure in interaction with other structures?\' Harvey\'s answer was, in fact, to favour the second: \'Urbanism possesses a separate structure — it can be conceived as a separate entity — with a dynamic of its own. But this dynamic is moderated through interaction and contradiction with other structures\'. Insofar as he clearly sought to distinguish one structure from another — \'structures may be regarded as separate and differentiable entities when no transformation exists whereby one may be derived from another\' — then it is less than fair to say that Harvey somehow universalized internal relations \'at the expense of external [or contingent] relations\' (Sayer, 1982). In Sayer\'s view, to do so is to \'nullify\' the power of the concept of internal relations: \'If everything is internally related to everything else, then the concept does not help us say anything particular about specific structures\' (emphases added). This may well be so, but such a charge cannot be levelled at Harvey. Indeed, in his later writings Harvey has gone some way beyond Ollman\'s formulations — which he says allow for conservative and idealist readings — to develop a much more precise and thoroughly materialist determination of internal relations. The concept of internal relations is central to his account of the dialectic, within which \'each moment is constituted as an internal relation of the others within the flow of social and material life\' (Harvey, 1996, p. 81).

Sayer\'s charge of universalizing internal relations may have more force, however, when brought to bear on Olsson\'s (1980) imaginative investigations of \'thought-and-action\'. Like Harvey, Olsson commended Ollman\'s \'relational\' interpretation of Marx, but he came much closer to the exorbitation that Sayer condemned. To Olsson, thought, language and action are internally related:

Within that philosophy of internal relations, thought is conceived as both being and knowledge of being … It follows that internal relations are ontological in its parts. The implication is that truth is a single, all-embracing entity in which each component has its particular place. No component can be separated from any of the others.\'It is a central tenet of this attitude\', Olsson continued (and one which is broadly Hegelian), that \'the world and our ideas are so entangled in each other that they cannot be separated\'. Hence, so he claimed, we need to see that \'social relations between people [are] like logical relations between propositions\' and \'logical relations between propositions [are] like social relations between people\': all such relations are internal relations. It is for this reason that Olsson made the so-called \'linguistic turn\' and embarked upon a series of linguistic experiments which took him into the realms of surrealism and beyond: \'We enter a new world by acquiring a new language\' (see also ideology; pragmatism).

But this very centrality of language, whatever else one might think about such a claim, offers some sort of defence against Sayer\'s original objection. For Olsson could plausibly insist that Sayer\'s critique of the universalization of internal relations only \'makes sense\' from inside the framework of one particular \'language-game\' — and Olsson was playing (and continues to play) a very different one (see Olsson, 1991). As a matter of fact Harvey (1996) also pays considerable attention to the precise and particular (dialectical) ways in which Marx used language to capture the translations and transformations from one moment to another that take place through the operations of capitalism as a mode of production. (DG)

{img src=show_image.php?name=bkhumgeofig33.gif }

internal relations Internal relations and structure (after Sayer, 1984)

References Bhaskar, R. 1979: The possibility of naturalism: a philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences. Brighton: Harvester; Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press. Harvey, D. 1973: Social justice and the city. London: Edward Arnold. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. Harvey, D. 1996: Justice, nature and the geography of difference. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Ollman, B. 1971: Alienation: Marx\'s conception of man in capitalist society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Olsson, G. 1980: Birds in egg/eggs in bird. London: Pion; New York: Methuen. Olsson, G. 1991: Lines of power/Limits of language. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Sayer, A. 1982: Explanation in economic geography: abstraction versus generalization. Progress in Human Geography 6: 68-88. Sayer, A. 1984: Method in social science: a realist approach. London: Hutchinson (second edition, 1992, London: Routledge).

Suggested Reading Harvey (1996) chs 2-4. Olsson (1980). Sayer (1982).



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