Wednesday, April 18, 2012

How to relate?

Someone asked me for a case where the concept of an ecology of relations was applicable. Which, of course, is a reasonable thing to ask for – the only way to prove the usability of a concept is after all to use it. If it seems useful or provides insight, it's worth the effort to get a grip on it; if it doesn't, there are other things in the world to spend time on.

The short version of what an ecology of relations is, is the sum total of all the intricate, complex webs of interpersonal relations within a social setting, i.e. a workplace, a group of students or whatever you may wish to analyze. Wherever there are people that coexist for an extended period of time, an ecology emerges – with it's own unique set of characteristics, quirks and pathologies.

An example of such an ecology is a traditional geek internet forum about some technical topic, where the technical knowledge required to participate in the discussions is sufficiently high to exclude most women a priori. The male norm is writ large, and to say that the male gaze is present would imply that feminist theory had some say in the matter.

Now, imagine that a verified, bona fide woman with an amazing grasp of the technicalities of this particular forum's topic enters the picture. Not a group of women, not some women, but a woman – one, like a gendered singularity. A woman who, whenever someone says something to the effect that women can't know anything about these things, slams them with a technical savvy so brutal that no one can deny that she knows everything there is to know about anything worth knowing -

You can imagine the ecology of relations turning out in several ways. Either she becomes the Woman of the group, beloved by all and sexually greeted by the most daring/desperate of them; or she becomes the Woman of the group, which means that her technical expertise doesn't quite liberate her from the essence of Woman; or she becomes just another member, valued for her skill rather than her lady bits.

The third one is rather utopian, I admit. But one can always dream.

The usefulness of a concept like “relational ecology” (or whatever shorthand is bound to emerge) arises from cases like the first one. Especially when we imagine things changing about the ecology in question – like, for instance, another woman of equal skill entering the scene. What happens? What follows from this change?

For one thing, the already present woman might suddenly find herself not liking this new arrival very much. She's popular, well liked, and even the casual sexual invitations taking place behind the scenes is a small price to pay for the immense personal popularity she enjoys within this particular ecology. We might say that a monopoly is threatened, and when something is threatened -

I don't think I have to belabor this extremely oversimplified example all that much. I trust you get the drift of what I'm about, and how the thought of an ecology of relations might be useful if used properly.

Like with all concepts, one will of course have to add some aspects from other relevant ecologies of information to make use of it – like the concepts of “male norm” and “gaze” mentioned above. If you know your way around feminist territories, you may do wonderful critique of my example -

But I do hope I've made the case for why one might choose to think more about this concept. And I do hope you'll find some use for it in your everyday life – hopefully, you may even find a way to change things for the better.

And in the end, that's what it's all about, isn't it?


  1. Well, I think you've got what it takes to be a spitfire pilot of the internet skies.