In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Relational Ontologies

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Ontology in Childhood Studies
  • Relational Ontologies in Childhood Studies
  • Methodological Considerations
  • Diffractive Approaches and Relational Ontologies
  • Ontological Politics

Childhood Studies Relational Ontologies
Spyros Spyrou
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0260


Ontology refers to the nature of being and existence or the nature of reality. Relational ontologies refer to a particular understanding of ontology which gives primacy to the relations between entities as a constitutive element of their existence. Put another way, entities are what they are because of their relations with other entities. Unlike substantive ontologies which give primacy to the independent, preexisting ontological status of an entity, relational ontologies challenge claims to essence and substance emphasizing interdependence, fluidity, and emergence in the context of an ever-changing relational world. Relational understandings of ontology emphasize to different degrees the role of relations in constituting entities and being with certain approaches proposing that the agency of entities is the outcome of intra-action or the coming together of forces, which presumes the inseparability of one entity from another. These strong versions of relational ontology contrast with softer ones which recognize that entities are separate from one another despite the fact that they are constituted through their relational encounters and interactions. Discussions of ontology in childhood studies have been limited, though they have clearly increased in recent years. The dominant ontology of the independent, autonomous, agentic, and socially constructed child of the new social studies of childhood has been challenged with increasing frequency since the early twenty-first century. As a result of various turns, including the “relational turn,” the “ontological turn,” and the “material turn” in the social sciences, childhood studies has begun to rethink the status of the child through relational ontologies. A variety of theoretical approaches influenced primarily by new materialist and post-humanist thinking which adhere to relational understandings of ontology (e.g., actor-network theory, assemblage theory, agential realism, etc.) have impacted both theoretical discussions and empirical research in childhood studies. Though explicit reference to “relational ontologies” in childhood studies is still somewhat limited more general issues of relationality are by now more commonly discussed. Key areas of concern and discussion in childhood studies which implicate relational understandings of ontology and a more explicit concern with the more-than-human relationalities of childhood include the decentering of the child, the hybridity of childhood, relational understandings of the child’s body and of agency in childhood, and the vibrancy of matter in childhood. The methodological implications of this renewed interest in relational ontologies are also being considered by childhood studies scholars including the ethics and politics of knowledge production from within a relational ontological framework.

General Overviews

Relational ontologies have preoccupied a variety of disciplines including philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. The texts in this section provide a productive entry point to the ensuing discussions surrounding relationality and relational ontologies focusing in particular on sociological and anthropological contributions which might be of interest to childhood studies scholars. Wildman 2010 lays out some of the key philosophical concerns with relational ontology. The edited volume Depelteou 2018 discusses the diverse theoretical and methodological approaches to relationality used by sociologists while Crossley 2010 offers a more particular attempt at building a relational sociology centered on an understanding of the role of networks and relations in the social world. The authors of Holbraad and Pedersen 2017 provide a substantive and critical review of the ontological turn in anthropology offering their own proposition for what such a turn may entail for the production of anthropological knowledge. Ingold 2011 likewise introduces new concepts and ideas in the ongoing debates about ontology and relationality with a view to theorizing the world’s ontological becoming. Colebrook 2002 provides a good and accessible introduction to Deleuzian thinking on relationality. Latour 2005 is a key text which presents actor-network theory and illustrates its potential for rethinking the social from a relational ontological vantage point. Braidotti 2013 offers an introduction to post-humanist thinking and relationality. Barad 2007 provides a comprehensive account of agential realism, an important theoretical intervention in discussions of relational ontology in recent years. The influential Kohn 2013 pushes the boundaries of relational thinking further by exploring the other-than-human encounters of the Runa of Ecuador’s Upper Amazon in ways that help us rethink what it means to be human.

  • Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv12101zq

    A comprehensive presentation of agential realism, one of the most influential theoretical approaches espousing relationality, by its key proponent. A key text in ongoing discussions on relational ontologies reflecting a new materialist and post-humanist orientation.

  • Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2013.

    A key and essential text on post-humanist thinking by one of the most important theorists of the post-human condition.

  • Colebrook, Claire. Understanding Deleuze. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2002.

    An accessible introduction and a good starting point for understanding Deleuzian thinking and concepts as they relate to relational ontologies.

  • Crossley, Nick. Towards Relational Sociology. London: Routledge, 2010.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203887066

    Argues for a relational sociology by synthesizing diverse approaches focusing in particular on networks of interaction and relations.

  • Depelteou, Francois, ed. The Palgrave Handbook of Relational Sociology. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    An edited collection of chapters on relationality and relational thinking in sociology. The volume offers a very comprehensive introduction into different theoretical and methodological approaches to relationality and relational ontology with a particularly useful orienting chapter into relational thinking by the volume’s editor.

  • Holbraad, Martin, and Morten Axel Pedersen. The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781316218907

    A key text on recent discussions related to the ontological turn from an anthropological perspective. Argues that the ontological turn in anthropology is primarily a methodological proposal on how to keep the question of what something is or might be open.

  • Ingold, Tim. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge, 2011.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203818336

    An important work which proposes a processual, relational understanding of being and of life at large by one of the most insightful anthropologists of our times. Uses the concepts of “movement” and “meshwork” to theorize the world’s ontological becoming.

  • Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520276109.001.0001

    A critical exploration of ontology and ontological questions through an ethnographic study of how Amazonians interact with other life forms in their ecosystem.

  • Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Though the book is not necessarily the easiest entry point to learning about actor-network theory, it offers a sophisticated and productive discussion of the theory’s key concepts and ideas including relationality.

  • Wildman, Wesley J. “An Introduction to Relational Ontology.” In The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology. Edited by John Polkinghorne, 55–73. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010.

    Provides a useful discussion of some of the key philosophical issues surrounding relational ontology.

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