In brief

In this contribution to the Joining the Dots blog series, Michael Little reminds us that relationships are hard won, not always positive, and inevitably influenced by context.

Michael Little

Michael Little

Director at Ratio

Michael is now Director at Ratio, having served several roles at Dartington Social Research Unit for over three decades.

My interest in this conversation has been hard won. I spent a good part of my career encouraging public systems to use interventions proven to impact on health and development. There was always a voice at the back of the room saying something like ‘no, that is not right, I think you will find that it is all about relationships’.

‘It is all about relationships’. These words really irritate me. Is it ever all about anything? Besides, the ‘all about’ in the sentence is a way of closing down different ways of thinking.

These days, the study of relationships has come to consume me. I am 18 months into a ten-year exploration of their influence on human health and development. But I am no convert. I douse the cant with good helpings of skepticism.

Starting with the blindly obvious, relationships are a primary cause of human suffering. There is even a class of mental health disorders dealing with impairment explained by the way the primary caregiver, usually the mother, nurtures the child. On top of deleterious attachment, it is possible to add the negative effects of child abuse, domestic violence, bullying and many more injurious relationships.

As a species we have only recently learned to relate without quotidian recourse to violence. When Cambridge criminologist Manuel Eisner trawled through the history books to examine the lives of the European aristocracy between 600 and 1800, he found violence accounted for over a fifth of deaths.⁠

This story is picked up by Steven Pinker in Better Angels of Our Nature. He credits the huge historical decline in violence and rise in altruism -note how the data point in the opposite direction to public perception- to two forces.

The first is the state assuming a monopoly over violence, becoming the primary mediator of conflict (something here to sober up populists who question the role of the state). A stronger state creates the space for a more moral civil society, as manifest, for example, in good manners. The pay off for politeness is greatly altered when the danger of your neighbour killing you is minimised.

Even today, human propensity for violence is context specific. The people that loaded trains with victims of the holocaust were not psychopaths, they were people like you and me, adapting to the world around them.

Not comparable but certainly contemporary, as the airport screening agent bellows at we passengers to take off our shoes, belt and coat, to show him our toiletries and separate out our electronics, I force myself to remember he is probably someone’s dad, and that he will be lulling his child to sleep tonight with a loving story.

Pinker’s analysis suggests that context shapes whether we are good or bad (and since context continually changes we are all, from time to time good and, at other times, bad).

Being good doesn’t necessarily mean being nice. As much is clear from my time watching the behaviour of people paid to help those in greatest need. They have relational capability, and can engage with more or less anybody. But their warmth comes with a hard edge. They don’t suffer fools easily. And the workers themselves can be awkward cusses who will break many rules to get the best for those they support.

They display what my colleague Rebeca Sandu calls ‘sharp empathy’. When Donald Forrester’s team at Cardiff University studied social workers, they found about a third were low in any kind of empathy, sharp or otherwise.⁠

The hard edge of relationships features in my efforts to help 12-year-old students build trust in their schools and communities. I borrow a lot from moral psychology. That discipline reminds me of the role of punishment (and forgiveness) in the evolution of trust. Teaching children to punish each other. I don’t imagine that is at the forefront of the minds of those who say ‘it’s all about relationships’.

I can go on in this vein for some time. The point of the examples is that healthy relationships are hard won, and too easily dissolved (something else to worry populists).

Still, from every challenge comes opportunity. The evidence on relationships as a driver of misery leads us to the study of human resilience. How do people exposed to severe family dysfunction find a way through? There are many explanations but Ann Masten’s excellent summary of decades of research shows that other protective or restorative relationships play a big part.⁠

The decline in violence (and rise in altruism) is also instructive. It hasn’t come about via a case by case treatment programme for aggressive aristocrats or parenting programmes for queens whose child princes lack warmth. It is the result of creating contexts where people can be their better selves.

Our partnership with the Camerados movement included a small demonstration of this potential. They put up teepees in the foyers of major hospitals, a magical space for people to visit. For the thousands of people who visit weekly, my team found a rise in altruism and greater potential for mutual aid.

In the Camerados case the catalyst is space. In our work with Pembroke Settlement in London the change agent is citizens’ sense of connection to place. In our Street to Scale work we establish short-term banks containing small amounts of money to be spent at the discretion of local people, another seed from which trust can flower. Our friends at Xenia are using rituals to spark connections between refugee and indigenous women.

None of these innovations treat the individual, they all tend the space around groups of people.