Relational Social Studies

Today’s blog post is a short quote pull with a simple word replacement. Through this, I hope to provoke a few questions that may guide and inform my research questions and perhaps those questions of people in social studies (and elsewhere) looking to move beyond the norm of their field.

If I replace the word “art” in the quote below with “social studies,” what possibilities for the field can be opened up? Could a few changed words from a meaningful quote in one subject, inform a different subject area that at first glance may seem unrelated?

…What do you think?

“The possibility of a relational art social studies (an art subject area taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interaction and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space), points to a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural and political goals introduced by modern art social studies.”

– Nicolas Bourriaud, 2004, p. 14

I think that the quote above (with the replaced word) provides us with a different way of thinking about social studies. It makes us fathom what social studies education (both at the higher ed/teacher ed. level and in K-12 classrooms) would look like if the subject was built upon student’s connections and relations to the content and the content’s connection to the “real” world, versus the prescribed topics in standards and textbooks that often lack a meaningful/visible connection to daily lives. To see this possible connection, perhaps a brief introduction to the idea of relational art/aesthetics would be helpful….

In his book, Relational Aesthetics, Nicholas Bourriaud (2002) finds that the goal of many contemporary artists is to create a piece that makes everyday, lived experiences the subject of their art (versus the conventional subject of the piece being an imitation of an experience, space, time, etc. e.g.: still life paintings). The goal of relational art/aesthetics is to create a social circumstance, one in which in the viewer is part of an experience that in and of itself becomes the art to be perceived. In short: Artists create a space and curate an experience. Thus, relational art can be anything from the sharing of a meal, a discussion, or even just “being’ in a space.

Teachers could most definitely be conceived of as curators of experience, and in turn, relational artists, but what might it mean to create a space that opens up the experience to understand concepts within social studies differently? What might it mean if we taught geography, history, civics, and economics based upon/within human interactions and social contexts – in an accessible mode that helped students “see” social studies everywhere that they went, not as a remote and pointless subject? What sorts of experiences (within and beyond the classroom) could teachers create that students could regard their experience as a mode of learning? artistic expression? a piece of art to perceive?

This change in thinking about social studies possibly result in what the quote called, a “radical upheaval” of the goals of the field – goals that are rarely defined and often contested.

Social studies prepares future citizens!

It passes down national narrative that all Americans must


Social studies creates an awareness of the past and its connection to the future.

What could the goals of social studies become with relationality at the core? 

I can imagine a major in difference in the way that subjects could be approached. For instance, what if relationality was embedded in the geography curriculum?

e.g.: How might teachers approach a subject like gentrification? 

  • Could teachers make a space to curate an experience or a circumstance that would allow students to perceive of gentrification differently?
  • Would the use of a concept like relationality help express the idea that things (within a city) are continually unfolding, changing, and never remaining static?
  • Would it help us think differently about place and space?
  • Could we understand the historical, political, physical, and social forces at work that allow/promote gentrification to take place?
  • Could we begin to conceive of a “materiality” of a gentrified place?
  • What might it mean to imagine and recognize materiality created as a result of (social) relations?
  • Would relationality, with respect to gentrification, allow us to see the city as an assemblage – endless connections and entanglements of all of the “social studies” (history, geography, civics, economics) at work?

Obviously, this quote pull bring up far more questions than answers, but I think questioning how social studies have been taught in the past, and the possibility of understanding them differently in the future opens up many conversations that researchers and educators could benefit from having.


Bourriaud, Nicholas. (2002). Relational aesthetics. Translated by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Dijon: les presses du réel, (1996).

Please feel free to comment on what you think a social studies built upon relationships and connections might mean/have meant for your own schooling, teaching, thinking…

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