Relational dialectics is an interpretive theory of meaning-making in familial and non-kin relationships. Formally articulated in 1996 by Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery, the theory is grounded in the philosophy of dialogism articulated by Russian language philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. It relies primarily on qualitative methods with a goal of rendering a rich understanding of the meaningmaking process. Unlike many interpretive theories, however, relational dialectics theory (RDT) challenges interpretivism’s focus on consensual, unified meanings, emphasizing instead the fragmented and contested nature of meaningmaking. Further, RDT moves from subjective sense-making of individuals to focus on discourse. The theory can be summarized in three core propositions.
The first proposition is that meanings emerge from the struggle of different, often opposing, discourses. Following Bakhtin, all of meaningmaking can be understood metaphorically and literally as a dialogue. Everyday dialogue presupposes difference in the unique perspectives of the interlocutors. To Bakhtin, all meaning-making can be understood as a dialogue – the interplay of different, ideologically freighted discourses. Bakhtin’s lifelong intellectual project was critical of monologues of all kinds – authoritative discourses that foreclose the struggle of competing discourses by centering a single discursive point of view. Meaning-making becomes calcified when only one discourse occupies the centripetal center and all other systems of meaning have been rendered mute. RDT seeks to reclaim discursive conflict in relating, adopting a radical skepticism of relational monologues.
To date, RDT-informed researchers have identified a variety of competing discourses in romantic, marital, and familial relationships. Three dialogues appear common across a wide range of relationship experiences. First, relationship parties give voice to a discourse of individualism that interpenetrates with a discourse of connection. Second, relationship parties navigate the discursive struggle between a discourse of openness, candor, and honesty on the one hand, and a discourse of discretion and privacy on the other hand. Third, the communication activity of relationship parties is rendered intelligible by a discourse of certainty and predictability in play with a discourse of uncertainty, novelty, and spontaneity. Other discursive struggles are specific to particular relationship types. For example, stepfamily communication is often characterized by the discursive struggle of stepparent-as-parent with and against stepparent-as-outsider. Existing research has, for the most part, been centered in the first proposition, to the relative neglect of the other two propositions.
The second proposition is that the interpenetration of discourses is both synchronic and diachronic. Meanings emerge in any given interaction moment, and in this sense, they are, at least momentarily, synchronically fixed. But meanings are also fluid; in subsequent interactions, relational parties might jointly construct meanings that reproduce the old meanings, or they could jointly produce new meanings. In either case – reproduction or production – meaning-making is envisioned as ongoing communicative work that results from discursive struggle.
Some constructed meanings function to elide, or skirt, the struggle of discourses to the extent possible. For example, parties can privilege one discourse at a given moment and thereby mute all discursive rivals. If, over time, one discourse is reproduced again and again, it becomes authoritative. RDT argues, however, that it is effortful for parties to sustain authoritative discourses. Communication holds the potential for rupture, and centrifugal discourses, while removed from the centripetal center, can never be completely silenced. The struggle of competing discourses is also elided when relationship parties jointly construct meanings that involve an inversion across time with respect to which discourses are centered and which are marginalized. This diachronic ebb and flow moves back and forth, with centered and marginalized discourses changing places in the meaning-making process. This pattern of meaning-making appears quite common among relationship parties. Discursive struggles are also elided when relationship parties construct ambiguous or equivocal meanings. Ambiguity is a discursive lubricant, allowing meaning to slide between discourses, appearing to embrace them all.
Other meaning-making emerges from the interplay of discourses. Hybrid constructions combine or mix competing discourses. A new meaning emerges from the struggle, one that draws upon elements of multiple discourses. Another kind of discursive mixture is what Bakhtin refers to as an aesthetic moment; that is, meaning-making in which discourses are no longer framed as oppositional but instead merge in a way that profoundly alters each meaning system. These aesthetic meanings are crafted along new discursive lines, akin to chemical reactions.
The third proposition is that the interpenetration of competing discourses constitutes social reality. In this third proposition, RDT joins a growing number of theories committed to a constitutive view in which communication is positioned to construct the social world, not merely to represent an objective world that precedes communication. What is unique about RDT is its articulation of the mechanism by which such construction takes place: the tensionality of difference. The constitutive process includes a decentering of the sovereign self in which the individual’s dispositions, attitudes, beliefs, and social positions are thought to precede communication. Communication is deployed by the sovereign self to serve his or her preformed goals. By contrast, according to RDT, consciousness and identity are continually formed through communication with different others. In decentering the sovereign self, interpersonal conflict and power are shifted from the individual unit of analysis to focus instead on discourse.
- Baxter, L. A. (2004). Distinguished scholar article: Relationships as dialogues. Personal Relationships, 11, 1–23.
- Baxter, L. A. (2006). Relational dialectics theory: Multivocal dialogues of family communication. In D. O. Braithwaite & L. A. Baxter (eds.), Engaging theories in family communication: Multiple perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 130–145.
- Baxter, L. A. (2007). Mikhail Bakhtin and the philosophy of dialogism. In P. Arneson (ed.), Perspectives on philosophy of communication. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, pp. 247–268.
- Baxter, L. A., & Braithwaite, D. O. (in press). Relational dialectics theory: Crafting meaning from competing discourses. In L. A. Baxter & D. O. Braithwaite (eds.), Engaging theories in interpersonal communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Baxter, L. A., & Montgomery, B. M. (1996). Relating: Dialogues and dialectics. New York: Guilford.