RT001 - Interrogating the relational ontological turn in development studies
Convened by Andrew Newsham (SOAS, University of London)

Relational ontological approaches, in the ascendancy more broadly in the social sciences, have been finding their way into development studies, notably in the work of scholars like Arturo Escobar (i.e. 2010), and Kelsey Hanrahan, in her deeply moving relational ontology of care (2015). However, relational ontologies are often set up as a repudiation of, as having ‘gone beyond’, modernist and post-modernist accounts of being and knowing, offering critique of the philosophical underpinnings of, for instance, ‘structural’ accounts of poverty and inequality (i.e. Hickey & du Toit 2007, Mosse 2010, Taylor 2014), which themselves have made strong contributions to the resurgence of a focus on solidarity, peace and justice. Have such approaches really ‘had their day', metaphysically speaking? Moreover, some commentators have argued that more prominent relational ontological accounts share an elective affinity with the depoliticising tendencies of neoliberalism (i.e. Lave 2015, Swyngedouw & Ernstson 2018). Given the prominence of debates around depoliticisation in development studies since the 1990s (i.e. Ferguson, 1994), it is important to explore the extent to which the ‘relational ontological turn’ serves as a reliable vehicle for advancing development grounded in solidarity, peace and justice; all of which are, fundamentally, political objectives.

This roundtable proposes to present to a wider audience the results of a small two-day workshop, taking place shortly before EADI. The workshop seeks to bring into dialogue advocates and skeptics of relational ontologies. Rather than adjudicate between rival positions, the aim is to make space for diverse accounts to articulate (onto-) theoretical resources through a process that admits of both greater agreement through mutual learning and articulating clear dissensus as departure points for clarifying standpoints and political commitments (de la Cadena 2018). These reflections will be offered with a view to stimulating further debate and discussion with those interested in attending the session.

Chair: Suraya Scheba, University of Cape Town


  • Oliver Belcher, University of Durham, UK
  • Henrik Ernstson, University of Manchester, UK
  • Andrew Newsham, SOAS, University of London, UK
  • Jesse Ribot, American University, USA
  • Erik Swyngedouw, University of Manchester, UK
  • Marcus Taylor, Queens University, Canada
  • Arianna Tozzi, University of Manchester, UK

de la Cadena, M. 2015. Earth-Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds. Duke: Duke University Press.

Escobar, A. (2010) Latin America at a Crossroads. Cultural Studies. 24 (1), pp. 1-65.

Ferguson, J. (1994) The anti-politics machine : ‘development’, depoliticization, and bureaucratic power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hanrahan, K.B. (2015) Living Care-Fully: The Potential for an Ethics of Care in Livelihoods Approaches. World Development. 72, pp. 381-393.

Hickey, S. and A. du Toit. (2007) Adverse incorporation, social exclusion and chronic poverty. Manchester: Chronic Poverty Research Centre, No. 81.

Lave, R., 2015. Reassembling the Structural [online]. Routledge Handbooks Online. Available from: https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315759289.ch16 [Accessed 31 Oct 2018]

Mosse, D. (2010) A Relational Approach to Durable Poverty, Inequality and Power. The Journal of Development Studies. 46 (7), pp. 1156-78.

Swyngedouw, E. and Ernstson, H., 2018. Interrupting the Anthropo-obScene: Immuno-biopolitics and Depoliticizing More-than-Human Ontologies in the Anthropocene. Theory, Culture & Society 35, 6, p. 3-33

Taylor, M. (2014) The Political Ecology of Climate Change Adaptation. Abingdon: Routledge.