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Relational dialectics is a theory of meaning-making in relationships. Formally articulated in 1996 by Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery, and revised by Baxter in 2011, Relational Dialectics Theory (RDT) is grounded in the philosophy of dialogism articulated by Russian language philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in its emphasis on the fragmented and contested nature of meaning-making. It relies primarily on qualitative methods, with a goal of rendering a rich understanding of the meaning-making process.
Relational dialectics RDT consists of three core propositions. The first proposition is that meanings emerge from the struggle of different, often opposing discourses. Following Bakhtin, all of meaning-making can be understood metaphorically and literally as a dialogue. Everyday dialogue presupposes difference in the unique perspectives of the interlocutors. 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. RDT thus seeks to reclaim discursive conflict in relating.
The second proposition is that the interpenetration of discourses is both synchronic and diasynchronic. 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 construct meanings that reproduce existing meanings, or they could produce new meanings. 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.
- Baxter, L. A. (2011). Voicing relationships: A dialogic perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Baxter, L. A. & Montgomery, B. M. (1996). Relating: Dialogues and dialectics. New York: Guilford.