This is an excerpt from a manuscript (work in progress) on individualism.

The general individualist idea is as follows. Individualists think of the single person as the basic unit of moral and political analysis (Blackburn 2008). This is opposed to collectivism, which regards collectives such as the family, community, class, or nation, as the basic unit. It is also opposed to what I call relationalism, which is the view that social relationships ought to replace individuals as basic unit and thus be moved from “the periphery to the center of legal and political thought and practice” (Nedelsky 2012, p. 3).


The relationalist critique of individualism originated in communitarian theory but has grown into an independent school of thought (or so can be argued). As the communitarians, relationalists argue that the individualist individual is socially and metaphysically untenable. However, the relationalists are more concerned with social practices and relationships as such than the communities in which they take place. For instance, Heather Widdows argues that individualists fail to recognize that some injustices “arise from structure, context and relationship,” as they focus on individuals “in a case-by-case manner” (Widdows 2011, p. 83). What is more, relationalists generally incorporate insights from feminist sociology and philosophy into their arguments. This has led some relationalists to model the individual as inherently embodied and gendered, as opposed to the abstract reason-based individualist individual. For instance, Rachel Haliburton writes about the importance of embodiment and gender analysis (Haliburton 2013, p. 135; emphasis in original):

the role that this plays in our self-conceptions, and in the way in which we are perceived by others: in part, the question of who we are can be answered by the response that I am the person who inhabits this particular body, and that the events which take place upon and within it profoundly affect how my life goes. […] The denial of the reality, indeed, the necessity, that embodiment and moral personhood are closely connected, moreover, is not merely absurd, but revealingly so: it demonstrates that the conceptions of the self employed in much of bioethics are essentially male, not genderless, but this maleness is hidden behind the assumptions that structure these theories.


Blackburn, S. (2008). Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press.

Haliburton, R. (2013). Autonomy and the Situated Self: A Challenge to Bioethics. Lexington Books.

Nedelsky, J. (2012). Law’s Relations: A Relational Theory of Self, Autonomy, and Law. Oxford University Press.

Widdows, H. (2011). Localized Past, Globalized Future: Towards an Effective Bioethical Framework Using Examples from Population Genetics and Medical Tourism. Bioethics 25(2), 83–91.