Module 3 – Relational-Cultural Theory


Relational Development Through the Lifespan


Neuroscience of Connection


Social Justice

According to the American Psychological Association, Relational-Cultural theory (RCT)has been identified as one of the top 10 psychological theories of our time (Jordan, 2018). This theory provides a comprehensive theoretical framework that places the value of relationship at the center of human development and social engagement. To recognizethe relevance of RCTas it applies to refugee resettlement, it is helpful to understand its three primary tenets: relational development through the lifespan, the neuroscience of connection, and social justice. [See documents: Everything Has Changed: An Interview with Judy Jordan; Comstock: Relational-Cultural Theory]

Relational Development Through the Lifespan

We are social beings—born to thrive in connection with each other—so it is no surprise that we find the lifeblood of our dreams, our values, and our expectations in community (Walker 2018). Jordan (2018) writes that RCTposits that health and human development take place in the context of mutually empathic, growth-fostering relationships throughout the lifespan. She further proposes that personal andsocietal disconnection create “untold suffering” (p.123). She describes RCT as viewing “the individual as existing within a social context, which either contributes to a sense of connection and empowerment or shapes an experience of disempowerment and disconnection” (p.124). For refugees who have been separated from most if not all of their personal and societal connections, fostering new connections can be a key part of their healthy integration into their new communities. Social workers can play an important part in this reconnection process by fostering working alliances with their refugee clients while providing needed services and opportunities for them to build new supportive relationships. [See document: J. Baker Miller: What Do We Mean By Relationship]

Neuroscience of Connection

Modern neuroscience supports RCT’s focus on the importance of relationship for healthy functioning by providing evidencethat the brain is designed for connection (Banks, 2016). Our neurobiology is designed to regulate a sense of safety and calm (smart vagus nerve), nurture a sense of belonging (anterior cingulate cortex), foster resonance and mutual empathy (mirror neurons), and enhance vitality and interdependence (dopamine reward system) (Banks, 2016). 

Relational neuroscience offers a window into the mind and calls attention to the need to address not only an individual’s relationships, but also the social context in which they exist (Banks, 2016). The C. A. R. E. Program developed by Banks (2013), provides a series of 20 questions for use with clients in assessing the health of their personal and societal relationships as they relate to those neurological related factors of calmness, acceptedness, resonance, and energy.

Exploring the way the brain is hardwired for healthy connections in relationships that go beyond culture and social structures is critical when approaching refugees and communities. Social workers can play a vital role in helping refugees and those in host communities come together to promote such needed healthy connections. [See link]

Social Justice

RCTregards experiences of inclusion, compassion, support, vulnerability, mutuality and respect as critical for relationships to thrive. In addition, RCTprovides a straightforward definition of power as the capacity to produce change in everyday living (Miller, 2003). However, in many communities culture is stratified along multiple dimensions such as race, gender and social status. Power is most often associated with hyper-competitiveness and deterministic control; where humanity is rank-ordered according to perceived cultural value and is stratified into groups of greater than and less than. This leads to cultural oppression, social exclusion, and other forms of social injustice. As a result, individuals in marginalized and devalued groups routinely experience pain and trauma in their lives.

[See link], [See document on RCT: Race and Culture].

To help heal the pain and trauma, RCT proposes the need to be empathic. Jordan (2018) describes empathy as “a complex cognitive‐affective skill that allows us to ‘know’ (resonate, feel, sense, cognitively grasp) another person’s experience” (p. 110). In addition, RCT proposes that multicultural sensitivity and responsiveness (cultural humility) are crucial to support relational, multicultural understanding. Eible and Lewis (2019) write that cultural humility and empathy are inextricably tied. They suggest that when working cross-culturally in particular, social work practice is most effective in the presence of cultural humility. In addition, they assert being willing to be a cultural learner, risking shame, and accessing vulnerability are helpful in promoting empathy when working with refugees and host communities.

[See documents: A Relational-Cultural Model: Healing Through Empathy; Learning at the Margins]


Banks, A. (2016). Wired to connect: The surprising link between brain science and strong, healthy relationships.NY: Penguin Press.

Eible, L., & Lewis, J. (2019). Cultural humility and empathy: Steps on a journey to cultural competence. Social Work Today. Retrieved from

Jordan, J. (2018). Relational-cultural therapy. (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Miller, J. B. (2003). Telling the truth about power. Works in Progress.Wellesley, MA: Wellesley Centers for Women.

Walker, M. (2018). Transforming community through disruptive empathy. In Gunderson, Graff, and Craddock (Eds.), Transforming community: Stories of connection through the lens of Relational-Cultural theory (pp.22-35). Duluth, MN: Whole Person Publishing.

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