Four Ways to Connect

Four Ways to Relate

In Structures of Social Life, Alan Fiske outlines four forms which can be used to construct all human relations. He argues convincingly that these four forms are sufficient to describe all possible forms of human relations, as well as social motives and emotions and social morals. Although the details of the models differ from culture to culture, the underlying structures are consistent.

There are many connections between these forms and the dimensions of culture which are typically found to describe cultural differences (read more on these here), especially in the dimensions of Power distance index (reflecting more hierarchical societies) and Individualism (vs Collectivism). There are also many connections with the different strategies that we all use to persuade others, and most especially those outlined by Robert Cialdini and described in a previous post here.

Communal sharing

The first of these forms is communal sharing, a relationship of equivalence in which people focus on their in-group membership and are seen to have indistinct boundaries between their individual identities. This gives them a sense of common identity with less marked individual identity. In communal sharing relationships, people have a sense of solidarity, unity and belonging, believing themselves to be ‘all the same’ in at least one important respect (‘we’ rather than ‘me’).

Such a relationship often reflects an inclusive fitness group such as a nuclear family or extended family, in which people contribute what they can and take what they need. Such relationships are based on duty and loyalty with sentiments of kindness among those of the same kind (remembering that ‘kindness’ and ‘kind’ share the same language root as ‘kin’). ┬áThis is seen in many ‘collective’ societies and the difference between collectivism and individualism forms one of Hofstede’s five dimensions of culture. In Cialdini’s terms, social proof and imitation are important persuaders of behaviour (as are liking and similarity which he also discusses).

Authority ranking

The second form is authority ranking, a relationship of inequality where people see each other as differing in social importance or status according to some hierarchy. Rank in the hierarchy is associated with the control of more people, things, land or knowledge and therefore have greater mastery over events. Initiative rests with those with highest rank, and authority often comes with the prerogative to choose a course of action. Those with lower rank are deferential. loyal and obedient, paying homage to those with more senior rank in return for which they are often provided with protection, aid and other forms of support from their leaders.

Such a form of relationship is strongly associated with the notion of Power distance which is one of the five dimensions of culture identified by Hofstede, typifying particularly kinds of societies (eg France and Thailand among others) where hierarchy is strongly embedded within cultural values and something group members are relatively comfortable with. Cialdini identifies authority as an important form of persuasion, where someone with particular position, knowledge or credibility is trusted by others as an important and influential source of testimony.

Equality matching

The third form is equality matching, reflecting an egalitarian relationship among peers who are distinct individuals with equal status. The social influence of each person in such a relationship is of equal importance balanced by equality of shares and contribution. ┬áThis may be manifested in turn taking, when each individual is given equal chance to contribute and benefit, or as strict reciprocity such that everyone gives and receives the same thing (perceived by the group as the same thing or equal in value). In states of conflict or in sanctions, such a relationship results in ‘eye for an eye’ retaliatory vengeance (or ‘measure for measure’ as Shakespeare put it).

For Robert Cialdini, this is ‘reciprocity’, one of the most important of persuasion techniques and a fundamental human driver (empathy is hard wired in the brain). Such balancing of exchange of favours is important in many societies, with the accruing of social debts and obligations ultimately balanced by the discharging of such favours by giving others in turn.

Market pricing

The fourth form is market pricing, where relationship is mediated by values determined by the market, and individuals interact with each other and make decisions based on what is rational based on the market values. Everything is thus denominated back to a single metric (utility) so that different items can be compared fairly, and the evaluation of commodities is expressed in terms of a ratio (eg a price, wage, interest rate, rent, etc). The value of other people’s actions is valued in terms of what they can be exchanged for against money or the utility of other commodities. A key criterion is proportionality where every behaviour is evaluated in proportion to the utility used as a reference point.

Market pricing is not the same as Equality matching. In the former everything is compared back to a reference utility metric, whereas in the latter things which are equal are exchanged without reference to any other value metric. Market pricing is very much a short term transactional relationship, unlike other forms which may evolve over time. In Cialdini’s terms commitment is key to persuasion and a key to market pricing strategies

What difference does it make?

It’s useful to compare these different forms of relation against some specific domains. Firstly, if we think about contributions to a group or society, then in a communal sharing relation everyone will give what they have without keeping track (“what’s mine is yours”), whereas in an authority ranking scenario superiors would give generously to demonstrate their status (“noblesse oblige”), in equality matching everyone would match each others contributions and in market pricing people would be assessed according to a fixed ratio or percentage (eg tithes, taxes, etc).

Thinking about social influence, in a communal sharing setting conformity would rule the day with everyone desiring to be similar to others (“one for all, all for one”), in authority ranking everyone would be obedient to authority or defer to prestigious leaders, in equality matching there would be compliance to return a social favour or taking turns, and in market pricing cost and benefit incentives would dominate including bonuses and penalties.

Finally looking at motivations, in communal sharing intimacy would be important (nurturing and succouring), in authority ranking power would be a key motivation, in equality matching desire for equality and in market pricing achievement would be a key motivation.

These four forms explain the differences between how we interact with each other across many domains and are a useful way to frame thinking about how people interact in different contexts with different others. They also explain the different ways in which we can seek to persuade others of a certain course of action or behaviour, depending on the social context and the nature of the relationship. They are strongly linked to some of the key differences seen between different cultures and groups, reflecting some of the dominant characteristics of those groups.

In reality all relations are based on mixtures of these four forms, and the key to social success is understanding where and when to use the right tactics to achieve the right results, whatever the social context.


Structures of Social Life: The Four Elementary Forms of Human Relations by Alan Page Fiske (1991)

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