Category Fun with Fiske and Pepper, Part 1

Here’s a post for those of you who like playing with ideas. It’s not politics or history, and it’s not narrative psychology, exactly – rather, it’s about some of the ways that are sometimes used in social science for organizing ideas and making categories that are, intellectually, really cool.

I’ll start with Alan Page Fiske, who wrote a fascinating paper in 1992 called, “The Four Elementary Forms of Sociality: Framework for a Unified Theory of Social Relation.” Fiske is a “psychological anthropologist” who’s studied the nature of human relationships, and how the types of relationships vary in different cultures. While doing fieldwork in a traditional West African village, he discovered four patterns of interaction that apply to all human relationships. Different cultures do things differently, of course (by definition), but these same four patterns come up everywhere. They are:

Communal Sharing. Everyone’s essentially the same, they all have something in common, they’re basically equal (in this context). Using the language of math, we’d say that the relationships are reflexive, symmetrical, and transitive.

Authority Ranking. Everyone is ranked, there’s an order where each person is above or below others in some context. Think of it as Downton Abbey – everyone at the dining table knows exactly who’s higher and lower than themselves, which is often reflected in the seating pattern (e.g., the earl > Lady Mary > Tom Brandon). And everyone downstairs knows where they fit in their hierarchy too. In math terms, relationships are linearly ordered, reflexive, transitive, and anti-symmetrical.


Equality Matching. This is a model of even balance and reciprocity. If I drive our kids to play Magic at the game store, the next week it’s your turn. Fiske says this model has the properties of an ordered Abelian group, and I’ll have to trust him when he says that means there’s linear ordering and that we can add and subtract some number to regain the original balance.

Market Pricing. These relationships are based on proportionality, where everyone thinks in terms of ratios and rates. Numbers become useful – I’ll deliver your newspapers for $12/hour (the minimum wage in my county). These relationships have that ordered Abelian quality and also fit what’s called and Archimedean ordered field (sounds fancy!), which means now we’re dealing with multiplications and multiplicative inverses (x and 1/x) and have ways to make comparisons.

And then finally, we have “asocial and null relationships” – the people we don’t bother thinking about, which is most people, most of the time.

Fiske tells us that most writers agree that in any society, these relationship types tend to develop in this order. Also, children tend to learn them in this order – young children are aware of rank before they insist on turn taking and equal shares, and that both come before they start thinking about “proportional equity” or understanding the idea of prices.

penniesFiske credits Harvard scientist S.S. Stevens with the underlying framework for his system. Stevens published “On the Theory of Scales of Measurement” in 1946, describing four ways things can be measured: nominal, ordered, interval, and ratio. With nominal scales, we’re counting things that are in some sense equal, like the number of pennies in a jar. Ordinal scales are used to rank things, like how a diamond is harder than quartz, which in turn is much harder than talc. Interval scales let us measure things, like the number of days between two dates, where the distance between two points is what matters and not some absolute point (that is, the total days in March and January are the same, even though March comes later in the year). Ratio scales let us talk about differences where some absolute point does matter – your dog can weigh twice as much as my cat.

Fiske later built on this work to come up with a thought-provoking way to think about morality. In a 2011 paper with Tage Shakti Rai as the lead author, they translated these relationships into four distinct categories of moral motives. Unity describes a need to protect the sanctity of an in-group (everyone within the group is worthy of protection and care, based on their group membership, versus everyone else). Hierarchy leads to a morality like the European feudal system, where you need to respect and obey those above you in rank, but they need to be protecting and providing for you in return. Equality is the motive for balance and reciprocity, like equal pay for equal work, or equal opportunities to go to college. Proportionality underlies the expectations that rewards and punishments will be fair and match what people deserve. In the paper, they go on to explain that different societies use these motives differently, sometimes even justifying violence for moral reasons.

cute_mouseConflicts between these motives come up all the time. One example Rai and Fiske use is experimentation on animals. If you weigh the benefits to human lives against the smaller number of animal lives killed in medical research, you’re using a Proportionality argument. If instead you believe that all mammals deserve to live, it’s not that you can’t do the math to get the Proportionality answer. Rather, you’re including mammals in your in-group of beings worthy of protection and care, with a Unity perspective.

So that’s Fiske’s system of four models of relationships. Next time (or so), I’ll tell you about Stephen Pepper, who also had a cool model with four categories that built on each other, but not like Fiske’s. And then, if I have the time and space, I’ll explain where I’m going with all this. Stay tuned!

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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1 Response to Category Fun with Fiske and Pepper, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Category Fun with Fiske and Pepper, Part 2 | The Meta-Narrator

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