Relational Models Theory

Relational Models Theory Definition

The relational models theory describes the four fundamental forms of social relationships: communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing. People in communal sharing relationships feel that they have something essential in common, whereas outsiders are different. Participants in an authority ranking relationship see themselves as ordered in a legitimate linear hierarchy. In an equality matching relationship, people keep track of whether each separate individual is treated equally. In market pricing, people use ratios or rates, according to some standard of due proportions, such as price. People in all cultures use combinations of these four models to organizeRelational Models Theory nearly all interactions, from close relationships to casual and distant ones. The relational models are innate and intrinsically motivated. But children rely on cultural prototypes and precedents to discover how to implement them in culture-specific ways.

Relational models theory integrates classical theories of social relations and society, and it connects natural selection, neurobiology, child development, cognition, emotion, communication, psychological disorders, norms and ideology, religion, social and political structures, and culture. The theory is supported by ethnographic and comparative cultural studies, and by psychological experiments using a variety of methods. Alan Page Fiske formulated the theory; Nick Haslam did much of the early experimental work on it and developed the theory in relation to clinical psychology and social cognition. Research using relational models theory has provided insights into political psychology, cross-cultural interaction, attitudes toward immigration, behavioral and anthropological economics, the social systems of classical Greece, sociolinguistics, business management, group and family processes, moral judgment, social motives and emotions, gifts and other exchanges, time perspectives, tobacco use, personality disorders, autism, schizophrenia, and vulnerability to other psychological disorders.

Four Relational Models in Relational Models Theory

Communal Sharing

In communal sharing, everyone in a group or dyad is all the same with respect to whatever they are doing: They all share some food, or living space, or responsibility for some work. If one has a problem, it concerns them all. Outsiders treat them as collectively responsible for what they do, punishing any or all of them indiscriminately. Communal relationships involve a sense of oneness and identity, which can be as strong as the connection between mother and child or romantic lovers, or as weak as national or ethic identity. The most intense communal sharing relationships are based on participants’ feeling that their bodies are essentially the same or connected because they are linked by birth, blood, appearance, and body marking or modification such as a form of circumcision or excision. Synchronous rhythmic movement can also connect people in this way, for example, in military drill or ritual dance. Sharing food, drink, or substances such as tobacco also underlies communal relationships. So does physical contact, such as caressing, cuddling, kissing, or sleeping close. By making their bodies alike or connected, people create communal relationships, and at the same time communicate the existence and intensity of their relationship. People also think of themselves as the same; their cognitive and emotional representation of the relationship corresponds to the ways they express it. Infants intuitively respond to these expressions of communal sharing, which is how they connect and identify with their families and caretakers.

Authority Ranking

In authority ranking, people are linearly ordered in a proper hierarchy of privileges and responsibilities. Superiors are entitled to deferential respect, but have pastoral responsibility to represent, stand up for, and protect subordinates. In an authority ranking relationship, people think of their superiors as above, greater than, in front of, having more power or force than, and preceding them. Subordinates are perceived as below, lesser than, following behind, weaker than, and coming after. This cognitive representation of social ranking corresponds to the social displays of rank that people use to communicate their relative positions, for example, when a person bows to superiors or waits for them to start eating first. In many languages, people respectfully address or refer to superiors using plural forms and use singular forms when speaking to subordinates (for example, French vous vs. tu). Children intuitively recognize the meaning of being bigger or higher, being in front, or going first.

Equality Matching

Equality matching is the basis of turn-taking, equal rights, even sharing, voting, decision by coin flip or lottery, and balanced reciprocity whereby people return the same kind of thing they received. This is the universal structure of games and sports, where opponents have equal numbers of players or pieces, employ a fair way to decide who chooses first, play on a symmetrical field or board, take turns, have equal time to play, and often use dice or other devices that add uncertain but equal chances. In an equality matching relationship, the participants may be even or uneven at any given point, but when they are uneven, they know how to even things up again—for example, by taking the next turn. In equality matching, people use concrete matching operations to demonstrate equality, such as starting a race side by side, flipping a coin, or lining up the opposing teams one-to-one. These concrete operations are procedural demonstrations of equality: The actions show that the sides are manifestly equal. Casting ballots is an operational definition of equality in political choice; setting up the two corresponding sets of chess pieces and punching the clock at the end of each move are operational definitions of a fair game. Adhering to these rules makes the game a demonstrably fair and proper game. For children and adults, equality matching is intrinsically important; people get very upset when they have less than their peers.

Market Pricing

Market pricing is a relationship governed by ratios, rates, or proportions. The most obvious examples are prices, wages, rents, taxes, tithes, and interest. But market pricing is also the basis for formal and informal cost-benefit analyses in which people make decisions on the basis of what they are investing in proportion to the returns they can expect to get out. Market pricing always involves some universal standard by which the values of everything in the relationship can be compared. This need not be money; utilitarianism is the moral philosophy based on giving the greatest good to the greatest number, where all good and evil is compared in a metric of utility. Similarly, grades and grade point averages are the product of ratio-based calculations that combine all aspects of academic performance in a single score. People also measure social ratios in terms of time or effort. Market pricing trans-actions rely on abstract conventional symbols, such as numbers or linguistic descriptions of the features of an item or the terms of a contract. The arbitrary symbols in a used car ad, for example, are totally unintelligible to anyone unfamiliar with the arbitrary conventions of the specific market system: “2000 Ford Mustang GT 39M, conv, auto, lthr, alrm, Alpine snd syst, BBK air intake, Flowmasters, 18 X 10 Saleen whls, new pnt, body kit & more, slvg, pp, $9,500.” The most abstract conventional symbols are prices, which represent the ratios of exchange of all valued features of all commodities in a market system.

Four Ways of Organizing Any Interaction

These four relational models are the components for all kinds of coordinated interactions and social institutions. For example, moral evaluations and sentiments can be based on the communal sense that everyone in the group feels the suffering of everyone else: one for all and all for one. Another form of morality is obedience to superiors such as elders, religious leaders, or gods; conversely, superiors have pastoral responsibilities to protect their flocks. Another moral framework is equality: equal rights, equal opportunities, equal shares, or equal outcomes. Finally, there is justice as proportionality: giving each person what he or she deserves, either punishment in proportion to the crime or reward in proportion to merit. However, the four relational models also structure aggressive, hostile, and violent interactions. When people try to “purify” a group or nation to rid it of others whom they view as inherently different, communal sharing may result in ethnic cleansing and genocide. Acting in an authority ranking system, rulers punish dissidents, kill rebels and traitors, and make war to extend their dominions. Feuding and retaliation typically take the equality matching form of “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound” vengeance. And the planning of modern warfare is often based on kill ratios and other rational cost-benefit calculations. The relational models also organize the social meanings of material things. Studies show that the economic value that people place on objects depends on the social relationships that the objects signify. Indeed, objects such as a wedding ring may have virtually infinite economic value—people refuse to sell them. Cultural and historical research shows that land can be held communally, shared by all: a village commons or a park. Land can be a feudal dominion, such that all who reside on it are subjects of the king and the lord of the manor. People may be entitled to equal plots of land, as represented by homesteading laws, or land can also be what makes people equal, as when owning land is a requirement for voting. Or land can be a commodity that people invest in for the rent or appreciation in market value. In virtually every domain of social life in every culture, people use the four relational models to generate their own actions, to understand others’ actions, to evaluate or sanction their own and others’ actions, and to coordinate joint activities.

Complex, long-term social relationships and institutions are composed of combinations of discrete relational models. For example, a dean has an authority ranking relationship with a professor, who in turn has an authority ranking relationship with students. But the dean should treat professors equitably, and professors should give each student the same opportunities and apply the same standards to all, according to equality matching. Similarly, within each department, faculty may have equal teaching loads. At the same time, students pay tuition and buy textbooks, and professors receive a salary. Yet professors and students have communal access to the library and the Internet services that the university provides; deans, professors, and students also have a shared identification with the university and its teams.

Research on Relational Models Theory

Ample and diverse evidence supports relational models theory, including ethnographic participant observation, ethnologic comparison across cultures, research on naturally occurring social cognition in everyday life, and experimental studies using rating scales and artificial stimuli. One set of studies analyzed social errors when people called someone by the wrong name, directed an action at the wrong person, or mis-remembered with whom they had interacted. In five cultures, when people make these types of errors, they typically substitute another person with whom they have the same type of relationship. So, for example, I may call Susan, Gwen, because I have communal sharing relationships with each of them. Other studies have shown that people intuitively categorize their own relationships into groups roughly corresponding to the four relational models, and judge any two of their relationships to be most similar when the relationships are organized by the same relational model.

People interacting with each other may use different models without realizing it. When this happens, they are likely to get frustrated or disappointed, and to feel that the others are doing something wrong. For example, if Tom assumes that he and Alesha are doing the dishes in a communal framework, he expects them both to wash dishes whenever they can. But suppose Alesha implicitly assumes that dish washing should be based on equality matching. When Tom is busy and Alesha is not, he will be angry if Alesha fails to do the dishes, but if she sees it as his turn, she’ll be angry that he fails to do them. Studies of families, research groups, corporations, and inter-ethnic relations show that mismatching of relational models produces distress and recriminations: Everyone perceives themselves to be acting properly in accord with the relational model they are applying, whereas others are transgressing that model. Research also indicates that some people persistently try to apply relational models in ways that are inconsistent with prevalent cultural expectations; this leads to chronic problems associated with personality disorders and vulnerability to other psychological disorders.


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