On Fiske’s Elementary Forms of Sociality (1)

In “The Self-Organizing Social Mind,” (MIT, 2010) John Bolender presents an interesting but slanted account of Alan P.Fiske’s Relational Model of sociality, as well as a theory of how these models might be explained.

The essence of Bolender’s explanation is the notion of “symmetry breaking” as applied to forms of sociality. But, going away from Fiske’s formal-anthropological approach, Bolender errs in trying to demonstrate the existence of neural dynamics or organic “generators” of the structures that would support the four sociality modes discovered by Fiske.

While the initial two chapters of the book are useful to review the concepts of symmetry, the real subject is only addressed in chapters 3 and 4, where we can find a relatively complete depiction of symmetry “reduction” following Fiske’s models.

The rest of the book is quite speculative, and does not add to the anthropological perspective, especially because Bolender is unduly focused on something I would call the “brain ideology,” i.e. the reductionist belief that social structures and social interaction modes have to “emerge” from neural network “generators.” This ideology considers the rest of the body –outside of the brain—as irrelevant to cognition, but also to social interaction and structures. It proceeds as if the body had no participation either in physical or symbolic interaction.

The valuable parts of the book are articulated about the notion of symmetry breaking, but it must be noted that this idea is not due to Bolender, but to Alan Page Fiske himself, who wrote the Foreword to the book we are commenting:

“When I set out relational models theory (Fiske 1991), I underlined their homology with the four basic types of measurement scales and suggested that their homogeneity and uniqueness under specific transformations also makes them especially well suited to coordinating social relations. I observed that the respective relational models formed a descending, nested series with successively fewer degrees of uniqueness. Bolender points out that what measurement theorists call uniqueness under a transformation is what physicists call a symmetry, and that the four fundamental relational models are linked to each other as a chain of descending symmetry subgroups—the property of structures that result from spontaneous symmetry breakdown. Thus he brings sociality into the real of brain physics.” (A.P. Fiske’s Foreword to “The Self-Organizing Social Mind” by J. Bolender.) 

Fiske is not entirely correct when saying that “Bolender’s approach is entirely new to social science,” because the sort of “brain ideology” here represented is something quite dominant in areas of science where mixing neurobiology with sociology has become trendy. But he is right in considering that this approach is new for his own sociality models.

He is also right in saying that Bolender shows “that there is a truly fundamental self-organizing physical process underlying social relationships that has hitherto been ignored,” but he misses the problems created by the dominant focus on “brain dynamics” and "neural patterns."

Fiske might share with Bolender the notion that “mental representations of social relations” have a large role in social organisation, and the idea that “symmetry breaking” of those representations is a mechanisms which “yields” the four forms of sociality he has studied. But beyond that Fiske is quite cautious:

“I hope that future discussions building on Bolender’s analysis will consider whether symmetry and symmetry breaking sequences in the structures of social relations could be constructed from experience, either during one lifetime or cumulatively over may lifetimes in conjunction with cultural transmission or through natural selection.”

Thus Fiske guards himself, admitting the possibility –I would say the certainty–that “mental representations” and “brain  dynamics” are not the only or even the most important factors underlying the forms of sociality. Furthermore, Fiske –relying on evolutionary theory—says “But I still wonder if symmetries are functionally essential co cognitive representation, memory and communication. We need to consider what functional advantages symmetrical forms may nave under what conditions,” thereby setting a better agenda for future research. This cannot be but research geared towards explaining Fiske’s four modes of sociality on the basis of the totality of levels on which human beings interact with each others and with the world.( See page X of the Foreword.)

To complement Fiske’s query, I would propose the following question: Why would symmetry and symmetry breaking in brain patterns and mental models not just be the necessary correlate to those equally necessary spatial and physical forms in which human bodies have to act in the world? Why shouldn’t we consider the whole of the world as causal instead of following the reductionist prejudice that degrades the world and seeks some atomistic explanation? For even the supposition of “Platonic forms” as ultimate cause isn’t but some instance of fundamentalism and atomism disguised in mathematical speculation.

A sane research program  would mean –above everything else– seeking to understand how Fiske’s four modes of sociality correspond physically (at the level of the whole body) to a symmetry reduction sequence. I believe that researchers will find that this chain of diminishing symmetry does not manifest some mathematical form or group of forms, but an actual articulation of the body and its parts; i.e. a geometry and spatial structure of the human body. In this context an important reference must be the work by Samuel Todes, especially his dissertation -published in 2001 by MIT Press and titled "Body and World."

Bolender’s best pages are perhaps those in chapter 4 of the book ( pages 85 to 93 ) where he presents the mathematical basis of Fiske’s model. This is quite mixed with speculation, but merits to be quoted to some extent:

“The relational models, by reason of corresponding to the classic measurement scales, exhibit  symmetries that form a descending chain of subgroups. This reveals an affinity between relational cognition and the emergence of certain forms in inorganic nature.” (Page 85)

Immediately we see how the author reduces Fiske’s models of sociality to “cognition” and with this automatically loses the actual groundwork done by Fiske and others in discovering these forms. Indeed, the Relational categories are actual social forms of activity and not “forms of cognition” !

Bolender revisits Fiske’s models as follows:

Communal Sharing: “A nominal scale distinguishes sets. It does not rank sets or members of sets; it does not recognize differences of degree between sets of within them. It simply puts things into non-overlapping categories such as smokers versus non-smokers. It conveys relatively little information, being the weakest of the classic measurement scales. This mathematical property explains why, in a CS relation, the identity of one member of the group is socially the same as the identity of any other.” (Page 87)

There is an interpretation error here, insomuch as a nominal scale does make a distinction between sets, which is precisely the function of nomination (or giving a name). No other distinctions are made, so there may indeed be some overlaps, but these are not regular or precise. This should also serve to note that Bolender (like some mathematicians) seems to associate symmetry with lack of distinction, whereas we just should adhere to the fact that symmetry effectively needs at least one distinction. So symmetry is not “lack” of distinction but just “low” level of distinction.

Authority Ranking: “When the agent shifts from CS to AR, some symmetries disappear . this is because AR takes the form of an ordinal scale, which is less symmetrical than a nominal scale. An ordinal scale orders items into a series according to the property of interest; for example shirts in a store can be ordered according to size: small, medium large, extra large.”  (Page 90)

Equality Matching: “There are fewer symmetries here than in the case of authority ranking. Why? In EM, one must make sure that everyone has the same thing, however sameness is defined. This degree of precision is lacking in AR. In AR, the higher precedes the lower, but that is not very precise.” (Page 91)

Market Pricing: “In MP, we no longer have invariance when a constant is added, so MP is less symmetrical than EM.” (Page 92)

While Bolender is very conscious of the formal connection between the four modes, he is confused lost regarding the organic reason of this descending chain of symmetry:

“As noted previously, each measurement scale, and hence each relational model, has a corresponding type of symmetry group. Furthermore, particular instances of this series of group types form a chain. On the relational models framework, the transition to a subgroup does occur and hence there is symmetry breaking. If I apply CS to a group of people and then apply AR to the very same group of people, then symmetry breaking has occurred in my brain.” (Page 93)

This almost comical account of “symmetry breaking” –where the premise is that sociality modes can be "applied" somehow to human groups– misses any causal explanation by “forgetting” the fact that the change occurs not only in the brain but also in social reality.

Bolender compounds his problem by attempting to contain the scope of research within mathematics: “This descending chain of symmetry subgroups is a striking mathematical pattern in social cognition—something beautiful that does not look tinkered with."  (Page 93)

The rest of Chapter 4 and indeed of the book is much less interesting, as Bolender descends into arbitrary speculation about “neuronal oscillation patterns” and intimations of some form of ultimate Platonic foundation. It will be good to turn to Fiske’s work to better understand what the discovery of the four sociality models implies.


A. P. Fiske page with links to publications: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/fiske/vita.htm

John Bolender, "The Self Organizing Social Mind," MIT, 2010

Introduction to Relational Models: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/fiske/relmodov.htm

Relational Models Bibliography: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/fiske/RM_PDFs/RM_bibliography.htm