On Fiske’s Elementary Forms of Sociality (2)

by CT on July 8, 2014

The reader may know the work of Charles B. Handy, a British organisation theorist who summarised his knowledge in the books "Understanding Organisations" and "The Gods of Management." Handy’s theories were frequently quoted in academic and business management publications, as they gave a compact way of describing the various possible "styles" of organisational management. The proposed symbolism associated management styles with Greek "gods" (Zeus, Apollo, Athens and Dionysius), and  made Handy’s approach easy to remember and re-use in communication. Handy also described organisational culture as either centred on "power," "roles,"  "tasks," or "persons." Each of these cultures having wide implications on how organisations operated and evolved.

But, as many models of this kind, Handy’s was fundamentally descriptive, and based on empirical albeit expert observation of organisational life. Why limit the model to either four "gods" or four "cultures"?  One more observation here or there and you could easily end up with more and different images to describe how organisations work.

A similar approach was presented some years later by Gareth Morgan and Gibson Burrell, in their landmark work titled "Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis." This work also had important influence in theoretical and business debates, as it did bring additional insights into de structures of business organisations. In the end, though, it was not clear if the authors wanted could restrict themselves to the four paradigms of sociological theory or if more "metaphors" were admissible. Some years later Professor Morgan reached a less economical model introducing eight different organizational "cultures," but I still believe that the original formulation was more useful.


A review of the literature will show that there are many academics and practitioners who favour four-aspect models; but other preferences can be found: six or three-sided models are not too rare, and there are also models with eight or more parts. While these classifications are interesting and merit study, the question arises as to why one structure would be better than the other. Is there perhaps a criterion to choose among the proposed structures in order to find the most effective model of social organisation?  Are there underlying structures which then manifest themselves as social models of either three, four, six or eight "cultures" or "models or organisation"? Or are these arrangements purely accidental?

Coming from a different angle, important anthropologists have brought up their own ideas about human social structures. One of them, the British anthropologist Mary Douglas, proposed a very powerful model of sociality in her book "Purity and Danger," published in 1966. This model is based on a "less" descriptive approach, as the underlying classification employs just two parameters: the distinction between "Grid" and "Group" preference in human social organisations. These distinctions were marked as "strong" and "weak" by Douglas, to complete the model.

Obviously, two parameters generate a quadrangle, with four possible combinations  (Strong Grid-Strong Group / Strong Grid-Weak Group / Weak Grid-Strong Group / Weak Grid-Weak Group). Accordingly, many types of societies and organisations can be described with this model as representing one of those combinations.


In 1991, after very extensive field work in Africa and America, professor Alan Page Fiske proposed an alternative model, which he called the Relational Model of Human Sociality. Nick Haslam summarised the virtues of the theory as follows:

"The Theory of relational models is unique among categorical theories of social relationship in several fundamental respects. First, it explicitly claims to represent cultural universals, and has made efforts to formulate and test itself in non-Western cultures. Second, it is equally explicit in claiming that the relational models are not simply "ideal-types" to which actual relationships approximate more or less, but rather represent discrete, abstract frames of social relationship. Fiske claims that these frames are "incommensurable" in the sense of having formal representations that are not mutually translatable (e.g. from ordinal representation of dominance relations in authority ranking to the ratio scales appropriate for market pricing calculations). Third, rather than being unclear about whether it describes an implicit cognitive organization or a map of realized forms of relationship, it unambiguously claims to represent generative cognitive forms. Fiske’s theory therefore affords a particularly bold contribution to an account of social cognition that is consistent with the spirit of Jackendorff’s (1992) research program." (See: Nick Haslam, "Categories of Social Relationship," Cognition, 53, 1994, Page 62)

In addition to that, Fiske shows how the four models have a strong co-dependence, meaning that human societies do not have one or the other model, but all of them –simultaneously– although in different measure.

In "Relational Models Theory 2.0,"  Fiske writes:

"Relational models theory is simple: People relate to each other in just four ways. Interaction can be structures with respect to (1) what people have in common, (2) ordered differences, (3) additive imbalances, or (4) ratios. When people focus on what they have in common, they are using a model we call Communal Sharing. When people construct some aspect of an interaction in terms of ordered differences, the model is Authority Ranking. When people attend to additive imbalances, they are framing the interaction in terms of the Equality Matching model. When they coordinate their actions according to proportions or rates, the model is Market Pricing. Everyone uses this repertoire of relational capacities to plan and to generate their own action: to understand, remember and anticipate others; to coordinate the joint production of collective action and institutions; and to evaluate their own and others’ action. In different cultures, people use these four relational models in different ways. In different context and in differing degrees. In short, four innate, open-ended relational structure, completed by congruent socially transmitted complements, structure most social action, thought, and motivation." (Page 3)



And he adds on page 7 of the same text:

"The core of the theory is this idea that people use the same set of four implicit cognitive schemas to organise all of the diverse domains of sociality most of the time. For example, as the term Authority Ranking indicates, relational model theory posits that prestige/value/status hierarchies have the same cognitive basis as legitimate power/control/command. these are obviously distinct implementations of AR, since having greater prestige does not confer the authority of command another. In the one case there is a linear ordering of social value. In the other a linear ordering of social control. But analytically, they have relational structures that are formally homologous, and people rely on the same implicit cognitive tools to construct them." (Page 7)

Here we see the remarkable bias frequently shown by Fiske towards seeing the four core models as a "cognitive structure" or a set of "cognitive tools." I attribute this erroneous slant to the fact that anthropological theory (including field research) is filtered through or tinted by the way information is referred to, conveyed and analysed. In many cases the anthropologist finds him or herself considering how people talk about their actions, or how they explain and rationalise what they are doing. Although the cognitive apparatus comes after the actions have taken place, everything occurs as if the categories and rationalisations of the narration and the ulterior theorization are in fact the drivers of the action. It is nevertheless true that Fiske is careful enough so that in his work we also find different insights which do not depend on logo-centric explanations:

"Are these four systems of coordination "in" the mind, or are they emergent arrangements that result from logical or systemic constraint on the possibilities for organising any social interaction? Would any intelligent agent with sophisticated communicative abilities quickly discover and adopt these four forms of sociality? The universality and pervasiveness of these four forms of relationship does not imply that they are innate. suppose these models were not prepared cognitive proclivities built in to our neural architecture as it emerges during development. We might still observe these structures in every domain of sociality in every culture because of their functional advantages or because they represent some other kind of stable equilibrium such as an evolutionary stable strategy (Maynard Smith & Price, 1973)." (Page 13)

In other formulations, Fiske points to alternative research directions quite effectively:

"Thus, asking whether the relational mods [models] are emergent or innate is something like asking whether color is "in" the environment or "in" the perceptual system. Relational mods [models] are mental adaptations to fundamental affordances of social coordination-adaptation to relational niches. Baldwinian theory and the approach of Tooby and Cosmides (1992) explain how and why specialized domain-specific cognitive capacities would evolve." (Page 14)

Strong interdependence of the four models was clearly understood from the first formulations of the Relational theory in 1992:

"People rarely use any one of these models alone; they construct personal relationships, roles, groups, institutions, and societies by putting together two or more models using them in different phases of an interaction or at different, hierarchically nested levels. However, to a first approximation, the overall structure of the interaction can frequently be described in terms of one predominant models. So in my exposition, I temporarily ignore the fact that people construct most aspects of social life using a combination of the four models; simply for rhetorical clarity in the following sections I write as if each model were an isolated pure type." ( See "Elementary Forms of Sociality," page 693)

Emphasising the strong correlation of the models, Fiske writes:

"The most plausible inference is that these same structures emerge in all the major domains of social life because people everywhere have just four fundamental models for relating to other people. People are not using distinct, unrelated schemata for making decisions and making contributions. The scripts that people follow when working with others are not disparate from the scripts they use in interpreting misfortunes. The grammars of religion and the mechanisms of social influence are the same. The sources of identity and systems of exchange, the processes of group formation and the foundations of morality are all implementations of the same four models. These directive models provide the fundamental programs for relating to people, whatever the substance, the medium and the aspect of the relationship." (See: "Elementary Forms of Sociality," page 710)

But this brilliant explanation is truncated when Fiske adds:

"People create most of their social world using just four elementary psychological models. Indeed, the most fundamental prediction of the relational models theory is that in any domain or aspect of social life, people will organize their relationships out of these four models." (Pages 710-711)

The repeated presence of this "psychological" and "mental" bias is not enough though to destroy the value of the theory. But we are authorised to ask why a theory of social action and interaction would rely on psychological models and not (as Fiske himself intimates) on a deeper reasoning that showed these models (psychological or not) as as results of human interactions. If these models are "adaptations," we need to understand first what the ground of interaction is, i.e. what interacts with what during human commerce and other social exchanges. For, then we will see that on the ground of interaction, it is not "psychological models" which interact with each other, but instead human bodies directly or through their instruments and agents. At most, psychological models are the partial structures through which we make sense of our social exchanges.

Human beings interact through contact, voice, and physical movement (including demonstrative and symbolic movements). Human beings interact through the disposition, arrangement, movement, aggregation or displacement of tools and objects around or at least in front of other human beings, and so forth. In general, it is definitively not the case that any psychological models interact with other models, even if we can say with some certainty that these might be a result of the actual forms human relations take.

If this is the case, what remains to be explained if how these resulting models become stable and ingrained in societies and organisations, how these are articulated and why they are seemingly ordered in a sequence, as Fiske discovered.

According to Fiske, human sociality –while showing the inter-operations of these models as indicated above–is also characterised by the fact that less symmetrical structures (in particular the Market Pricing model) predominate in some societies, while others show a different distribution. Fiske showed that there is a chain or sequence between the models, starting with the one called Communal Sharing and ending with Market Pricing.

From a theoretical point of view, if the parameters considered in a classification were more or less arbitrary or descriptive, nothing would warrant a sequence or succession of one model by another. For example in Mary Douglas’ approach, Strong Grid-Strong Group organisations or societies cannot be said to "come after" or "before" Weak Grid-Weak Group societies, unless we introduce pure observational facts to say that more "modern" societies are towards the Weak Grid-Weak Group quadrant.

In Fiske’s model, characteristically, the sequence or order of the arrangements is determined by a structural "loss of symmetry" as we go from Communal Sharing to Marked Pricing, passing via Authority Ranking and Equality Matching. For a model that is "closed under symmetry" as Fiske’s, this sequence is not a coincidence, but an essential part of the theory.

It is not only possible but almost necessary to assert that we are looking at some form of deep structure which is not dependent on the observation of diverse social formations, and that instead the variety of  "implementations" is aligned with a deeper model.

Nothing would stop a researcher from using Fiske’s model in a "traditional" way, that is, as a mere classificatory device, but he or she would miss the crucial fact that the Relational Models are not only interdependent, but also sequential in a particular way. This is not only a methodological safeguard, because the interdependence and the sequence stem from the formal characteristics of the structure: when Fiske speaks about symmetry reduction as we move along the CS-AR-EM-MP chain, each step of this "reduction" not only presupposes but actually requires the previous ones.

Fiske writes:

"If the four modes indeed tend to transform themselves in this particular sequence over historical time, or during childhood, we need to know why. A formal analysis of the four relational structures suggests that this sequence represents increasing complexity in the constituent relations and operations that comprise the models. As with the four classical measurement scales, it appears that the structure of each model encompasses most of the relations and operations that are defined in the models preceding it in this Guttman sequence, whereas each differs from the models that precede it by the inclusion of new, previously undefined relations and operations. Such unique ordering of the models by inclusion and increasing complexity offers a cognitive developmental explanation for a temporal sequence of emergence. It may also be that this is a case of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny: Only humans have evolved the capacity for MP, and EM is probably limited to higher vertebrates (perhaps only humans). In contrast, many social mammals and birds exhibit dominance hierarchies that tend to be transitive, and there are social insects and even aggregations of unicellular organisms that interact in ways that are formally similar to human CS." (Elementary Forms of Sociality," page 712).

With characteristic caution, Fiske avoids speculative statements and opens the way for further research, even when he shows certain preference for a "cognitive" approach. It is true, as he says, that more research is necessary to understand how the sequence or chain of relational models is articulates and what it might be reflecting or "representing."

In his review of John Bolender’s book "The Self-Organizing Social Mind," Georg Theiner did an excellent work in pointing to the weaknesses of the "cognitive" approach:

"To begin with, why should we look primarily inside the head at all? To be sure, Bolender’s analysis of Fiske’s models in terms of symmetry-breakings adds significant generality and depth to RMT. It suggests that the emergence of social complexity may be fundamentally of the same ilk as the familiar ordering processes that we find in a much wider and superficially diverse class of physical systems, including inorganic ones. Taking a "complex systems stance" towards RMT won’t provide us with a detailed theory of sociality, but it certainly invites us to search for inductively fertile generalizations across physics, biology, linguistics, cognitive science, social science, and anthropology which still our hunger for "consilience" (Wilson, 1998).  However, why not primarily look into social dynamics, rather than brain dynamics, to explain the observed symmetry breakdowns (Nelson, 2005)? Although he does not explicitly say so, Bolender pursues a strongly "individualist" and/or "internalist" agenda, in the sense that (1) social phenomena should ultimately be explained in terms of the psychological states of individual agents and (2) psychological states should ultimately be explained in terms of intrinsic neural properties of those individuals (Wilson, 2004)."

I tend to illustrate this by saying that sequence of relational models, although manifested as Fiske’s cognitive forms, in fact reveals a necessary articulation of all forms of social interaction. By social here I understand the interactivity of possibly very numerous societies (including human groups). These interactions are differentiated at the physical level by the degrees of freedom and the "ways" the individual organisms may act upon each other and on the environment, both individually and collectively. In other words, each species will have a space of possibilities pre-determined by its physical nature.

In the case of the human species–in comparison with others– we see a higher degree, a more complex sphere of action (individual and collective), a very extensive and diversified space of activity and interaction. If we take as a centre the human individual, this sphere of complexity has a particular geometry, where, as it happens with the movement of the limbs, the freedom of movement (the "loss of symmetry") of the distal elements of the extremities is pre-conditioned by the proximal elements and indeed connected by a chain of articulations. In addition to the fundamental articulations of "natural" human movement, the freedom of movement and the reach of the instruments held by the extremities themselves multiply and expand the sphere of action to even more complex levels of articulation and mediation.

Regarding physical movement, Georg Theiner also contributes key insights, showing how human sociality cannot be explained by neurological generators, as these cannot operate simultaneously at the various "symmetry levels" but independently of social interactions.

"For instance it can be shown that the familiar quadrupedal gaits form a descending chain of symmetry groups, and there is evidence that those gait patterns are (at least in part) driven by symmetry breaking bifurcations spontaneously occurring in a network of neural oscillators located in the spinal cord. The basic "segments" of motor behaviour produced by the CPG serve as a kind of "vocabulary" from which more complex, goal-oriented locomotory behaviours can be assembled "on demand" by higher-level cognitive functions inside the brain, mutatis mutandis for the SPG. But there is an important asymmetry here, The hypothesized causal effects of the SPG on the production of interpersonally relevant behaviour are essentially mediated by their social-relational content, whereas the effects of the CPG on our bodies is not. The motor patterns "endogenously" created by the CPG don’t have to be formally or semantically interpretable as "mental representations at all to do their job (Kelso, 1995), as long as the CPG is causally hooked up in the right way with our limbs to be able to affect the timing of muscular contractions. Why would this make a difference? As Bolender Points out (pp. 96f), the CPG can only form one pattern at a time, but that’s fine because a horse cannot trot and gallop at the same time. A CPG doesn’t need to "represent" trotting unless its current state is directly implicated in trotting behavior. However, it’s a problem that the SPG can only produce one social-relational model at a time, because we can surely represent more than one such model at a time, e.g., when we compare two models to decide in what type of social interactions we should engage (pp. 96f)." (Note: SPG = "Social Pattern Generator"; CPG = "Cognitive Pattern Generator.")

Theiner’s objections also allow us to see that Fiske’s models, with their close interdependence operate like a composition or hierarchy of symmetries and not as a succession where we either experience or effect only one level of symmetry. This should be also a point to warrant a more careful consideration of what a pure, separate "sequence" of models would entail. In particular, such a sequence (where the interdependence and composition of geometries are lost) leads to an interpretation where the less symmetrical model (i.e. Market Pricing) begins to be seen as "autonomous" and somehow superior or "final" in relation to the others. It would be interesting to show the intimate connection between a reductionist and individualistic theory of the mind and a theory of sociality subjectively slanted towards one of the models in particular.

The fine movements of the writing or painting hand are less symmetrical, less predetermined and more "informationally" charged than the movement of the supporting articulations, but they are nevertheless dependent on these and on the body as a whole.

Hence the more the individual (and groups of individuals) are able to mediate their actions by social arrangements and technical agency, the more complex their social organisation might become. In other words, human beings can build more complex societies because we can rely and exploit more complex intermediations. With each layer of mediation and instrumental agency we add not only more indirection but we interpose more complexity ("less symmetry") between us and the objects of our action.

Symmetry reduction in social transformation, though, does not imply the elimination of previous ("preceding" or "supporting") levels of symmetry. Again, as in the case of the movement of the limbs, the final effect of the hand movements cannot be understood or even exist without the "preceding" and "pre-positioned" movements of the body and the arm. Reducing the Relational Model theory to mental "dynamics" or "psychological" adaptations risks missing the essential fact that Human beings are social not because we have social "psychologies," but because of our capacity to mediate and separate from the immediate relations and effect, adopt and control mediated, instrumental and indirect forms of interdependence.

This understanding of Fiske’s chain of Relational Models is also essential to avoid the error consisting in seeing the later models as "superseding" or "replacing" the first ones. From the perspective of XXI Century market-pricing societies, it would be easy to forget that Communal Sharing and Authority Ranking (as well as Equality Matching) structures underlie all our social structures. These "preceding" structures are actually coetaneous and co-dependent with the less symmetrical and complex forms of sociality.

In Business as well as in public organisations we clearly find all modalities in action; indeed, in some cases we can see how more "symmetrical" (i.e. non-market-pricing) modes of operation are prevalent and determine all major decisions. What appear as "power" or "role" centric organisations, or models with "strong grid-strong group" predominance, are in fact systems of Authority Ranking and Equality Matching as described in the Relational model. And these exist not because of some arbitrary arrangement of the participants or because of some mental predispositions but because these organisations have no other way to operate but to select some combination of the four basic models.

Calculation of time and efficiency, as well as attribution of meaning, or allocation of tasks –everything is determined within the closed structure studied by Fiske and his collaborators. And this is a result not imposed by the "gods" or ingrained in psychologies a result of the structures that come to be when we naturally and necessarily interact with each other.

Some important consequences may be drawn at this point, pending further research of the formal aspects of Relational theory.

From the historical, present-centred perspective of Market-Pricing sociality, which is the predominant pole of human action in the West, all other forms of sociality are explained by Fiske and his school (as well as his critics) as related to or arising from scales of measurement. It is important to remark that, however relevant this model may be, an alert historian or sociologist will note that the Relational Theory probably shows a strong bias towards the notions of rationality which can be associated with "modern" and post-cultural societies, i.e. in particular with those societies where Market-Pricing is dominant.

In a very obvious way, Market-Pricing empirical practice and rationality are operative only and because these forms of sociality are not dependent on other values than those that can be measured (quantified). Furthermore, if we take the measurement theories which underlie the Relational Models we will also see that there is a second formal presupposition, which requires that calculations and comparisons are drawn on the continuum (on numerical continuous scales). In this context it is necessary to ask how should we interpret the fact that a nominal scale –strictly speaking– is not quantitative while the other three are? (Note: a large and persistent effort developed in the past decades to nevertheless "quantify" nominal and ordinal data by mapping and interpreting order and frequency. (See a critique of this effort in Paul Velleman’s paper titled ""Nominal, Ordinal, Interval, and Ratio Typologies are Misleading," 1993)

Immediately we notice that, in order to obtain a homogeneous definition of the four models of sociality, Fiske and others must admit a definition of measurement which implicitly requires a non numerical (non-quantitative) and non-continuous base case, which is the so-called nominal scale. This base, though, passes into the background, as the researchers adopt a "quantitative" focus.

At the level of Communal Sharing, signed by the nominal scale, we can have only categorical differentiation. Hence, strictly speaking neither the presupposition of the Archimedean continuum nor a concept of arithmetical number apply. Nevertheless, all four scales are called "measurement scales" in the literature, despite the fact that the four models seem to point towards a more general mathematical structure arising from a duality of number (geometric as well as arithmetic) and a duality of space (continuous as well as discontinuous).

If we penetrate further in this direction, we might find then that it is not that sociality forms look like a symmetric structure, but that measuring modalities themselves are structured like a geometry of a complex nature: On the one hand the four levels of measurement can be represented as numerical constructs on the continuum, or at least arising from successive differentiations on the continuum, while on the other hand we can explain the four modalities as an heterogeneous, contradictory construct, resulting from the interference of continuous and discontinuous, arithmetic and geometric "sides" of the human capacity for differentiation and measurement.

This admits a different approach, as we wee that measurement itself needs to be defined in a complex way. What is distinguished in measurement? For sure, in one direction we can say that any measurement is the comparison of quantities (with respect to some norm or reference), but from another direction we can assert that any measurement is a comparison of patterns or geometries, irrespective of possibly related sizes or quantities. We certainly can say that the Communal Sharing and the Authority Ranking models are imbued by the second "direction" while the Equality Matching and Market Pricing models are signed by the first (quantitative) emphasis.

When considered carefully, measurement appears to be first discontinuous distinction "in actu" ( or at least the potential for distinction); and then only derivatively a quantitative and continuous counting operation. Distinctions are counted, and then the resulting counts are distinguished. If anything explains the closed symmetry of Fiske’s model is the movement from bare distinctions towards bare counting, passing through instances where counting becomes increasingly more important. Indeed, the movement from Communal Sharing (nominal scale) to Authority Ranking (ordinal scale) to Equivalent Matching (interval scale) to Market Pricing (ratio scale) represents the bottom up and left to right movement in the schema of the four models. As there are four models, we can also determine what are the two distinctions implicit both in Fiske’s theory an in the Scales of Measurement. The "articulation" of the models can be shown to be dependent on a movement from discontinuous to continuous measurement, and from intensive to extensive quantities.


This movement then corresponds to the duality of number previously mentioned, and show the fact that Relational Models are specific, coherent aggregations of measurements. This movement also links qualitative and quantitative (non-parametric and parametric) measurement with Fiske’s categorical model of sociality, hopefully enabling further study of his unique approach.



Mary Douglas, "Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo," 1966

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

Gibson Burrell, Gareth Morgan, "Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis," 1979

Alan P. Fiske, "Structures of Social Life," The Four Elementary Forms of Human Relations," 1991

Alan P. Fiske, "The Four Elementary Forms of Sociality: Framework for a Unified Theory of social Relations," 1992

Alan P. Fiske, "Relational Models Theory 2.0," 2004

Charles Handy, "Gods of Management: The changing work of organizations,"  1995

Charles Handy, "Understanding Organizations," 1989

Nick Haslam, "Categories of Social Relationship," Cognition, 53, 1994, Page 62

Gareth Morgan, "Images of Organization," 2007

Stanley Stevens "On the Theory of Scales of Measurement," 1946

Georg Theiner, Review of John Bolender’s "The Self-Organizing Social Mind," Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, March 2011

Paul Velleman, Leland Wilkinson, "Nominal, Ordinal, Interval, and Ratio Typologies are Misleading," American Statistician, Vol. 47, No. 1. 1993

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