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The special theory of relationships – or why you accidently called your teacher ‘mum’

The desire to understand and classify different types of human relationships isn’t new; we’ve been pondering it for thousands of years. What rules govern our interactions? And how do relationships shape us into the people we become?

The answers aren’t immediately straight forward, because the way we interact with each other is influenced by many things: how well we know and trust people, who’s got more power, the agreed understanding of reciprocation or exchange, and whether we converge around a common interest or selfish need. These things can be very fluid, too. Think about how you’d interact with a friend, a colleague, your grandmother, in a range of different situations. While you might see these people as being in different ‘categories’ of relationship, you probably have a rich variety of ways you interact with every one of them. Moment to moment, mood to mood, you’ll be laughing, arguing, teaching, ignoring or sharing with each other, although perhaps not in equal measure.

As social creatures, our experience of relationships is a huge part of how we develop. Our values, personalities and tastes are strongly influenced by our interactions with our parents growing up, with our colleagues at work, with the natural world. And this influence goes both ways. Not only do our values inform the types of relationships we seek, but our values also change over time as a result of our relationships. By understanding this feedback loop a little better, we gain useful insights into social and environmental problems.

Relationship theory is a tool to guide better ways of talking to each other, organising our workplace, and supporting campaigns or causes.

Relationship theory

Anthropology research on this subject suggests that there are 4 main types of relationship, which tend to govern all interaction, either on their own or in combination. These are not exclusive categories, nor do they attempt to fully cover the complexities of human relationships. They are just a useful way to understand and describe patterns in how we interact.  It is a theory put forward by contemporary anthropologist Alan Fiske, and then separately developed by David Graeber (apparently unaware of Fiske) in his 2012 publication ‘Debt’.

Graeber explores how different conceptions of debt and exchange provide the ‘moral grounds’ of our economies. We use these rules, often subconsciously, to guide how we interact with and interpret the behaviour of friends or strangers. I’d think nothing of sharing water or food with a friend, for example, or taking turns with work colleagues to buy lunch. But I’d find it weird if on my 18th birthday my mum presented me with an invoice for all the money she’d spent feeding and clothing me in the years of my childhood. This would violate my unwritten expectations of my relationship with my mother.

Cartoon 18th birthday

The four types of relationship may be described as follows:[ref]We have simplified the titles of these groups. Fiske calls them: Authority Ranking (Hierarchy), Market Pricing (Market Exchange), Equality Matching (Blind Equality) and Sharing (Sharing). Graeber really speaks about three groups, but they broadly overlap: Hierarchy (Hierarchy), Exchange (which includes Market Exchange) and Communism (Sharing). He doesn’t deal explicitly with the concept of Blind Equality.[/ref]

  1. Hierarchy. This is governed by a principle of inequality, where one party has superiority and can pull rank over another one. You see this clearly in the way that the military operates, but also in numerous other situations where we adopt ranking systems: between children and teachers at school, between colleagues at work (sometimes irrespective of job title), between sport coaches and players.

  1. Market Exchange. This is interaction based on principles of exchange.  While it’s often monetary exchange (all purchasing would fall into this category), it isn’t necessarily in material or even monetary form. The important thing is that some sort of ledger is kept, be it mental or literal, to track who owes what to whom. Often, this is between equals, but usually people that don’t know or trust each other very well, and are each seeking to benefit personally from the exchange. When we talk about ‘commodification’, we often refer implicitly to a shift in relationship type – away from one of Sharing and towards one of Market Exchange. An example of this is blood donation, which is arguably one of the few society-wide ways we demonstrate the principle of communism, but has in the US been commodified through the introduction of payments in exchange for blood.

  1. Blind Equality. This is also a relationship with an explicit focus on exchange and debt. Rather than Market Exchange, where the object is for each party to maximise the material advantage of the exchange, this is a way of interacting where people are treated the same, regardless of their need or desert  (hence ‘blind’). It covers both reciprocity and revenge, along a conception of fairness captured by the principle ‘tit for tat’, or an eye for an eye. You can see this at work in board games, where players receive an equal distribution of cards or counters, and suffer according to the same rules no matter their state of play. It’s also one of the principles of democracy that individuals have equal voting rights no matter who they are or what they earn.

  1. Sharing. Graeber simply calls this ‘communism’, because it’s governed by the principle ‘to each according to their need, from each according to their means’. This isn’t communism as political ideology, it’s basically just ‘sharing’, and we do it unquestioningly with our close friends and family. It’s common amongst equals who know and love each other, but also between strangers bonded by some kind of shared interest – anything from bumming a cigarette outside a club to surviving a crisis together. Think about way people just helped each other out during the Somerset floods last month.

Most interactions can be characterised by some combination of these principles, but you might sometimes see patterns in your relationships or habits.  If you work in a place where authority ranking is explicit, for example,  then your interactions with the boss may be governed mostly by Hierarchy. If you have close friends you play bridge with then you might generally behave according to the principle of Sharing, but on bridge nights have a strict Blind Equality approach to interactions within the game.

The statistical evidence for these 4 categories comes from the way we mentally cluster and connect different features of relationships (based on things like rules of exchange, decision making and working style). There are also some nice observations that back up the model. Ever struggled to remember someone’s name and then got them mixed up with someone else? (Ever called your teacher ‘mum’?). Researchers argue that these accidental substitutions (or ‘social errors’) usually follow a pretty straight-forward pattern. When we make those mistakes, we tend to confuse names of people with whom we relate in a similar way. In the case of the classic teacher/parent mix up, children may be confusing one nurturing, Sharing interaction for another, say in the context of being helped or comforted.

Researchers have studied how this theory relates to the workplace, with interesting results. Looking at interactions within a work team, they found that relationship style was a good way to predict the levels of trust and dependence between working parties (Sheppard & Sherman, 1998). Sharing led to higher levels of trust and interdependence between colleagues (e.g. more responsibility for helping one another and working co-operatively). Market Exchange, however, was associated with low levels of trust and low dependence.

Quick thought experiment, anyone? Chose a couple of situations that re-occur in the office, and think about the way you interact with your colleagues. This could be team meetings, or lunches, or presentations. Try and decide which relationship type (or types) are most clear in that situation. Can you imagine what it would take to shift to a different way of relating? What would a Sharing lunch be like, compared to a Market Exchange lunch?

Cartoon 2 RMT rank

How does this relate to values?

Our values predict (a) how we form and understand relationships and (b) why we prefer different types of interaction. This can form a self-reinforcing loop. If you place high importance on values like ambition and success, for example,  you’ll tend to engage more often and more easily with Market Exchange relationships than Sharing.  As a result, you’ll be more likely to violate social norms by applying achievement values in the wrong contexts, so may shy away from Sharing as a result. If, by the nature of your career or experience at school you engage in many Hierarchy relationships (say, for example, you are an army officer), then power and authority values are more likely to become part of your self identity.  Those values will, in turn, become stronger in your interactions with people.

Interactions shape our expectations of others, and we internalise particular values accordingly. When researchers look at this in detail,  the patterns between values and relationships are both intuitive and clear (e.g. Biber et al, 2008). Sharing is associated with strong intrinsic values, universalism and benevolence, but negatively related to power and achievement. Market Exchange has the opposite pattern, encouraging more extrinsic values. Hierarchy is, like Market Exchange, more linked to power and achievement (also conformity), and negatively related to intrinsic concern (including self-direction), but this shifts slightly depending on whether you have the subordinate or superior role in the hierarchy.  Blind equality, interestingly, has no relationship with values in this paper, and would be worth investigating further.

What does this mean in practice?

There is already a huge amount of research showing that intrinsic values lead us to collectively become more concerned and proactive in responding to big issues, such as climate change, poverty and inequality. The link between values and relationships gives us another way to look at social and environmental solutions, with some clear advice: we should encourage Sharing in as many different aspects of our lives as possible. Moreover, we should move away from Market Exchange and Hierarchy, both in how we interact with other people and the natural world.  This can come out in the way we talk to each other, how we work, and which campaigns or causes we chose to support.

Relationship theory has a number of practical applications:

  • If you are a campaigner, consider using this as a foundation of your decisions and arguments – how does a cause affect the way people relate to each other, or to nature? We can aim to emphasise the Sharing benefits of a campaign, or to work directly against institutions or practices that clearly reinforce Market Exchange (for example, in advertising to children) or Hierarchy relationships (for example, in the education system).

  • If you work in a place that could do with a bit of values tlc, this can be a useful and intuitive route into some reflective sessions on internal practice. There are a number of questionnaires and exercises at your disposal. One of them is the Modes Of Relationship Questionnaire (MORQ) – which organises questions according to themes like decision-making, morals and exchange (see the appendix of this paper).

  • If you are a communicator, and you want to break down the way you ‘frame’ your work – you can use this as a tool. For example, you can guide your analysis with questions like: ‘what’s the implied relationship between our organisation and its members?’ ‘How can we frame this event, not as a Market Exchange, but as based on Sharing’?

Relationship theory is just one tool, but it’s accessible and links very well to what we know about values and frames. It is relatively easy to identify when certain types of relationships are implied, for example in communication material or internal work practices. If we use this knowledge to encourage interactions based on Sharing, and oppose those based on Market Exchange and Hierarchy, we stand a better chance of strengthening the values that underlie a positive social and environmental response.

Bec SandersonThe special theory of relationships – or why you accidently called your teacher ‘mum’

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