Structures of Social Life

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* Book: Structures of Social Life. By Alan Page Fiske. Free Press, 1993

URL = [1]

For details see: Relational Model Typology - Fiske

Please note this book was constitutive of our efforts to construct a coherent P2P Theory. For more context, see our entries on What You Should Read To Understand the Commons and Sources of P2P Theory.


"A sweeping, provocative intellectual adventure despite its leaden, textbookish prose, this tome holds that there are just four basic modes of social interaction: communal sharing (e.g., Quaker meetings, family togetherness); authority ranking; the reciprocal give-and-take of equality matching; and the cost/benefit calculus of market pricing. Fiske draws unfashionable conclusions: people are fundamentally sociable and often will prefer sharing to self-interest; duty and desire are not inherently opposed -- in fact, they tend to coincide." (Publisher's Weekly)


Here's the background to the theory, reprinted from

For Alan Page Fiske, see (relational models), (bio)

"According to Fiske, there are four basic types of inter-subjective dynamics, valid across time and space, in his own words: "People use just four fundamental models for organizing most aspects of sociality most of the time in all cultures. These models are:

  • Communal Sharing
  • Authority Ranking
  • Equality Matching
  • Market Pricing

Communal Sharing (CS) is a relationship in which people treat some dyad or group as equivalent and undifferentiated with respect to the social domain in question. Examples are people using a commons (CS with respect to utilization of the particular resource), people intensely in love (CS with respect to their social selves), people who "ask not for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee" (CS with respect to shared suffering and common well-being), or people who kill any member of an enemy group indiscriminately in retaliation for an attack (CS with respect to collective responsibility).

In Authority Ranking (AR) people have asymmetric positions in a linear hierarchy in which subordinates defer, respect, and (perhaps) obey, while superiors take precedence and take pastoral responsibility for subordinates. Examples are:

  • military hierarchies (AR in decisions, control, and many other matters)
  • ancestor worship (AR in offerings of filial piety and expectations of protection and enforcement of norms)
  • monotheistic religious moralities (AR for the definition of right and wrong by commandments or will of God)
  • social status systems such as class or ethnic rankings (AR with respect to social value of identities), and rankings such as sports team standings (AR with respect to prestige).

AR relationships are based on perceptions of legitimate asymmetries, not coercive power; they are not inherently exploitative (although they may involve power or cause harm).

In Equality Matching (EM) relationships people keep track of the balance or difference among participants and know what would be required to restore balance. Common manifestations are:

  • turn-taking
  • one-person one-vote elections
  • equal share distributions
  • and vengeance based on an-eye-for-an-eye, a-tooth-for-a-tooth

Examples include:

  • sports and games (EM with respect to the rules, procedures, equipment and terrain)
  • baby-sitting co-ops (EM with respect to the exchange of child care)
  • and restitution in-kind (EM with respect to righting a wrong).

Market Pricing relationships are oriented to socially meaningful ratios or rates such as prices, wages, interest, rents, tithes, or cost-benefit analyses. Money need not be the medium, and Market Pricing relationships need not be selfish, competitive, maximizing, or materialistic -- any of the four models may exhibit any of these features. Market Pricing relationships are not necessarily individualistic; a family may be the CS or AR unit running a business that operates in an MP mode with respect to other enterprises.

Examples are:

  • property that can be bought, sold, or treated as investment capital (land or objects as MP)
  • marriages organized contractually or implicitly in terms of costs and benefits to the partners
  • prostitution (sex as MP)
  • bureaucratic cost-effectiveness standards (resource allocation as MP)
  • utilitarian judgments about the greatest good for the greatest number, or standards of equity in judging entitlements in proportion to contributions (two forms of morality as MP)
  • considerations of "spending time" efficiently, and estimates of expected kill ratios (aggression as MP)."

Book Notes

From the reading notes of Michel Bauwens, 2004:

- Fiske considers there are four basic social relationships, and a additional a-social and disintegrating one, called "null relationships" and based on pure force. These make up the totality of social life.

- They concern:

   - decision-making processes
   - moral values
   - distribution of resources
   - transfer and exchange modes
   - to make sense of misfortune
   - to punish transgression

- For example, Fiske writes that Equality Matching demands the 'same thing back' and is therefore often confused with Market Pricing, as they both must account for things. EM desires exchange relationship and therefore keeps track of what is given, while gifts aimed at Communal Shareholding don't require such stock taking.

- Fiske then examines the distribution of thinGs, finding the four principles at play. In terms of conceptions of justice (rewards = concerned with giving things), he notes that there is:

   - giving on the basis of need (Communal Shareholding , CS)
   - equity, proportionality (Market Pricing, MP)
   - equality (EM)
   - status (Authority Ranking, AR)

- Next Fiske turns his attention to the distribution of resources, noting many examples of Communal Shareholding. The main problem is that the system is not optimal when selfish motives predominate. In addition, CS is almost inevitably coupled with strong dichotomies and hostility/discrimination to out groups


Time has four social meanings

   - CS time is normally oriented to an ideal past , which is perpetuated (through ritual re-enactment. Continuity is essential because loss of CS is a traumatic event.
   - AR time is centered around temporal precedence; there is a serial ordering of events [see: senior ranking amongst monks]
   - EM time is oscillatory with cycles of reciprocal exchange, turn taking, proper delay (in gift matching, f.e.).
   - MP time is concerned with rates and efficiency: proportionality or actions per unit of time. 'Wasted time' is frowned upon.


Matthew McNatt:

"In balance, I think Fiske has—significantly—missed two additional ways of structuring social life. While I think he adequately describes ways that consumers distribute goods, I think co-producers and members of defense networks also have unique ways of ordering social life, which we might call "Practice Deepening" and "Valor Defending," respectively. Co-Producers, I claim, are held together in part by a shared *morality* around how members practice their craft and deepen their skills. This morality develops, I think, as every member *acts as if* significant aspects of what each one wants to be the case is already implicit in what (s)he and others know. The group of co-producers thereby helps to constitute norms the group operates by as beyond dispute by anyone worthy of the group's trust. I think we see this way of structuring social life in guilds and in professional societies that maintain strict standards of professional conduct.

Defense Networks, I claim, are also held together by a unique way of structuring social life—in this case, by every member's willingness to sacrifice in a way that expresses and invites devotion to the group's shared myths and heroes. (As these heroes embody the group's morals, their continued valorization carries forward the possibility—however faint—that the memory, significance, and/or essence of each of member of the defense network will likewise never die). While mercenary armies may be held together by Authority Ranking and Market Pricing, I think these are inadequate for holding together normal militaries and some gangs, both which depend on a mythos and cult of heroes that, taken together, magnify and defend members' valor.

In this understanding, Fiske's "null" way of structuring social life—by brute force—becomes a seventh, rather than a fifth, way of structuring social life." [2]

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