Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Social Relations Theory (Fiske)

  • Zachary WillockxEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_442-1



A set of psychological models centering on social relationships.


Much of social psychology examines human behavior as a product between the individual and the situation. This focus led to many distinct findings that some argue were poorly explained (see Fiske 1991). With no overarching theory to guide them, most studies were presented as individual findings, unconnected to other findings within social psychology. To remedy this, some social psychologists had proposed unified theories of social psychology. However, these theories assumed humans thought of other humans as if they were inanimate objects (Fiske 1991). To counter this, Fiske (1992) proposed a unified theory of social relations that could help explain many findings in social psychology. This theory presented four psychological models that focus on human social relations: communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing.

Communal Sharing

Communal sharing relationships are created through the notion that everyone within a communal group are both equal to one another and bound to one another. In this model, members of a group treat each other relatively the same, and relationships are focused on disregarding individual differences and embracing commonalities. A key feature of these relationships is the belief that some immutable substance is shared across the group (e.g., genes, spirit). This psychological model is most often found in kinship ties, but can be seen in many ethnic identities or other such tightly bound groups. A common example of communal sharing groups is found in hunting and gathering societies. In these societies the whole group shares the meat of animals killed, and tools are shared freely (Marshall 1961). An important aspect of this form of sharing is the communality of land; land cannot be bought or sold, and it frequently becomes closely associated with the group living on it (Elias 1956).

One key feature of communal sharing relationships is the division of those outside the communal group into different classes that can be compared. For example, non-kin may be divided as neighbors and non-neighbors. Neighbors may receive the same resource support as kin, whereas non-neighbors may not, but both groups are socially equivalent for the purposes of alliance building in times of conflict. This type of psychological model may be especially useful when needing to keep track of large numbers of others while maintaining an in-group bias.

Authority Ranking

Authority ranking relationships function by building asymmetrical relationships among others who are ordered in a linear and hierarchical structure. These relationships are defined by a salience of one’s rank compared to those around them, namely, determining if others are higher or lower than oneself in the status hierarchy. Individuals with a higher rank tend to have higher prestige, privileges, and deference by those below, whereas those with a lower rank are generally entitled to protection by those above them. These differences can be seen in the explicit rhetoric used, and the space granted, to those with more status in Western societies; those higher in rank are referred to as “higher-ups” and to be knocked down is to be “belittled.” Moreover, those with more power are given offices on higher floors with more space, whereas being sent to work in a basement is an insult.

A key feature of these relationships is the linearity of the ordering; no two individual can have the same status, and status is seen as unidimensional. For example, if person A is said to have a status equal to or greater than person B and if person B also has status equal to or greater than person A, then person A and B must be the same person. This means there are no branches or loops in an authority ranking relationship; the order among a group using such a relationship must be perfectly linear. Thus, this theory states that when individuals think in a linearly structured relationship model, they treat higher ranks as better.

Equality Matching

Equality matching relationships are based on an egalitarian form of justice, where retribution equals the harm. The main concern for those in such a relationship is balance. This is similar to a communal sharing relationship, except the focus of such sharing is on reciprocity, not care. In other words, everyone shares as a consequence of the threat of retribution, not because they feel any special affinity for those they are sharing with. As there are no assurances that everyone will pull their full weight in these relationships, individuals spend more time ensuring a one-for-one relationship to try and catch potential cheaters/freeloaders as soon as possible. Some common forms of these relationships are car pools or babysitting cooperatives. If a deficit is noticed, the cheater may be expected to give more to equalize the balance. For example, if an individual claims to be injured and cannot work a communal field one day, they may be expected to work the field alone the next time the group takes a day off.

Two key features of these relationships are linearity of debt and irrelevance of order. The first feature refers to the way humans conceptualize equality, stating that a debt of two carpool trips is exactly one step worse than a debt of one carpool trip, which is exactly one step worse than no debt. This second feature of these relationships, the irrelevance of order, states that the way a debt is gained is irrelevant to the requirements for paying off the debt. For example, failing to carpool twice, carpooling once, and then failing to do so three more times are no worse than failing to do so three times, carpooling once, and then failing to do so two more times. Either way you have failed to balance your debt four times.

Market Pricing

Market pricing relationships focus on proportionality in social relationships. This means that everything in consideration is condensed into a single value that allows for comparisons to others. There are many such metrics, such as social value or money. As in the equality matching model, these ratios are linear, but unlike in equality matching model, the values can be compared to non-like concepts. For example, if two individuals in the carpool group were also in a group that watched each other’s children, one failure to carpool would have no direct relationship to one failure to care for children. However, in market pricing relationships, you can compare these things. For example, if you owe someone a horse but all you own are dogs, each dog has a value so there will be some number of dogs whose collective value is worth more than the value of the horse you owe.


Fiske (1992) presented one of the most comprehensive and, for its time, novel approaches to a unified theory of social psychology seen in academia. By supporting his research with numerous cultural studies using a varied methodology, Fiske demonstrated that his theory not only accounted for many of the findings within social psychology, but that his theory could also be applied in cross-cultural research. In particular, he demonstrated a theory that was flexible enough to account for massive cultural differences without violating previous findings within social psychology.



  1. Elias, T. O. (1956). The nature of African customary law. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Fiske, A. P. (1991). Structures of social life: The four elementary forms of human relations. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  3. Fiske, A. P. (1992). The four elementary forms of sociality: Framework for a unified theory of social relations. Psychological Review, 99(4), 689.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Marshall, L. (1961). Sharing, talking, and giving: Relief of social tensions among !Kung Bushmen. Africa, 31, 231–246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Oakland UniversityRochesterUSA