Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Four Interactive Relationships

I found a very useful piece of analysis with a useful link on Megan McArdle's blog*  McArdle is a semi-libertarian columnist who writes pieces that assume a mostly libertarian outlook, but quarrels on a lot of specifics.  She has been on leave lately and had others posting for her.  One of them wrote an excellent column on four types of interactive relationships and the difficulty traditional free market analysis has in recognizing them.  This is an immensely useful analysis, perhaps as useful as Jonathan Haidt's moral foundations, although I will probably not use these interactive relationships as often.

The author is Gabriel Rossman, significantly, a sociologist rather than an economist.  He, in turn, cites the anthropologist Alan Fiske in his view that interchanges normally take one of four forms:
  • communal sharing -- people are effectively a common unit and can freely draw resources from communal property, as with households
  • authority ranking -- people have asymmetric duties and obligations to one another, as with patron-client ties
  • equality matching -- people match actions on a like-for-like and tit-for-tat basis, as with friends
  • market pricing -- people commensurate across categories on the basis of ratios (with prices being a special case of these ratios when we have money as a unit of account), as with traders in a market
Communal sharing is the closest and most intimate of these relationships, usually limited to family or to close-knit groups that assume family-like characteristics.  Such groups meet the communist ideal of  "from each according to his ability; to each according to his need."  Such relations can be maintained only if the group can maintain strong uniformity and consensus.  (Such relations, by the way, are fine demonstrations of Haidt's foundation of in-group loyalty, in its best and worst forms.  They offer tremendous support and altruism, but also demand considerable sacrifice of one's individualism and can the potential for intense hostility toward outsiders and non-conforming members).

Authority ranking (obviously) corresponds to Haidt's foundation of authority.  Authority ranking relationships are asymmetric, with people owing unequal duties and one clearly in a position to demand deference of the other.  Unequal exchange and the duty to obey do not mean an absence of responsibility.  Superiors have a duty to protect subordinates, and subordinates may see their subordination at least in part as an expression of gratitude for protection.

Equality matching is the relationship between friends and peers whose relations are altruistic, but not as close ad in communal sharing.  People give friends gifts and do favors, but such things always imply a reciprocal obligation.  Failure to return a favor can end the friendship.  An exact accounting is not required, but things are never allowed to get as out of balance as might be tolerated in a family.  Any show of unequal status among people who are supposed to be peers is a source of resentment and hostility.  Haidt said that equality is not a moral foundation.  This would seem to suggest that at least in some contexts, it is.  Presumably this relationship would fit most closely in his moral foundations as the concept of equal and impersonal justice.

Market pricing is, of course, the most arm's length, impersonal, and individualistic of these relations.  It exists in most societies, with the exception of a few very primitive hunter-gatherer societies.

These relationships are by no means mutually exclusive.  People may relate to each other in any combination of the four, and some or all of them may come into play on any occasion.  And although these relationships exist in (almost) all societies, different societies may have vastly different ideas about then they are properly applied.

Economists, of course, focus their study almost exclusively on market pricing and can be remarkably obtuse about the other relational models.  Rossman suggests that learning all four is important because,  "A major source of social conflicts and scandals is when people disagree about what relational model does or ought to characterize an interaction."

I will discuss this at greater length in my next post.

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