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Relational Models Theory (RMT) is a theory of human sociality and, particularly, of interpersonal relationships, proposed by the American anthropologist Alan Fiske. It posits that every social relationship between humans falls under one of only four elementary "relational models", which are innate, intrinsically motivated, and culturally universal. RMT is of particular interest to writers as a framework for thinking about character relationships, though of course, like other theories that make such sweeping claims about the human condition, it should be taken with a pinch of salt.


Relational Models

In layman terms, a relational model (RM) is how you generate, motivate, understand, coordinate, remember, evaluate, and think about social (inter)actions, i.e. all actions and interactions involving other people. RMT posits that only four such models are hard-wired (or naturally emergent) in our brains, with each social relationship you've ever had constituting some combination thereof. They are, in order of increasing cognitive complexity:

  • Communal Sharing (CS) is a relationship of unity, wherein participants view each other as equivalent and undifferentiated in regard to certain social aspects. Archetypal example: Close-Knit Community.
  • Authority Ranking (AR) is an unequal relationship where those higher up in a hierarchy are entitled to deference from but are also responsible for those lower down. Archetypal example: The Chain of Command.
  • Equality Matching (EM) is a relationship where participants are expected to match each other's contributions tit-for-tat and to achieve some kind of balance. Archetypal example: Roommates taking turns doing chores.
  • Market Pricing (MP) is a relationship based on calculating each participant's rewards or punishments in proportion to the magnitude of their contributions or culpability. Archetypal example: Employer paying employees by the hour.

While these four relational models are innate to us, they have to be parametrized in order to be of any use. Each culture sets these parameters individually, including when to use each relational model, with whom, in regard to what, and especially how: who belongs to the CS in-group, where one is placed in the AR hierarchy, what constitutes a single "tit" or "turn" in EM, and how rates are calculated in MP.

Each relational model is furthermore associated with a specific core moral principle, which guides their participants' attitudes and behaviors towards each other, and a conformation system: a way of communicating with others that establishes, reinforces, and teaches a particular social relationship with them within that model. Specific examples follow.


Asocial and Null Interactions

An important caveat is that not all interactions between people are social, i.e. take into account others' thoughts and feelings. If you instead objectify the person you interact with or deny/ignore their personhood, you do not have a social relationship with them and none of the relational models below apply to your interaction. They likewise do not apply to sociopaths who cannot recognize others' humanity and hence don't form social relationships at all; nor to ordinary people in extreme live-or-die situations, where survival instincts may temporarily override their sociality. These are called asocial interactions and are characterized by "moral indifference" towards the other party.

    Tropes associated with asocial interactions 
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: The relationship between the tortured and the torturer would be intimate... if the torturer didn't see their victim as an object to be manipulated with pain and fear.
  • The Con: The relationship between a Con Man and their mark is inherently asocial from the former's side (unless he falls In Love with the Mark), even though the latter may believe it to be anything but.
  • Dehumanization: One of the main ways to achieve moral indifference and to facilitate asocial interactions is to dehumanize the other party.
  • A Million is a Statistic: One reason why watching a character death hits us harder than watching millions die is that the former is a (para)social interaction, while the latter is an asocial one.note 
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Using one's underlings as mindless, disposable tools is an asocial relationship masquerading as AR.

Lastly, it is possible to coordinate your actions with others without having any immediate interaction or relationship with them: Fiske's favorite example is car drivers keeping to one (culturally appropriate) side of the road in traffic. Even though drivers do not directly interact with one another, they effectively coordinate their actions to avoid collisions. This is an example of a so-called null interaction.

Communal Sharing (CS)

Communal Sharing (CS) is any relationship whose participants treat each other not as separate individuals, but as a single undifferentiated whole in regards to some specific social function. This is often tied to an essential commonality, particularly in their bodies, with the most frequent being kinship. CS relations vary greatly in scope and intensity, from those between two people deeply in love, through a family or The Clan, to entire communities, ethnic groups, nations, and even all of humanity (our genes are, after all, 99.9% identical).

CS also comes in many forms, such as "all for one and one for all" (i.e. CS in regards to mutual defense and collective responsibility), in-group favoritism and out-group hostility (frequently expressed in asocial interactions with outsiders), shared production and consumption, communal property and collective goods ("commons"), identification with groups and solidarity, ideal communism, one shared world, etc.

The core moral principle of CS relationships is Unity, which compels all members of the in-group to feel responsible and to provide for each other, to mount collective defense in response to an external aggression, to sacrifice themselves for the in-group, but also to harshly deal with any member whose actions threaten its cohesion. Conversely, it is seen as immoral to perform good deeds in expectation of a later reciprocation (an EM notion) or to account for individual past contributions when allocating resources (an MP idea). Also, since many CS relationships are tied to the participants' bodies, they often assign a high value to their "purity" — typically expressed in dietary and sexual restrictions, — and any defilement thereof, whether deliberate or against one's will, is strictly punished.

The notion of "fairness" in CS is strongly tied to group membership: each member of the in-group is allotted as many resources as they need, while the out-group may only receive leftovers, if anything. Violence in CS is justified a) in response to an external attack against any member of the in-group and b) if it restores in-group cohesion by eliminating or expunging a perceived threat to it, be it an external subversion or an internal deviance.

The conformation system associated with CS is known as consubstantial assimilation and often involves connecting participants' physical bodies via direct contact, contiguity, or similarity. Like CS itself, it can take many forms, such as sex, birth, nursing, feeding (drinking from the same cup, eating from one pot), simple touch (caressing, hugging), modifying or coloring one's body surfaces (e.g. tattoos, genital modification, wearing a uniform), and rhythmic synchronous movements (such as dancing or military drills). In terms of (Piercean) semiotics, consubstantial assimilation is an indexical process, with an individual's body and its relation to others' bodies serving as an index for their CS relationships.

In neurological terms, CS has a lot to do with the primary peptides oxytocin and vasopressin, both of which are associated with bonding, trust, and affection, and with the insular cortex of the brain, specifically, the part responsible for identifying the boundaries and scale of one's body; it is thought that individuals in a CS relationship actually subconsciously think of each other's bodies as part of their own. The evolutionary origins of CS are theorized to lie in maternal bonding, through pair, paternal, sibling, and familial bonding, to advanced social constructs like troop and general bonding.

    Tropes associated with CS 
  • Attack on One Is an Attack on All: Collective and undifferentiated defense is one of the most recognizable form of CS.
  • Band of Brothers: The bond between soldiers who have fought together is one of the most famous kinds of CS. Even before seeing combat, most military customs, from uniforms to drills, push soldiers to think of themselves as a single body (unit), rather than unrelated individuals.
  • Coordinated Clothes: Wearing matching clothes and accessories to indicate an intimate relationship is a low-stakes form of consubstantial assimilation.
  • The Dividual: Characters effectively treated as a single individual, even by the author, are very likely in an intense CS relationship.
  • Group-Identifying Feature: Group members sharing a common feature can be a form of consubstantial assimilation.
  • Initiation Ceremony: Initiation rituals often involve various forms of consubstantial assimilation, such as getting tattoos, choral chanting, or intense physical contact like brawling or sex, as a prerequisite to becoming a fully-fledged and accepted member of the in-group.
  • Mama Bear: The origin of this trope is the famously great lengths that mothers will go to in order to protect their young, and the mother-child bonding is theorized to be the evolutionary origin of CS.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Having sex as initiation into a group, particularly with one of its members, is a form of consubstantial assimilation through intimate physical contact.
  • Tastes Like Friendship: Sharing food is one of the most innocuous forms of consubstantial assimilation: if you are what you eat, then eating together makes you partially the same.
  • Tattooed Crook: Gang tattoos are a permanent form of consubstantial assimilation, indexing a member's relationship with the gang and with others having the same tattoo.
  • Thicker Than Water: The vast majority of CS relationships (with the notable exceptions of couples, Best Friends, and True Companions) are predicated on their participants having some degree of blood kinship.
  • True Companions: A group of people sharing a CS relationship in regards to mutual protection and collective responsibility without being related by blood.
  • You Would Do the Same for Me: The notion that two characters would help each other out in a bad spot, regardless who needs help and without expecting reciprocation, puts this trope into the CS territory (as opposed to Makes Us Even, for instance).

Authority Ranking (AR)

Authority Ranking (AR) concerns asymmetric relationships wherein participants are ranked along some linear hierarchy, creating "superiors" and "subordinates". In an AR relationship, superiors are viewed as legitimately, naturally, and necessarily entitled to their subordinates' respect, deference, and even obedience; conversely, superiors are also responsible for wisely guiding, leading, protecting, standing up and speaking for their subordinates. AR relationships are therefore distinct from coercive control by force and individual power of social influence, and aren't necessarily exploitative.note 

AR takes many forms, such as military, bureaucratic, feudal, and religious hierarchies, as well as academic degrees; respect for one's elders and filial piety; worship of ancestors, gods, or God; chain of command; precedence and privilege; gender, class, and ethnic inequality; but also competitive standings (prestige) of sports teams, universities, etc.

The core moral principle of AR relationships is Hierarchy, which compels superiors to lead, guide, direct, and protect their subordinates, while simultaneously compelling subordinates to respect, obey, and defer to their superiors — but also to punish anyone who disrespects or disobeys them. It is seen as immoral to claim privileges above one's station, especially by making false claims to legitimacy, but also (if to a lesser degree) to turn down legitimate privilege.

The notion of "fairness" in AR is tied to the hierarchy, with those higher up legitimately allotted more resources (and enjoying greater lenience) than those lower down. Violence in AR is justified a) in response to disobedience or disrespect towards superiors (whether it is carried out by superiors themselves or by zealous subordinates) and b) under pertinent orders from a legitimate superior.

The conformation system associated with AR is known as iconic physics of magnitudes, wherein one's position in the hierarchy is tied to some observable quantity: superiors can be perceived as bigger, higher up, further ahead (e.g. in formal processions) or behind (e.g. Roman Triarii), more numerous (Royal "We", respectful "you"), having greater force/power (as in "forceful leader"), brighter (cf. the Sun King), or even louder than the subordinates. Semiotically, this process is (unsurprisingly) iconic, with an individual's social position (authority) being iconically mapped onto some physical quantity.

Neurologically, AR seems to be mainly regulated by testosterone and to have evolved from dominance hierarchy systems in many animal species.

    Tropes associated with AR 
Pretty much all of Authority Tropes and Admiration Tropes are related to AR in one way or another, but beyond that:

  • The Chains of Commanding: A proper AR relationship is based on perceived legitimacy of the superior's position, who has to maintain said legitimacy by continuously meeting any obligations that come with it.
  • Cool Chair: A lot of examples of this trope are elevated above the floor, iconically mapping the seated person's spatial position to their place in the social hierarchy.
  • A Father to His Men: This is a common idealized form of AR relationships, where the superior personally cares about each of their subordinates' well-being, who reciprocate with staunch personal loyalty.
  • Hat of Authority: The reason why so many leaders and office holders throughout history have gotten to wear large hats is because these increase visible body size, and our brains are hard-wired to perceive larger people as more important.
  • Hitler Cam: By deliberately making yourself bigger, louder, and higher up, you can trick others into believing you have more legitimate authority over them than you actually do.
  • Just Following Orders: The idea that the subordinates are not morally responsible for their actions under orders from legitimate superiors is a thoroughly AR one, and rarely fares well in any other RM.
  • Large and in Charge: Associating body size with legitimate authority is one of the most common forms of the AR conformation system.
  • Mentor Archetype: The mentor-student relationship is perhaps the purest form of AR, in the sense that it is entirely unconcerned with the wider social context around the two characters involved in it. The mentor's role is to guide and to protect the student, and the student's, to respect and to learn from the mentor — regardless of their overall social ranks and status (which may lead to an otherwise higher-status former student deferring to their mentor out of personal respect).
  • Wise Old Folk Façade: A villain exploits the hero's hard-wired respect for the elderly to establish a seemingly legitimate AR relationship, then betrays it. As noted, AR is not necessarily exploitative (asocial), but can become such very quickly.

Equality Matching (EM)

Equality Matching (EM) relationships involve keeping track of some kind of balance or additive difference between the participants, with each one knowing what is required to restore the balance. Typical EM relationships include any form of turn-taking, tit-for-tat in-kind reciprocity (the basis for Enlightened Self-Interest), an-eye-for-an-eye revenge, but also restorative justice, equal contributions, even division of work responsibilities, even distribution of spoils, social exchange, randomization with equal chances (Drawing Straws, any lottery), ROSCA, one-person-one-vote, equal rights, as well as the vast majority of rules in games and sports.

The core moral principle of EM relationships is Equality, which compels reciprocity, equal treatment, equal say, equal opportunities, equal chances, even shares and contributions, etc. from everyone involved. It is seen as immoral to give anyone preferential treatment for any reason and to violate another's trust by not reciprocating in kind — both good things and bad.

The notion of "fairness" in EM is perhaps the most intuitive one, as it simply requires allotting equal resources to everyone, regardless of other factors. Violence in EM is justified only in response to a prior attack, but because violent interactions are impossible to "balance out" in any realistic setting, Paying Evil Unto Evil very often leads to an unending Cycle of Revenge.

The conformation system of EM are concrete operations, which consist of intuitive definitions of what constitutes a single turn, "tit", etc. and of procedures for their ostensive balancing (e.g. "one for you, one for me", Drawing Straws, etc). The neurological origins of these and of EM in general are speculated to lie in the brain regions responsible for subitizing and parallel individuation and in the temporoparietal junction.

    Tropes associated with EM 
All tropes on the Indebted Index that don't rely on MP fall under EM by default — in fact, the base notions of "debt" and "obligation" are EM ideas. Likewise, pretty much all of Revenge Tropes are predicated on the EM notion of Paying Evil Unto Evil. Finally, almost all Game Mechanics rely on that of players being equal before the rules. Beyond that:

  • Balance Between Good and Evil: A setting that presupposes an EM relationship between the larger forces of "good" and "evil", so that any action by one side entitles the other to an equal and opposite response.
  • Drawing Straws: Because everyone has an equal chance of drawing the short straw, this is a quintessential concrete operation of EM.
  • The Golden Rule: Relies on the EM expectation of reciprocating kindness with kindness and underlies the strategy of reciprocal altruism.
  • I Owe You My Life: While a lot of debt-related tropes can fall under MP (if the debt is denominated in money), a "life debt" is clearly an EM idea, since everyone has exactly one life and you cannot well put a price tag on it.
  • Must Make Amends: After doing something terrible to someone, the character feels morally obligated to make up for it (i.e. to restore the balance) with a good deed of an equal magnitude.
  • Paying It Forward: Where you can balance out one person's kindness to you by performing a good deed for someone else entirely.
  • Turn-Based Combat: Perhaps the most glaring application of EM in gaming, which ensures that every player gets an equal opportunity to participate in the simulated combat.

Market Pricing (MP)

Market Pricing (MP)note  encompasses relationships based on "calculating and acting in accord with ratios or rates for otherwise distinct goods to ensure that rewards or punishments for each party are proportional to their costs, contributions, effort, merit, or guilt". MP relationships are not necessarily selfish, competitive, maximizing, individualistic, materialistic, voluntaristic, or contractual — although any relational model can, in fact, have any combination of those features. It is, however, the most "rational" of the four, and much of the so-called game theory (the science of making logical decisions) presupposes an MP social framework.

Typical MP relationships are prices, wages, rents, interest rates, tithes, taxes, cost-benefit analysis, efficiency criteria, expected values and utility calculus (including the utilitarian morals and much of the aforementioned game theory), loss exchange ratios, proportional justice systems (sentencing, damages), merit-based reward distribution, apples-for-oranges exchanges of unlike things in proportion to their values, and free markets in general. As the most rational RM, MP often gets a bad rep as cold, calculating, and too outwardly similar to fully asocial interactions.

The core moral principle of MP relationships is Proportionality, which demands that each party is rewarded or punished in proportion to their contributions, efforts, merits, or guilt. Conversely, cheating — that is, gaining benefits that exceed what one deserves (according to one's cultural standards) — is seen as highly immoral. Accordingly, the notion of "fairness" in MP demands that resources are allotted in proportion to individual efforts and merits. Violence in MP is justified when it is committed For the Greater Good, which has an unfortunate tendency towards Well-Intentioned Extremism.

The conformation system of MP are symbols, particularly the abstract, arbitrary, and conventional (mathematical) symbols representing proportions and rates. Semiotically, this process is obviously symbolic.

    Tropes associated with MP 
  • Auction: One of two essential MP procedures for decision-making (the other being cost-benefit analysis) has all interested parties bid on who gets to have it their way.
  • Every Man Has His Price: The notion that every aspect of human sociality can be regulated by MP.
  • Hired Guns: The relationship between mercenaries and their employers puts a price tag on violence and, potentially, on their own and their opponents' lives.
  • Marriage of Convenience: A personal union based not on emotion but on cost-benefit analysis.
  • More Expendable Than You: When a character puts the worth of their survival in proportion to that of their friend.
  • The Needs of the Many: Making decisions based on the ratio of those saved to those endangered is an inherently MP idea, but when sacrificing oneself to save the rest of one's own group, this is often just an MP-sounding pretext for a CS-motivated actionnote .
  • The Oldest Profession: Prostitution posits sex as an object of MP.
  • Realpolitik: Prior to its Flanderization by the media, Realpolitik merely advocated for MP relations between entire nations.

Discussion and Further Examples

To illustrate the differences between the four relational models further, let us list ways that decision-making, behavior evaluation, and sanctioning bad behavior may be handled in each of them:

RM Decision-making Evaluation Sanction
CS Consensus Well-being of the in-group Ostracism, exile
AR Decree, delegation Respect, responsibility Corporal punishment
EM Voting, lottery Equality, evenness Restorative justice, revenge
MP Expected utility, auction Cost-benefit analysis Paying a fine

It is important to note, however, that human sociality is extremely complex, and the same two people may employ different models to regulate their relationship, depending on which social aspect is concerned. For instance, although we have previously listed The Dividual as a CS example, this only fully applies to the undifferentiated "Twindividual", whereas the symbiotic relationship of the "Syndividual" implies at least two AR dimensions wherein its participants have unequal rankings and defer to each other.

Very often, one model is embedded within the framework of another. For example, The Rival seeks to overtake the protagonist along a linear AR dimension (sports ranking, martial arts mastery, affections of a love interest, etc.), but typically does so by matching their accomplishments (balancing the score) and trying to one-up them (to put them at a negative difference) — both typical EM interactions. Conversely and on a much larger scale, the AR hierarchy of elected officials in a liberal democracy is embedded within the EM framework of the citizens' equal voting rights.

More potential for Conflict exists in characters mentally applying different models to their relationship. Fiske's favorite example has two roommates arguing over who has to wash the dishes: one believes they are in a CS relationship regarding house chores, so whoever has the time does them, while the other sees it as an EM relationship and keeps track of how often the other has "shirked their duties". Both are morally right within their respective relational model, but the models themselves are at odds in this particular situation.

Lastly, much bigger conflict or, at least, massive Values Dissonance can occur due to cultural differences in implementing (culturally-neutral) relational models. Perhaps the most extreme examples are found in regional implementations of CS in regards to dealing with members who have somehow "defiled" the purity of the group, even involuntarily (e.g. a woman raped by an outsider): while some communities will restore unity by healing and reincorporating, others would rather cleanse and expunge, leading to Honor-Related Abuse. Again, both are morally right within their respective implementations of the universal CS model.

Related Theories

Fiske has linked his relational models to Stanley Stevens' levels of measurement:

  • A CS relationship is nominal, because its members are not further differentiated: you are either a member of the in-group, with everything that entails, or you are in the out-group.
  • An AR relationship is ordinal, because for every other participant, you are either above, below, or equal to them, but the gap between the two of you is not meaningfully measurable.
  • An EM relationship is based on intervals, because each participant knows how many steps away they are from a balanced relation.
  • An MP relationship is based on ratios, with the price of zero serving as the unique origin of the ratio scale.

RMT has also been linked to Jonathan Haidt's Five Foundations of Morality theory, with the Ingroup/Loyalty and Purity/Sanctity foundations being of particular importance in CS relationships; Authority/Respect, in AR (obviously); while attitudes towards Harm/Care and Fairness/Proportionality vary greatly across different RMs, as detailed in their respective descriptions above. This appears to corroborate Haidt's secondary finding that liberal ideology emphasizes the Harm/Care and Fairness/Proportionality foundations, while conservatism values all five evenly: in RMT terms, the former shows a strong preference for EM and MP relationships, whereas the latter values CS and AR just as much.

In RMT terms, the sociological notions of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft ("community" and "society"), introduced by Ferdinand Tönnies and popularized by Max Weber, correspond to CS and MP. Similarly, political scientist Francis Fukuyama has posited "kin selection" (CS) and "reciprocal altruism" (EM) as the default, natural forms of human sociabilitynote , standing in direct competition with the much more complex and impersonal MP frameworks of modern states and societies.

Additional Reading