Four types of social relations and their application in communication

Try tossing a plastic cup at a police officer and comparing it to throwing a mug at your friend. For a change, suggest in the chat, where you and your friends exchange funny pictures about the coronavirus, buy a consultation from you for only 99 dollars with a discount that will expire in just three days!

The types of social relationships and understanding of who, when, and in what relationships are the key to successful (or unsuccessful) communication.

Alan Fisk, an American anthropologist, specializing in human relations and cross-cultural differences, published his classification of basic types of relationships in 1991, which has since been supplemented and rethought by other communication specialists several times.

Like any other psychological theory, it is not without exceptions. It is not "universal law of life, the universe and all that", but it provides an excellent frame for understanding why some communications work, and others do not, and why building a community sometimes does not work out ... Or it comes out, but it falls apart although people have a shared experience and ideology, and even everyone is familiar with everyone.

Fisk identified four main types of social relations:

  1. Community relations (Communal Sharing).
  2. Hierarchical Relations (Authority Ranking).
  3. Partnership relations (Equality Matching).
  4. Market relations (Market Pricing).

Community relations

The community type of relationship implies that we perceive the rest of the participants based on their belonging. For example, by default, we trust "ours" more, use less formal communications with them, and concerning strangers, we are engaged in generalizations for ease of storage and memorization of information ...

For example, obvious - relatives, close people, spouses. Non-obvious — for cultural diversity, let us recall the conflict between Montague and Capulet from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. All participants in the tragedy primarily relate themselves and others to families, and all relationships are built with an eye to which family who belongs to. The relationship of the lovers themselves is also, first of all, communal, like all love, however.

Community relations imply a fairly clear drawing of boundaries between groups, as I said, there are "ours" and "aliens". You can join the community relations, for example, by considering a participant in a rally as a "hire of the State Department," or in a war, when you want to kill an enemy soldier just because he belongs to the other side of the conflict. Community relations are among the most ancient types of relationships inherent in humans, but not the most ancient.


Hierarchical relationships

Hierarchical relationships are older. We got them from our animal ancestors, who mastered the primitive but effective right of the strong. In hierarchical relationships, people occupy asymmetric positions in the linear hierarchy. At the same time, the "subordinates" have less responsibility. Still, they must respect and (possibly) obey the higher authority in the hierarchy, and the "bosses" have pastoral responsibility, direct and care for subordinates, which is punishing for breaking the rules.


Military hierarchy (hierarchical relationships implies control, decision making, responsibility, and many other things).

The authority of elders is hierarchical relationships in the form of an exchange of "respect" for "parental care" and some wisdom and guidance.

Religious morality, primarily in monotheistic religions, is hierarchical relationships in the form of a definition of what is right and what is bad, and the translation of the "will of the Lord."

In principle, most of the working, interclass, and professional relations are hierarchical relationships, built on the principle of more significant expertise, social status, prestige, or even the amount of money in the account. The rich take care of the poor, the experts "educate" newcomers, and so on.

The critical point, which is the guarantee of regular hierarchical relationships, is their perception as moderately asymmetric, not exploitative. However, adhering to such relations can imply power or even harm. In wartime, people in the army may (still) be shot for non-observance of the order, but this is perceived as the norm.


In partnership relations, people maintain a kind of "balance" of income and expense. That is, they evaluate the relationship in terms of what the participants receive and give away. You to me - I to you, eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth, and so on.


Sports and games like software are based on the participants' consent with the rules, principles, equipment, playground, and so on.

Compensation for damage is software based on the fact that erroneous decisions are ubiquitous.

Most of the business relations are when partners are equal, but each is responsible for his own area of ​​activity and bears equal responsibility for it with other participants.

Democratic voting on the principle of one person - one vote.

It is essential to understand that partnerships are not "best" relationships, they are just one type. The software may be completely inappropriate. For example, if you start to fine your child for being late home (do not forget that you are also in a Hierarchical relationship with him and, in fact, there can be no talk of any equality, since you are more reliable) or order, sitting in quarantine, food, based on who contributed how much to the family budget. About examples, however, a little later.


Market relations

Market relations are based on socially significant economic parameters, such as prices, expenses, income, interest, rent, financial feasibility, and other calculated indicators.

Market relations do not require the obligatory presence of money, or exclusively personal interest, or even material - all four models of relations may or may not have these signs. Besides, the same people, such as a family, can be members of hierarchical relationships, an NGO at the same time, and own a family business where market relationships are built.


The relationship between the tenant and the landlord is market relations around land or real estate.

The organization of a wedding is market relations between partners and their families based on the economic feasibility of organizing celebrations.

Prostitution is market relations around sex.

The allocation of grants is market relations around resource allocation.

Utilitarian morality (hello coronavirus) when you need to allocate a limited resource, even at the cost of someone's life or comfort, for the good of the majority.

Assessment of direct and collateral damage from conflict, from a fight to an armed conflict/war (market relations around aggression).


It is essential to understand that different types of relationships are not mutually exclusive, but one kind of relationship always dominates in a particular situation. In any case, we decide how to behave based on what form of relationship dominates between other participants in communication and us.

Situations when we cannot clearly define what type of relationship we should behave lead to awkward or even, sometimes, disastrous consequences in personal communication. But, which is especially important for marketing and communications specialists, a mistake in choosing a model leads to the fact that connection does not work at all. For example, the community is falling apart (or not going to).

Why is that? Any group (from a collective to a community) strives to reach an internal consensus about the prevailing model of relations.

Imagine that you are trying to build partnerships based on the principles of "you are me - I am for you" with those who use a mostly community type among themselves. You want the common cause to be judged by each participant's contribution, and the benefits are also distributed accordingly. For example, you wrote an article, you promoted it on three sites, you collected sponsors, and you just sent out letters.

All the rest gathered to hang out and do something cool and profess the principle of "our people, then we will be counted", that is, the standard type, and you start, roughly speaking, to count conventional pennies.

From an economic point of view, if you understand it better, you are forcing people to give an indefinite loan.

It is precisely the same mistake to come with a market approach to a different type of relationship. For example, evaluate a spouse's purchase of new clothes according to the principle of whether it was a reasonable waste of money for the family budget and whether it was not more correct to buy forty rolls of toilet paper. Using the example described in the first paragraph, start selling your product or consulting in a chat with friends or work colleagues.

Let's take the last example: you can go to your friend at a corporate party and grab an olive from his plate, which he will typically react since you are in community relations. Imagine that you walked up to the president of a company (with whom / which you are exclusively hierarchical relations) and did the same. It will be so-so, right? Now imagine that you are all together (with a friend and the president) sitting in a bath, naked and wrapped in towels. The olives have no chance.

When finalizing, I recommend that all communications specialists and especially communities analyze their projects FIRST from these four types of social relations. Since without the coincidence of these types of communication participants, no other actions will help, neither the general ideology, nor experience, nor structure, no personal acquaintances.


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