The more trusted relationships a community has the stronger it is as a whole. Trusted relationships among all members also benefit each member individually. But what are trusted relationships? Alan Fiske writes "relationships are patterns of coordination among people", meaning that we’re doing something together – they might be different things that we’re doing but we’re doing them in relationship to each other. These relationships and coordinated actions become trusted when we can rely and predict them. This happens over time and through shared experiences where we get to know each other better, understand how we think and feel but also gives us the opportunity to show that we do what we say and therefore can be trusted.

I want to dive a bit deeper into our relationships – what are the kinds and types of relationships we have and how do we relate to each other through them. This is where I came across Alan Fiske, a professor of Anthropology at UCLA, who studies human social behavior. During a conversation I had with him I came to appreciate his attention to language ("Community is an english word") but also his deep insights on relationships not just with people but all beings. Over the course of the last 20 years he's identified and studied 4 powerful models of organizing our relations:

  • Sharing (Communal Sharing): we treat each other as equals with great leniency towards equality, its a generous, giving and forgiving of being together. We take what we need and we give what we have without keeping exact count.
  • Matching (Equality Matching): a tit for tat kind of relationship where our social exchange is replicated more accurately. Its transactional but with a degree of flexibility and slack. I help you but I also expect you to help me in return in equal parts.
  • Ranking (Authority Ranking): A hierarchy determines our conduct. Theres a clear line of command and control. I follow the instructions of the person in charge of an effort or project.
  • Transacting (Market Pricing): We relate to each other through transactions, that are not necessary equal but a fair and exact exchange. I give you money and you give me apples in exchange.

Fiske explain that these models can operate simultaneously and within each other: “People often use different models for different aspects of their interaction with the same person. For example, roommates may divide the rent evenly and take turns cooking dinner for each other (both EM), buy ingredients for the meal at the store (MP), share their food and drink at the table without regard to who consumes what and share living and bath rooms (CS), pay for long-distance calls according to the costs they each incur (MP), and one may sell her used car to the other. On the softball field one is a coach, the other player (AR); yet in their sexual relations they like to reverse these roles of domination and submission.”

I also appreciate Fiske’s qualitative understanding of this idea. Rather than thinking about right or wrong, good or bad, natural and unnatural behavior, Fisk instead gives all of the models a valid purpose: "Calculative, competitive models of "success" and "achievement" are no more natural and no more fundamental than cultural models of altruistic caring; all are socially defined and validated."

In addition to Fisk's 4 models I also see 4 additional modes of relating. Fisk's models are more along the lines of how we relate to each other versus the 4 modes show the level of trust within our relationships. They define our relationships in terms of how we see equality, power, goals and rewards.

  • Collaborating: We relate to each other as equals, sharing power and a shared goal
  • Cooperating: We don't relate to as equals with distinct realism of power but a shared goal
  • Commanding: We don't relate to each other as unequals, one having more or less power over the other depending on our status, we might or might not have shared goals
  • Competing: We relate to each other as adversaries, with a shared or similar goal but don’t want to share its outcomes.

How does all this relate to communities? At the very least its good to be aware how how your members relate to each other outside and even inside the community. Is this a company community, what are the hierarchies that might influence peoples behaviors? Is it a community of people in the same profession and will they feel like they are competitors and therefore show up with their best self rather than their whole self? On the other hand, if its a community of similar scientists who are collaborating towards a similar goal, think Greenpeace, the willingness to share or match could be very different.

This piece was inspired by a conversation with Fedor Skuratov, who runs and was part of ComPot Russia's first community conference and Evgeny Reznitsky who is part of Nau Lab. Alan Fiske's in depth article can be found on his website.