Fiske's Relational Models
communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, market pricing
Anthropologist Alan Fiske claimed that there are four ways that humans deal with resources. I think of the resources as physical resources, but you might think of them as intangibles, such as status. The four models are communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing.
Around the family dinner table, we typically use communal sharing. People take what they want. Everyone is treated identically. No one has an advantage.
With authority ranking, we defer to people in a hierarchy. In a bank, a teller might report to a manager, who reports to a director, who reports to a Vice-President, who reports to the Chief Operating Officer, who reports to the CEO.
In equality matching, the focus is on each person getting an equal share. Drivers taking turns going through a four-way stop is an example of equality matching. A ceremonial gift exchange might be based on an ideal of equality matching.
Market pricing is used for impersonal exchange. It involves calculation of costs and benefits.
In large social units, above the Dunbar number, communal sharing and equality matching are very difficult to sustain. We are more likely to observe authority ranking or market pricing.
Communal sharing breaks down in large social units because of the free-rider problem, in which individuals realize that they do not have to work in order to obtain goods. In a small group, mutual observation is sufficient to identify and punish free riding, but in a large group this mechanism fails. As a result, goods are under-produced.
Equality matching in large social units would lead to inefficient production, because it eliminates specialization. In a summer camp for 10-year-olds, campers can take turns doing chores to clean the bunk. In a large society, having a brain surgeon and a janitor take turns doing each other’s “chores” would be absurd.
Smaller social units are held together by intimacy and personal relationships. In that context, deviations from communal sharing or equality matching are likely to stoke resentment.
In fact, even in large social units where market pricing or authority ranking is used, resentment often arises. People complain about inequality in access to goods and services. They generally dislike being subject to authority based on power. Political movements arise that articulate the resentments that people feel. Possibly, these movements achieve genuine reforms that benefit the lower classes. But it is at least as likely that such a movement will merely change the composition of a powerful coalition and some of its tactics, without fundamentally aiding those that the the movement purports to help.
To some extent, people understand that market pricing and authority ranking are better than the alternatives in large social units. I would speculate that the better they understand this, the more likely it is that political reform movements will lead to constructive change and the less likely that political reform movements will merely result in power being abused by demagogues.
This essay is part of a series on human interdependence.
There is another way, which is that you have a set of rules for how you divvy up the resources and people comply with this. You don't need much of a hierarchy for this -- very flat organisations can work very well. Sooner or later you will need some rules for what to do when somebody breaks the rules. You don't want simple misunderstandings and 'due to factors beyond my control' to get the same treatment as those breaks caused by willful misconduct and culpable negligence. But 'who gets to put whom in jail' is not based on your authority in the hierarchy. If 'the people who run this organisation get away with murder' you have a problem. Or you are the Mafia ....
A great many political movements are only about the status of the people in the movement. They are fueled by envy and grievance in the movement more than resentment at the bottom. One reason they do not deliver constructive change is because they are focused on giving the people they are supposedly doing this for what they think that these people ought to want, instead of what they actually do want. A lot of times, what the people do want is 'not to have a large hierarchy of busy-bodies lording it over us and claiming that this is _necessary_ rather than a choice that benefits the busy-bodies'.
If you build a hierarchy that concentrates power in the hierarchy, it will be abused by those at the top unless you have really serious mechanisms to prevent that. Our track record for designing such mechanisms is not good. It is not a problem that is dependent on demagogues -- it is just that they are more likely to want to abuse power in the ways that people who use the term 'demagogue' particularly do not like.
Re: "With authority ranking, we defer to people in a hierarchy."
The authority -- for example, an executive, a board, or a judge -- usually must outwardly conform to public criteria or procedures. If criteria and procedures are complex, and weights subjective, the resultant allocation might appear opaque, idiosyncratic, mysterious, or murky.
An adoption agency and a family-court judge must allocate parental rights according to "the best interest of the child."
A university admissions officer must score and rank applicants according to various criteria and institutional pressures.
A regional board for allocation of kidneys for transplantation must adhere to a complex points system (algorithm), balancing urgency of medical need, quality of match, queue time, and social equity.
The government might use a lottery for military conscription. The eligible pool would be constituted by public criteria (age, health, family status, education or employment status).
A lottery might also be used for admission to magnet schools.
"First come, first serve" and queues are often used as allocative mechanisms.
My point is that "authority ranking" masks a thicket (and a tangle) of criteria and procedures, which reckon with (a) public intuitions about distributive justice and (b) practical realities; for example, resource constraints, trade-offs, efficiency concerns, implicit incentives, and bargaining power.
A question arises: To what extent are authority rankings gamed? I imagine that it's hard to game the kidney points system, but easy to game selective university admissions. Why so? I surmise that kidney allocation is extremely consequential for candidates, whereas university admissions are overblown insofar as talented students have options.