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Structures of Social Life

The Four Elementary Forms of Human Relations
Alan Page Fiske
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Synopsis

Drawing on 150 years of work in the social and behavioral sciences, from that of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber to that of contemporary psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and moral philosophers, Alan Fiske develops an encompassing but elegantly simple new theory of the psychological bases of social life.

Human activities as diverse as performing religious rituals, threshing the harvest, arranging a marriage, and deciding how to fight a fire are, he says, structured in accordance with four fundamental models: communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing. In every domain of social life in all cultures, people use different permutations and combinations of these models to shape their sense of self and to structure norms and motives, relationships with others, and social roles, groups, and institutions. He argues that just as children are biologically programmed to learn language, so they are prepared to recognize and be guided by the models, which enable them to anticipate and interpret the behavior of others, coordinate social action, and make moral judgments.

Much of Western social and economic thought has presupposed just one model, rational self-interest—what Fiske refers to as market pricing. Offering a detailed and rich ethnographic analysis of a West African Society, the Moose of Burkina Faso, Fiske convincingly demonstrates the explanatory limitations of the market pricing model. People are naturally sociable and often prefer to share, to defer to authority, or to balance things strictly equally rather than to maximize self-interest. In many societies, people rarely relate to one another through the medium of prices and markets.

Integrating ethnographic, comparative, and experimental research with classical social theory, and illustrating his argument throughout with vivid everyday examples, Fiske constructs a unified framework for the study of social behavior in all disciplines.
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