Social relationships are exchanges and not sentiments

I realized recently that something very different happens to me when I say or read ‘social relationship’ than happens to others.  This is not mysterious, as I have a long, long history with the different uses of that term and with all sorts of people (psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, demographers, etc.) training me to respond in their way.

The upshot is that when I write the term ‘social relationship’ it clearly does not have the same effects with others that it has with me—especially psychologists.  Let me expand.

The main difference I think is that we need to always use the term social relationship as an exchange between people rather than as a ‘sentiment’.  Social relationships as exchanges does not exclude sentiments—love, liking, affection, attachment—but expands our understanding in many useful ways.  This is the biggest difference I think between how the term is used in both common discourse and psychology and how it is used in both sociology and social anthropology (see my diagrams below).  And I think exchanges is a much better usage.

So when you hear or read ‘social relationship’ (from now on), the idea is that people are joined or connected by exchanging things or actions, and usually not tangible things.  This involves events and actions in the external world but what is exchanged and with whom defines our different sorts of relationships.

Examples of different social relationships (exchanges). (1) buying from a shop where we exchange money for goods; this is a stranger or contractual relationship because we do not know the person and might not ever deal with them again.  But we have exchanged. People even talk about their relationship with the shop when there are nameless shop assistants!  This might seem a flimsy ‘social relationship’ but probably 90% of our social relationships are now like this in modern life. [Note that ‘we do not know the person’ means ‘we have no other exchanges with them’]

(2) The exchanges with good friends typically consist of exchanging many thing and events (especially discourses) and the reciprocation is by the same sorts of thing and events back to your friends (unlike stranger relationships).   (3) Exchanges with family are similar but include many long-term exchanges with longer delays on reciprocity made possible.  (4) Exchanges within kin-based communities have strong obligations to everyone in the community but you also get a lot back in return (reciprocity).

What is the problem?

The biggest trouble people have is from using the following common model which is typical of both everyday life thinking and psychology:

Interact with person –> like them –> form social relationship

This is better:

Any exchange with person –> social relationship of some sorts

Different exchanges –> different social relationships

Repeated exchanges with same person –> liking and sentiments are possible

So, with this we can move from being strangers to repeated strangers to acquaintances and then to become friends, in the western world that is. In kin-based communities this all works differently but is still based on reciprocities of exchange within the large family groups. For example, most people you will know from childhood and there will be fewer strangers you need to exchange with.

Moral of the story…

What I think is most important about rethinking social relationships in this way is that the ‘drivers’ of human behaviour are now external (not driven by internal sentiments) and we get a glimpse of how societal patterns enter into the direct control of human behaviour, talk and thinking.  [There is another rethinking for another day about how sentiments are actually ‘driven’ by these external exchanges and not some ‘inner’ desires.  The ‘id’ is ‘out there’ and not ‘in here’.]

This is something you learn from social anthropology best, because by looking at kin-based (and usually isolated) communities you can see how social relationships are worked in hugely different ways and how this derives from the different patterns of exchanging with people for the things we need in life (including sentiment).  You then can apply this to us in the western world where we have 90% of our exchanges (social relationships) with strangers—some we see again, others never.  We have very different social properties from these different forms of social relationships which pattern all our behaviour, talking and thinking.

My other argument has been that it is more difficult to observe these stranger exchanges (in western society) as ‘driving’ our behaviour, talk and thinking, than to observe the family exchanges in kin-based communities.  This has resulted in western thinking  placing the ‘drivers’ inside our heads where we cannot see and check them.  Psychological models and theories have always gone unchecked.

Finally, this feeds into another bigger theme through all my research and writing: how does the ‘societal’ determine individual behaviour (1st hint: there is no such thing even as ‘individual behaviour’).  Second hint: a lot works through: (1) common or community discourses; (2) through restricting and facilitating opportunities for exchanges rather than directly (but unequally as we know); and (3) because in modern society these ‘societal drivers’ are hidden from our observation and we are provided with many passive ways to treat them as arising internally from within ourselves (as it were), even though this tends to blame us for bad behaviours.  Mental health is a good example of all of these.

All these make much more sense when you react to ‘social relationships’ as different ways to exchange of resources between people.


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