Nick Haslam and Charles Cleland (1995) Core Configurations, Repeated Assemblies,. Psycoloquy: 6(41) Group Selection (5)

Volume: 6 (next, prev) Issue: 41 (next, prev) Article: 5 (next prev first) Alternate versions: ASCII Summary
PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 6(41): Core Configurations, Repeated Assemblies,

Commentary on Caporael on Group-Selection

Nick Haslam and Charles Cleland
Department of Psychology
New School for Social Research
65 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10003,


Caporael's (1995) account of human sociality bears a strong affinity to Fiske's (1991, 1992) theory of the elementary forms of social relations. Convergences are noted, and divergences are examined for complementarities of substance and emphasis.


developmental systems theory, group coordination, group selection, hierarchy, human evolution, social cognition, social identity, teleofunctionalism
1. Many of the theoretical commitments embodied in Caporael's (1995) bold account of human sociality are very agreeable to culturally-minded social psychologists. Many of us share her distaste for analyses of social behavior that assume self-interested manipulativeness. Many of us lament the separation of biological and cultural analyses of social phenomena, the rigidity of adaptationist argument, and the facile invocation of specific genes for specific traits. Many of us agree that group living poses significant challenges for the evolution of human capabilities. Beyond these commitments, Caporael offers some novel substantive claims about the basic forms of human sociality, organized around the concepts of "repeated assemblies" and "core configurations."

2. Caporael's substantive claims and theoretical preferences have intriguing resonances with Alan Fiske's (1991, 1992) relational models theory. Like her, he gives social living pride of place in human cognition and action, seeks corroboration in the ethnographic record, favors a cautious universalism, and rails against individualist assumptions (Fiske, 1993). He too proposes four elementary forms of social relations that are distinctively and flexibly implemented across cultures, historical periods, and interactional domains. Like the core configurations, Fiske's "relational models" are hierarchically ordered and sequentially developing, and can be extended and combined into novel forms that reach beyond their prototypical domains of operation.

3. Fiske's models are Communal Sharing (CS), Authority Ranking (AR), Equality Matching (EM) and Market Pricing (MP). In CS relations individual distinctiveness is deemphasized, identity is encoded in inclusion/exclusion fashion, bonds are commonly expressed in embodied, sensorimotor ways, and entitlements are figured in terms of need. AR relations are based on transitive hierarchies, governed by rules of dominance and priority. EM relations realize balanced, egalitarian exchange through strict reciprocity, turn-taking, tit-for-tat retaliation, synchronous activity, and democratic voting. MP relations, finally, are organized in terms of a common ratio metric such as money, with equity the guiding principle: people seek a reasonable rate of return on effort, time or investment. The models reflect distinct grammars for social cognition, corresponding to increasing levels of formal and cognitive complexity as indexed by the four measurement scales. CS relations reflect categorical, nominal distinctions, AR embodies ordinal distinctions, EM demands additive interval figuring, and MP relations depend on ratio computations. The models emerge ontogenetically in the same sequence, and successive models incorporate earlier ones. The formal parallels with Caporael's scheme are striking.

4. Less striking, perhaps, is the association between Fiske's tetrad and Caporael's. It is present, with some slippage, nonetheless. Caporael's dyadic configuration, realized prototypically in sexual and parent-child relations, is unquestionably communal in Fiske's sense; embodied, inclusive and altruistic. At the other end of the group size spectrum, Caporael's macrodemes, seasonal coordinations of large bands, are privileged domains for market-like trade and exchange (cf. Haslam, 1995). Intermediate-level groups correspond more loosely to Fiske's models. Small family and work groups are plausibly considered in AR terms, with seniority or gender-based orderings dictating role requirements, whereas deme-level relations are commonly, especially in hunter gatherer groups, organized in egalitarian terms. These last two linkages are obscured by the significant communal component in both family and deme groups, and the egalitarian component of many work groups. Even so, Caporael's ordering, based on group size, substantially matches Fiske's ordering, based on cognitive and formal complexity.

5. In the face of these correspondences, where do the two accounts differ, and how might they complement one another? For one thing, Caporael supplies an evolutionary account, attached to a theory of modal tasks and proper functions, that is presently lacking in Fiske's theory. A functional interpretation of the relational models would be very desirable, and Caporael's taxonomy offers candidate tasks and functions whose aptness to Fiske's theory remains to be assessed. Is there a compelling evolutionary reason why, for instance, foraging and hunting are more effectively organized hierarchically, or why social identity should be best founded on egalitarian relations within a band?

6. A second difference is in Caporael and Fiske's approach to variant realizations of their respective core forms. Caporael prefers to see variation as a reasonably direct function of the situatedness of repeated assemblies, so that each assembly is responsive to contextual detail. Fiske takes a more Chomskyan approach, understanding variations as rule-governed implementations or parameter-settings of underlying universals. For instance, differences in how egalitarian social arrangements are organized within a culture--whether by turn-taking or synchronous activity, and what counts as an appropriate interval for reciprocation--are matters of explicit or implicit normative choices. These choices may indeed be responsive to social context, but the responsiveness of implementations to variable situations is not built into Fiske's theory. Caporael's theory takes the core configurations as emergent regularities, whose variations are not intrinsically structured. The core configurations appear to be inductive patterns, or even statistical distributions of actual assemblies, rather than discrete structures with normatively governed expressions.

7. This distinction seems to flow from Caporael's greater concern for situatedness and Fiske's greater concern for cognitive specification. Caporael argues that evolutionary accounts of sociality should be "simultaneously social-organizational and cognitive," but leans towards the former in her own presentation. Although she expects "mental systems to correlate with core configurations," she does not specify these systems in any detail. Where cognition is mentioned, it is chiefly in the form of reflective self-definitions, or collective identities, rather than in terms of underlying schemas or processes. Although Caporael finds the grammar metaphor appealing in describing the social-cognitive apparatus, she is at the same time skeptical of modular and deep structure-invoking theories, most likely because they challenge her rather Gibsonian position. A more cognitively specific and somewhat innatist theory, such as Fiske's, might seem to foreclose the conceptual bridge-building that the repeated assembly perspective represents. However, the absence of a developed theory of cognitive structure weakens Caporael's account.

8. First, without such a theory it is not clear in what respect the core configurations are mentally represented. If people have conceptual structure corresponding to them, is it simply an inductive understanding of recurring social patterns, perhaps mediated by folk concepts, and does it guide or simply reflect social conduct? Fiske's theory argues that the relational models are discrete representational frames that are part of each person's implicit conceptual structure, and their very abstractness enables and guides social coordination. There is now substantial evidence that people have implicit representations of the relational models that 1) are discrete and combinable (Haslam, 1994a,b), 2) organize a variety of social-cognitive tasks with or without reflective awareness (e.g., Fiske, Haslam & Fiske, 1991), and 3) are not reducible to colloquial folk categories (e.g., Fiske et al, 1991; Haslam, 1994a). The core configurations might benefit from further cognitive specification, perhaps in partly Fiskean terms.

9. A second difficulty with Caporael's relative neglect of cognitive specification is that it leaves undeveloped her account of the hierarchical ordering of the core configurations, and their capacity to extend to non-modal tasks and functions. First, it is not clear that group size is sufficient to support an ordered hierarchy. Although it is intuitively plausible that the developing child expands its sphere of sociality in a linear fashion, it is not obvious, for instance, that it is involved in extended networks only after it is a functional participant in small task-oriented groups. Similarly, it is not clear from Caporael's presentation how higher functions necessarily incorporate, but are not incorporated by, lower functions. Formal and cognitive complexity, supported by a measurement scale axiomatization, seem to us more solid grounds for establishing an unambiguously nested hierarchy. Second, to the degree that Caporael's functions are tied to specific social tasks, the manner in which they extend to novel tasks without having an abstract, task-independent structure is unclear. By contrast, the relational models' abstractness, discreteness and lack of direct ties to specific tasks and functions makes it easier to theorize their capacity to generate novel social arrangements. This capacity is supported by ethnographic evidence for the extension of the models to relations with animals and deities, as well as to many more directly social domains (Fiske, 1991), and by social psychological evidence that they commonly combine in social relationships (Haslam, 1994a).

10. These reservations aside, Caporael's theory of sociality is bold, theoretically sophisticated, and a welcome spur to further work. Relational models theory may offer reciprocal benefits.


Caporael, L. R. (1995) Sociality: Coordinating Bodies, Minds and Groups. PSYCOLOQUY 6(1) group-selection.1.caporael.

Fiske, A. P. (1991) Structures of social life: The four elementary forms of human relations. Free Press.

Fiske, A. P. (1992) The four elementary forms of sociality: Framework for a unified theory of social relations. Psychological Review 99: 689-723.

Fiske, A. P. (1993) The cultural relativity of selfish individualism. Review of Personality and Social Psychology 12: 176-214.

Fiske, A. P., Haslam, N. & Fiske, S. T. (1991) Confusing one person with another: What errors reveal about the elementary forms of social relations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 60: 656-674.

Haslam, N. (1994a) Categories of social relationship. Cognition 53: 59-90.

Haslam, N. (1994b) Mental representation of social relationships: Dimensions, laws or categories? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67: 575-584.

Haslam, N. (1995) Four grammars for primate social relations. In Simpson, J. & Kenrick, D. (Eds.), Evolutionary social psychology, Lawrence Erlbaum, in press.

Volume: 6 (next, prev) Issue: 41 (next, prev) Article: 5 (next prev first) Alternate versions: ASCII Summary