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31.5.05

Social Theory Of Cookies

I just noticed a bit of anecdotal confirmation of a bit of Alan Fiske's work on relational models in my own life -- specifically, in my handling of cookies.

Fiske's theory is that there are four basic models of social interaction. Different societies mix and match them differently, implementing them in different domains with different parameters, but the underlying structures, motives, and ethical principles are the same. The four models are:
  • Communal Sharing: All members of an "in" group are considered equivalent -- so much so that the lines between individual selves are blurred. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is the guiding maxim.

  • Authority Ranking: People are ordinally ranked, with those higer up able to command obedience and to offer noblesse oblige on their own terms. Those lower down gratefully accept their superiors' paternalism.

  • Equality Matching: Balanced reciprocity rules, with qualitatively equal goods or services exchanged. Everyone gets an equal share regardless of need, want, or power. Equal division of a pool, "one man, one vote" systems, or turn-taking are all examples.

  • Market Pricing: Exchange ratios (often recorded in a universal medium such as money) allow trading off of qualitatively different goods or services, and bargaining for the best deal is pursued.


Classical economics teaches that Market Pricing should be preferred in situations involving the distribution of the most valuable and scarce items. The efficiency of the market mechanism is most needed for items most crucial to life -- a more lax system would lead to a Tragedy (of the Commons or otherwise)*. Yet Fiske finds among the Moose people of Burkina Faso that just the opposite is true. They adhere to the Communal Sharing model for exactly those items that are most scarce and valuable for them -- land, water, and food.

This was the finding that my cookies replicated. I often have a package of fairly typical store-bought cookies, such as Oreos, around the house. I keep them on the shelf, which signals to my housemates that they belong to me by virtue of having been bought at the store with my money. Should they take one, I wouldn't go so far as to Market Price it, but there would be a (vaguely specified) expectation that they would Equality Match it, either by giving me food at some future date or by going to the store and buying me more Oreos.

On the other hand, I recently picked up my order of Girl Scout Cookies from my sister. Girl Scout cookies are both tastier and rarer than Oreos. By the economic rationale, if my housemates were to eat some I should either expect replacement in kind (a difficult task, since Girl Scout cookie season is over) or some other bargained-for (Market Priced) compensation. Yet in fact my impulse was to Communally Share them. I put them on the table, intending to extend an open offer to my housemates to eat some. (I would demand Market Pricing if one of them wanted to claim an entire box for themself, though. That would be a case of self-negation of Communal Sharing -- using the cookie access granted by Communal Sharing in order to cut a Sharer out of the loop.)

For Fiske, this parallel would be just a coincidence. He denies (at least in the early work of his that I've read) the existence of any master-rule guiding the choice of model in any particular situation -- his point was to undercut economics' assertion of the primacy of Market Pricing, not to erect an alternative rule of the primacy of Communal Sharing. And certainly other models are used to structure use of the most valuable resources in other contexts. But I can't help wondering if there isn't a good explanation for why valuable and scarce resources would be attractive candidates for Communal Sharing.

*Certainly there is some truth to this at the opposite extreme, as Market Pricing is nonfunctional where there is no scarcity.

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