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On Hierarchy in Polyamory as Explained by Grid-Group Cultural Theory

A standard debate in polyamorous communities has to do with the issue of hierarchy in relationships. Many writers on nonmonogamy assert that relationship hierarchies, in which one partner is considered more important or given some form of priority over others, are wrong or harmful. Explicit defenses of hierarchy are less common, but many people clearly continue to practice hierarchical relationships and would defend their own individual arrangements if confronted with anti-hierarchy arguments.

It occurs to me that we might get some insight into the hierarchy debate by turning to Grid-Group Cultural Theory (GGCT), a theory of social organization developed by anthropologist Mary Douglas and her followers. Douglas proposed that social organizations can be categorized based on where they fall on two key variables: grid and group. "Grid" refers to the existence of a system of rules that defines the place and role of each person. "Group" refers to the tendency to elevate the interests and decisions of the collective above those of the individual. If we think of organizations as being either high or low on each of those dimensions, we get a four-fold typology (See here for various diagrams, including the one at right). Each of these four types can be expected to have its own characteristic organizational dynamics, supporting worldview, attitude toward the non-human world, and flaws or pitfalls.

A polycule -- a group of people connected by non-monogamous relationships -- can be analyzed as a social organization in GGCT terms. Looked at in this way, it seems to me that there's a good match between "hierarchy" as discussed by polyamorous people, and Douglas's concept of "grid." Polyamorous hierarchies involve the establishment of a set of rules that create differentiated roles for people within the polycule.

The hierarchy debate in polyamory thus focuses on one dimension of GGCT. But GGCT is a two-dimensional theory, and the other dimension of "group" hangs over these debates, though often without being recognized. Group describes how much the members of the polycule feel that they are part of an entity that is greater than themselves, operating as a collective rather than as individuals. (Note that group is *not* about how "committed" or "deeply in love" or whatever the people involved are. It's about how oriented they are toward the group as an entity, how much they think and act in terms of "us" rather than "you and me.")

Consider what it means to have a non-hierarchical -- i.e. low grid -- relationship. There are two basic poles that people seem to be drawn to in order to prevent the emergence of a hierarchy. One pole is a polycule in which all members are equally deeply invested in being a household. In some ways this is much like a standard monogamous relationship, but with more people. Everyone involved is very deeply invested in each other's lives, with lots of shared assets (such as shared living spaces, shared finances, co-parenting, and customized legal arrangements). Everyone involved has some close relationship with each other person (even if not romantic/sexual). Adding a new partner is a rare occurrence and requires lots of work to get the new person up to speed so that they can be equal to the existing members, while leaving the polycule tends to involve painful schisms. The group itself often has a strong identity, perhaps with its own name (something like "the Maple Street House" or "the McSmithingsteins"). We can, with some license, call this the "polyfidelity" model. And it's a textbook high-group, low-grid organization in GGCT terms -- usually labeled an "Egalitarian" organization. You have close integration of members, a focus on the good of the collectivity, and a sharp insider-outsider divide that allows the insiders to be equal (because you can't have everyone be substantively equal unless you know exactly who are included in "everyone"). There may be informal divisions of labor, but there are no formal distinctions of role.

But polyfidelity is not the only model of a low-grid polycule. Another alternative (and the corner from which some of the strongest anti-herarchy rhetoric comes) is what we can loosely label "relationship anarchy." In its purest form, this mode of social organization consists of a loose, open-ended network of relationships that each persist only so long as both parties care to maintain it. It becomes unrealistic to draw any line around the polycule -- does that person you hooked up with three months ago and are Facebook friends with count, since you never officially said it wouldn't happen again even though you have no specific plans to see them in the immediate future? While individuals may be very emotionally invested in each other, there is a resistance to practical commitments such as legal marriage or cohabitation that would inhibit fluid changes to the nature of a relationship. Each person is fundamentally expected to be responsible for their own life and feelings. Here we have a nice illustration of a low-grid, low-group way of life, as outlined by GGCT. This type of organization is labeled Individualism. (And a nice one for any enterprising Douglasian scholar to examine, as descriptions of Individualism in the literature tend to fixate on free markets.)

So in summary so far: If you wish to avoid hierarchy (i.e. grid) in your polyamourous relationships, there are two basic models, either high-group polyfidelity or low-group relationship anarchy. But what about high-grid relationships? Well, here we have both high and low group options too. And I think a failure to distinguish them contributes to the intractability of the hierarchy debate.

Consider first a high-grid, high-group polycule. Because it's high grid, we would see a clear and well-established differentiation of roles, perhaps dividing "primary" partners who live together and share finances, from "secondary" partners seen for less-frequent date nights, and perhaps also "tertiary" friends-with-benefits. And because it's high-group, there is a shared investment in the success of the polycule as a whole. There is a concern for order, clarity, and the management of expectations. "Secondary" and "tertiary" partners respect the authority and greater claims of those above them in the hierarchy. They may not wish a higher position for themselves, or they may get that balance from being "primary" in their own overlapping polycule. (The orderliness of this form of organization alows the differentiation of spheres in which a person can be primary to one partner but secondary to another -- something that would be difficult to arrange in either low grid model.) I think this model is very common in practice, and is what is usually envisioned by defenders of hierarchy. I'll call it "standard polyamory," since it's so common (especially for people who begin to explore nonmonogamy from within an already-established monogamous relationship). Confusingly for our purposes, Douglas and other GGCT scholars call this form of organization -- which is high grid *and high group* -- "Hierarchy."

I wouldn't expect a relationship anarchist to be particularly enamored of standard polyamory. But I also think that most of the harshest denunciations of hierarchy in polyamory are actually envisioning the fourth type of social organization -- one that is high grid and *low* group. GGCT scholars almost universally consider this form of social organization to be dysfunctional and undesirable. Here we see rules made to confine people to specific positions in the polycule -- but with those people not being invested in the legitimacy of the overall system. The rules come across as arbitrary, reinforcing the isolation of their targets and their own lack of control over their circumstances. The people who are most constrained by these rules are, obviously, the ones who suffer most from such an arrangement. The plight of the "unicorn" -- a woman brought in to serve the needs of an existing m-f couple, subject to various restrictions such as not dating others, only sleeping with the other two together, etc -- is iconic here. But even the rule-makers can suffer from a low-group high-grid situation, as they find themselves in the role of suspicious enforcer rather than honest partner. GGCT scholars label this form of life "Fatalism," which evokes the type of mentality that is cultivated by being in such a situation. A fatalist must renounce the ambition to exert control over their own situation, and instead learn to roll with the vagaries of good and bad that come their way.

An important point made by most GGCT scholars is that in an extreme form, each of these four modes of life is liable to become dysfunctional. Inidvidualism becomes callous toward those who lose out in competition, Hierarchy (in the GGCT sense) becomes rigid and insensitive to new information, and Egalitarianism is prone to witch-hunts and schisms. A functional social organization must be able to draw on all four ways of life to at least some degree, even if based clearly in one quadrant. (Yes, even Fatalism -- because the experience of being subject to larger uncontrollable forces is inevitable at some point, and because some randomness in outcomes can keep other modes of organization from calcifying.)


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