If any one of us fully acted out our innate biological instincts, we'd rob, murder, or rape most anyone in our path. Why don't we? Have we reasoned our way to an agreed-upon self-regulative ethic? Are we just afraid of the law? Mostly not.
Rather, like a raging two-year-old without creed or reason, we reshape our instinctual desires to fit whatever social order we're born into. We absorb our groups' desires mimetically, and to the degree, we don't, we're labeled a "misfit" or "sociopath" and socially punished accordingly.
What is this invisible order that regulates how we relate to everyone?
Relational order is the invisible, emotional patterns that govern all our relationships.
Over millennia, we develop tacit ways of relating to others in families, commerce, and communities. Certain behaviors induce feelings of shame or acclaim, outrage or awe, love or hate in any given group.
Behavior A = B emotional response.
As we mimic these patterns together, the strongest ones survive the relational chaos and encode as social norms & power structures.
As emerging relational order lends more stability within it than outside of it, our groups expand.
Relational patterns that enable procreation are the genesis for all order because they make group survival possible. Our most primitive ancestors enforced norms that protected the tribe's children well before the conception of coded law or individual rights. (Many of these norms were barbaric from our modern perspective. But if they hadn't held them, we wouldn't be reading this.)
As foundational relational order strengthens, new patterns become possible to support more people and social practices. Modern societies don't just do a better job of protecting children physically; they also shame those who emotionally abuse children even while the law allows it. Millennials venerate Mr. Rogers as a modern-day saint partially to bring about a kinder, more sophisticated relational order to future children.
(Here, it's important to note that conceptual order – beliefs, knowledge, technology, etc. - are the essential stabilizing and nourishing roots of relational order. Mr. Roger's influence is inseparable from his rooted faith in love over fear and imaginative use of a new technology called television.)
The more robust our relational order becomes, the more previously unthinkable relationships and kinds of people it can harbor.
Yet, as order grows more sophisticated, the essential aspects of traditional patterns don't matter less. They matter more. If they weaken and break, the whole house of cards built on top of them will collapse:
Without stable families, we can't reach or maintain stable communities.
Without stable communities, we can't reach or maintain stable countries.
A company, school, or friend group is only as stable as it's foundational social order.
Conceptual order – science, economy, technology - can't save culture.
How many wealth or fame-seekers choke with regret on their deathbed for exchanging superficial status for lasting, loving relationships?
How many employees will continue to work for a demeaning, unreliable, and uncaring boss regardless of how well-paid they are?
How long will a homeless person or celebrity go on living without a single loving, human relationship?
"Tell me that you want the kind of things
That money just can't buy
I don't care too much for money
Money can't buy me love.
– The Beatles
"What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love."
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov.
No amount of conceptual prowess – wealth, technology, or science – can prop up a loveless relational order for long.
All groups necessarily have a relational order.
When we think of "hierarchy" or "social norms," our minds go to the large, traditional structures we love to hate.
But it's important to recognize that every group necessarily has a relational order, from an old country club to the TikTok subculture.
The older the social order, the more cycles of relational chaos it's survived. Its relational patterns live on because they're highly resistant to change. So it's challenging to transform an old relational pattern, whether we're considering our love life or a country.
On the other hand, new companies, counter-cultures, and newly unshackled teenagers adapt quickly. As norms and power structures mimetically spread, weaker patterns get swept aside. The patterns that survive the initial, rapid cycle of relational chaos become foundational.
The relational order of our map preserves our present social stability by repeating the past.
Whether we're mapping the culture of the postal service or a revolutionary movement, the relational order's job is to anchor the relationships within it. When anchors do their job, they stay put. Our traditional social norms and structures tend to stay put as well.
Herein lies a fundamental paradox of social progress: healthy relational order enables exploration of more progressive relational patterns by setting a high bar for accepting any change at all.
Want to change the pay scale? It won't be easy.
Looking to change norms around marriage even a little? A few generations are going to have to fight for it.
Want to overturn the whole power structure at once? Only a violent revolution destroys the prevailing social order so quickly.
The old order's slow reluctance to accept new norms is every new generations' curse and, at the same, what keeps it from spiraling into chaos.
An established social order's resistance to change is a feature, not a bug.
That said, a healthy group's social order is stable, not static. Refusal to adapt leads to the tyranny of order in decline.
Relational order maintains itself through power structures and social norms.
Relational power structures help each member to relate to others within it safely. Within a power structure, we instinctively feel whether to take a submissive or dominant stance and to what degree.
All groups have an explicit or implicit social power structure. Power may be distributed based on lineage, competence, privilege, or lack of privilege. But without a power structure, a group will fall into chaotic dysfunction and cease to be a group.
In academia, social status is marked by rank and tenure, while celebrity culture ranks itself using attractiveness and charisma.
Social norms reinforce how people relate to each other in the power structure. A few examples:
- In many cultures, the mother or grandmother can enforce their gang boss child's participation in family traditions, whether it's church attendance or a holiday dinner.
- Parents, teachers, and peers signal disapproval of a child's anti-social behavior often with just a look.
- A Twitter mob socially punishes a norm-breaker by "canceling" them.
- Fans will taunt & shame the other team's fans in one moment, then shift into to star-struck obsequiousness as a star player enters.
These kinds of dominance and submission displays are usually unconscious. We act them out from our emotions, not rational calculation. If we learn to look for them, we'll see them everywhere.
Relational order relies on clear social signals to show position within the power structure.
Instant awareness of how to relate to others in a power structure is so vital that all groups develop signals that mark group identity and status.
In the emerging or chaotic relational areas of our map, social signal patterns are varied and vague. But within the relational order, they're unambiguous:
- The best fashion choices are the most expensive flavor of the established group fashion: a more excellent suit, top brand shoe, or expensive car.
- Critical relational order enforcers like the military or police more explicitly uniform and badge-up to show how much power they hold (if they don't, things get bad for everyone.)
- The academic's full plumage gets put on full display via lengthy speaker introductions that enumerate every single degree, award, notable publication, or speech they've managed to date.
- We display our group affinity and status on social media with titles ("Cofounder of ____"), pronouns ("she, her, hers"), follower counts, and more.
The closer any group is to the relational order, the more it rewards convincing displays of stability and authority and is wary of unconventional, risky relationships.
We participate in the relational order as players or enforcers.
We all participate in the relational order of our world. Some of us have a strong affinity for it while others, the more relationally chaotic, participate reluctantly.
We participate as "players" when we readily engage with the signals (fashion, public achievement) and norms (a "nice person") to gain status as a leader or follower.
We participate as "enforcers" when we socially punish players who violate the power structure or norms. Enforcers use subtle and not-so-subtle shaming techniques to police acceptable group speech and behavior, gain participation in social rituals, and maintain the power structure (Watch any war movie or "Mean Girls" to see social enforcers in action.)
Our world's relational order is the water we swim in, but most people live their whole lives and never see it. We won't see it either unless we take put in the effort it takes to map it.
The more precisely we map the relational orders we're part of, the better we'll play within it. More importantly, we'll gain a deeper understand and appreciation for those groups of humans that are so different from our group of humans.
These diagnostic prompts can help you trace the relational order of your map:
1) As a first step, pick a social group to map: Perhaps your company, twitter following, friend group, church, or school. Got it?
2) Its often easier to map relational norms first and then to outline the power structure. With your group in mind, consider the following:
- What phrases, words, or ideas are frowned on? What ideas or phrases are repeated by almost all members?
- What public behaviors bring shame? What public behaviors gain recognition?
- What do people wear to show they're in the group? What products or symbols do they display on social media or on their person?
- What recurring events would everyone hate to miss?
3) Which member(s) of the group exhibit all the elements above the most successfully? Alternatively, who are most people mimicing? (This is the top tier.)
4) How does the top tier show dominance? (Often, this looks like operating on the edge of group norms that other members wouldn't try and couldn't get away with while staying above the fray.)
5) What group enforces the dominance of the top tier on the players? (This is typically the second tier).
6) Finally, who are the players?
7) Now that you've mapped your group's relational order, can you spot which broader relational groups its a smaller part of?