What are the Fundamental Dimensions of Social Relationships?

What are the Fundamental Dimensions of Social Relationships?
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10 Big Ideas on Peace and Justice from the Career of Morton Deutsch

<p>Performers at the Couleur Café music festival in Brussels, Belgium </p>

Performers at the Couleur Café music festival in Brussels, Belgium

Photo: Becca Bass

Morton Deutsch, eminent psychologist, Columbia University professor, mentor extraordinaire, and one of the founders of the field of conflict resolution, died last March at age 97. Deutsch spent his illustrious career creatively and systematically studying ways to make the world more just and peaceful. He was a tough-minded and tenderhearted scientist with an intense commitment to developing psychological knowledge that would be relevant to important human concerns. In other words, he was deeply theoretical and genuinely practical. He believed in the power of big ideas to improve the world, and in the vital role of science to refine them.

In honor of his passing, I have selected a series of ten major scientific contributions that Deutsch made in his efforts to promote a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. These are by no means his only contributions – there are indeed many more. However these are those I have found as most consequential to my own research and practice, and that I feel are most likely to have the biggest impact on our future. Brief snapshots of each contribution will be presented here in a series of 10 weekly blog posts in approximate chronological order of the questions he studied over his lifetime.

5. Mapping Basic Social Dynamics: What are the Fundamental Dimensions of Social Relationships?

Mort Deutsch liked to say that he was a grandiose theorist – that he was interested in studying questions relevant to both cave people of the past and to space people of the future. So while studying martial conflict when he was working at Bell Labs, Deutsch and colleagues Myron Wish and Susan Kaplan decided to tackle the ambitious task of identifying the fundamental dimensions of people’s perceptions of interpersonal relations. In other words, they set out to map the most consequential aspects of all human social relationships that would distinguish between people’s experiences of different types of relations – from parents and children and merchants and customers to guards and prisoners and kings and subjects.

Through multidimensional scaling analysis of survey data they collected, this research identified the four most basic dimensions of social relationships: cooperative and friendly versus competitive and hostile, equal versus unequal, intense versus superficial, and socioemotional and informal versus task-oriented and formal (Wish, Deutsch & Kaplan, 1976). Together, these dimensions constituted one of the most thorough empirical attempts at mapping the terrain of interpersonal relations, and prepared the ground for one of Deutsch’s most ambitious theoretical models that is described below.

Deutsch’s work on mapping the basic dimensions of social relations informed subsequent theorizing and research on adaptive negotiation, or how negotiators can navigate differences in power, interdependence and dependence effectively in conflicts (Coleman, et al., 2010; Coleman & Ferguson, 2014). It also provided the methodology for subsequent research mapping the fundamental dimensions of mediation situations, which are particular types of social situations, in order to inform more adaptive mediation practices as well (Coleman, Kugler, and Chatman 2017). Both of these models have proven instructive to negotiators and mediators, and owe a large debt of thanks to the early ambition and innovation of Deutsch and his colleagues.

Mort Deutsch was an intellectual giant with a true moral compass, on whose shoulders many in the fields of peace, conflict and social justice stand today. The foundation he has provided for our work is sound, lasting and ultimately promising and optimistic. His insight, passion and commitment today live on in all of us.


Coleman, P. T. and Ferguson, R. (2014). Making conflict work: Harnessing the power of disagreement. New York, NY: Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt.

Coleman, P. T., Kugler, K. G., & Chatman, L. (2017). Adaptive mediation: an evidence-based contingency approach to mediating conflict. International Journal of Conflict Management, 28(3).

Coleman, P. T., Kugler, K., Musallam, N., Mitchinson, A., and Chung, C. (2010).The view from above and below: The effects of power asymmetries and interdependence on conflict dynamics and outcomes. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 3, 283-311.

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