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A silhouette of a father and a son pointing at each other.

Ascan Koerner, assistant professor of communication studies, has identified four styles that drive family interactions, including authority ranking.

Negotiating family relationships

By Joel Hoekstra

Published on June 1, 2005

Growing up in a household of six people in Cologne, Germany, Ascan Koerner was expected to pull his own weight. Like his older sisters and brother, Koerner had to wash his own clothes and clean his own room. Each member of the family had not only equal responsibility for household chores, but also a democratic voice in communal decision-making: Vacations, for example, were voted on--destinations being, to a degree, the result of majority rule.

Today, Koerner, an assistant professor of communication studies, is an expert in family communication dynamics. He's particularly interested in how parents and children interact with each other. "We bring to our relationships a set of beliefs about what families should be like," he says. "In some families, Papa or Mama set the rules. In other clans, the eldest member of the family is accorded deference. In many families, decisions are the result of a more complex discussion, even bargaining: Johnny can have dessert, for example, if he finishes those lima beans."

Koerner, who teaches classes in interpersonal and strategic communication, initially hoped to study political communication when he came to the United States to attend college in Portland. But an interest in interpersonal dynamics lead him to graduate study in interpersonal communication in Wisconsin and then to the U, where he's spent the last six years exploring communication in families.

Three-year-old Maria, even though she didn't finish her vegetables, may still expect a cookie after dinner. She's not capable of grasping the negotiation involved in the bargain.

He has spent much of that time applying the relationship theories of UCLA researcher Alan Page Fiske to families. Fisk, an anthropologist, studied multiple cultures to distill out what he later dubbed four models of human relationships. Koerner believes the four types of relationships defined by Fisk apply to family communication as well. "I looked at this and said these four approaches are ways of relating more than they are actual relationships," he says.

Sharing, trading, connecting Drawing on Fisk's work, Koerner sees four different kinds of family interactions he calls communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing.

The first, communal sharing, is an arrangement by which everyone in the family has autonomy to eat, do, or think according to need or desire. At dinner, for example, everyone has as much food as he or she wishes. "Everybody takes his or her share," Koerner explains.

But in other situations, authority rules, and decisions are made according to the family pecking order: With authority ranking, the oldest sibling gets the largest piece of cake, for example, or gets to go first down the slide at the playground, while the youngest has to wait. In still other situations, however, equality is the prevailing ethic: Everyone gets the same allowance, regardless of need or status. In the fourth and final approach, market pricing, a kind of bartering takes place, and tradeoffs are made: Lisa can attend the sleepover at a friend's house if she cleans her room; Adam can watch "The Simpsons" if he takes Fido for a walk.

Whether a particular mode of communication is appropriate is largely situational, Koerner says. Both within and across families that he has studied, parents and kids might use any of the four approaches, depending on the circumstances, with varying degrees of success. And some families favor one approach over another. "The approach depends on what area of the relationship you're talking about," he says. "If you're talking about chores in a household, some families prefer equality matching, but others adopt the market-pricing model." In short, what works for one family in one situation may or may not work for others.

What parents especially need to understand is that children have varying abilities cognitively to grasp the approaches, Koerner says. A young child, for example, may not be able to weigh the tradeoffs involved in a market-pricing decision. Three-year-old Maria, even though she didn't finish her vegetables, may still expect a cookie after dinner. She's not capable of grasping the negotiation involved in the bargain. But 16-year-old Sophie is fully capable of understanding the connection between finishing her homework and getting the car keys.

Koerner is currently working on a study of 160 boys, ages 7 to 17. The study "seems to be affirming" that as kids develop they grasp the approaches in ascending order of complexity. "Most seven-year-olds grasp authority ranking and equality matching, but have a harder time understanding market pricing," he says.

Communication and intimacy Interestingly, among adults, the different modes of communication seem to indicate levels of intimacy. If you have dinner with a relative stranger, for example, you'll probably itemize the bill, with each paying for his or her own meal--a market-pricing relationship. When the power relationship or authority ranking is unequal--at a dinner with the boss, for example--the boss will probably pick up the tab.

Among friends, you might split the bill equally--a form of equality matching. With intimate friends, you might just pick up the entire tab--indicating a close relationship that is expected to continue ("You can get it next time"). "Friendships are equality matching at the beginning, but as we become closer, we make it a communal sharing relationship," Koerner says.

Application of Koerner's research promises to help families communicate more effectively both among themselves and with others. Better family communication, Koerner says, leads to a stronger sense of connection and translates to better communication in the world: "In families, a shared understanding of how the world works is important," he says. "It helps us operate in harmony."