What Are the Fundamental Dimensions of Social Relationships?

Another big idea on peace and justice from Morton Deutsch.

Posted Sep 07, 2017

Becca Bass/Performers at Couleur Cafe music festival in Brussels, Belgium
Source: Becca Bass/Performers at Couleur Cafe music festival in Brussels, Belgium

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. 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.

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.


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.

Wish, M., Deutsch, M., & Kaplan, S. J. (1976). Perceived dimensions of interpersonal relations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33(4), 409.