Chapter 11: A Relational Approach to Settlement Work Relational Spaces and Practices for Anti-Oppression and Well-Being

Biocultural Transformation Theory

In the realm of social justice work, understanding power dynamics and social hierarchies is crucial. Riane Eisler’s Biocultural Transformation Theory (BCTT) offers a comprehensive framework for settlement practitioners dedicated to social justice, decolonization, and anti-oppression efforts. It helps practitioners recognize and grasp two fundamental relationship models: the dominator model and the partnership model. These models profoundly influence core relationships in family, childhood, gender, social, and economic contexts, as well as cultural narratives and language. Moreover, they significantly impact neurobiology, which, in turn, affects overall well-being. This perspective is often overlooked in relational work, especially when addressing the effects of oppression and seeking transformation. Eisler emphasizes that cultural transformation encompasses both social and biological dimensions, serving as the foundational concept for the approach and practices discussed here.

Biocultural Transformation Theory plays a vital role in understanding the pervasive nature of the dominator model in relationships. It equips practitioners with the awareness to identify instances where the dominator model manifests in systems maintained through cultural and linguistic practices. Additionally, it empowers practitioners to actively cultivate partnership-based relationships and apply a partnership/relational approach in settlement work. Riane Eisler, a social systems scientist, cultural historian, futurist, and attorney who experienced the Nazi regime during her youth in Vienna, was motivated by her childhood experiences to question the violence and hatred she witnessed, leading to her profound exploration of human nature. Through extensive research, Eisler identified two fundamental societal models: domination systems and partnership systems.

The video The Chalice or The Blade (Center for Partnership Systems, 2021) introduces Riane Eisler and her work (trigger warning: images of violence).

Biocultural Partnership-Domination Model

The biocultural domination/partnership model involves the study of relational dynamics and focuses on two systems dynamics, which are revealed by asking two questions:

  1. How do key elements within a social system relate to maintaining or changing the system’s fundamental nature?
  2. What types of relationships, from intimate to international, does a social system endorse—hierarchical top-down structures or relationships grounded in mutual respect and cooperation?

(Eisler, 2021, p. 5)

The Biocultural Partnership-Domination framework offers a lens through which we can analyze power dynamics and patterns of oppression within relationships and systems. It helps us understand interconnected forms of oppression, including racism, sexism, and classism. By embracing values such as empathy, care, and cooperation, it envisions a more equitable, sustainable, and less violent world.

Societies can be situated on a continuum that spans from domination systems to partnership systems. Domination systems are characterized by elements such as authoritarianism, abuse, violence, and male dominance. On the other hand, partnership systems, as exemplified by Nordic countries like Sweden and Finland, transcend traditional categorizations. These systems link family and gender equality with concepts of peace, fairness, and democracy.

Variations along the partnership-domination spectrum are evident in various aspects of society, including parenting, gender roles, education, religion, politics, and economics. It’s not just a matter of cooperation versus competition; both systems incorporate elements of both. Domination systems often foster ruthless competition, whereas partnership systems encourage healthy competition. Furthermore, it’s not solely about the absence of conflict; disagreements among people are inevitable. However, in partnership systems, conflicts can be resolved through mediation and nonviolent approaches, promoting healthy competition and empowerment. In contrast, domination systems tend to suppress conflicts through fear and force or allow them to escalate into violence. Domination relies on power derived from fear and force, while partnership emphasizes empowerment.



Pause here and think about your experience with conflict and how you approach conflict now.

Both partnership and domination systems recognize gender distinctions, but domination-oriented cultures are more likely to rigidly uphold gender stereotypes such as discouraging boys from expressing “feminine” qualities and steering girls away from expressing anger. Partnership-oriented societies challenge these stereotypes but still grapple with issues such as violence against women and children. In partnership cultures, children are taught to respect parents and caregivers without rigid obedience, fostering flexibility and cooperation in governance. Domination systems tend to enforce top-down social and economic control, whereas partnership systems prioritize adaptability and collaborative governance.



Take a moment to pause and contemplate your childhood experiences in relation to gender, as well as your relationship with your parents or caregivers. Consider what behaviours or expressions you were encouraged to display and what you were discouraged from expressing. Now, reflect on the gender norms prevalent during your parents’ or grandparents’ generation. How did these norms influence their expectations and attitudes towards gender roles?


Unlike earlier social categorizations, the BCTT model considers bioculturalism, which underscores the interplay between our biology and our life experiences within our culture (Eisler & Fry, 2019). Eisler’s research (2021) highlights contemporary scientific discoveries, including insights from epigenetics, that challenge genetic determinism by demonstrating how experiences, even during pregnancy, can influence the health of future generations. Psychologists and neuroscientists highlight the profound influence of childhood experiences on gene expression and behaviour. These studies underscore the brain’s adaptability, especially in the early years. Research on genes related to violence reveals that only those mistreated in childhood tend to engage in antisocial behaviour. The focus has been on how family circumstances affect brain development, leading to issues like depression and stress hormone imbalances. Families are shaped by cultural norms, with partnership and domination contexts significantly influencing family dynamics. The significance of providing support for children and families in the context of settlement work cannot be emphasized enough. A notable illustration of such efforts can be seen in the initiatives undertaken by the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative in Edmonton, Alberta. Viewing migration and settlement through the lens of biocultural transformation helps inform relational practices.

Additionally, the BCTT model acknowledges the influence of relational experiences on the development of the brain and nervous system (Siegel, 2015; Porges, 2011), a topic further examined in the following section on interpersonal neurobiology.

Additional Reading: Partnership and Domination Societies  (Eisler, 2021)


Reflection and Dialogue

  1. How do domination and partnership patterns manifest in your various circles of care and concern, and how do you recognize them?
  2. How do you see complex domination issues such as colonization, racism, sexism, classism, gender discrimination, and other forms of oppression occurring in the different relational spaces? What would a partnership approach to relating look like? What would the impact be in other circles?

Model of relational spaces and personal and professional circles of care and concern from self to partner/child, family or team, community or organization, society or governance, future/past generations to planet. To the left the words partnership and dominator are connected with a two way dotted arrow line.

Image Credit

Apedaile, S. (2021). Dimension of relating: Circles of care and concern [Diagram]. Used with permission.


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Canadian Settlement in Action: History and Future Copyright © 2021 by NorQuest College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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