What Is Reciprocity in Anthropology?

What Is Reciprocity in Anthropology?

Share and share alike. The age-old adage can bring peace among parties or confusion and imbalance if the rules aren’t strictly enforced and followed. Reciprocity is the nonmarket exchange of products or objects with the labor that goes into creating those goods. It can range from an immediate exchange or a direct barter of goods and services to various ways of gift exchange in which a delayed exchange is expected.

1 History of Reciprocity in Anthropology

Reciprocity can take many forms. It can be the sharing of services in exchange for hospitality, gift giving or bartering. Western economic theory depends on the norm of reciprocity, in which no deed goes without a return of some sort. It was used as a means to create a self-regulating market separate from the state getting involved between parties. Anthropologists have long debated whether reciprocity is part of all human relationships, from relatives to politicians.

2 Barter Exchange

When a barter exchange begins, someone usually has something the other wants. It can be a service, such as fixing a car, to a need, such as essential food items like bread or water. The barter comes into play when both parties agree to exchange goods or services in order to make a deal that's considered fair and reasonable among all parties. Someone who offers to fix your car may ask for services you offer in return. You may be a good cook, handy with lawn equipment, able to sew a special garment or mend needed uniforms or create a gift for the mechanic. You get a well-running machine and the mechanic can have a hearty meal, tidy yard or new duds in exchange for his services.

3 Delayed Exchange

When a gift or object is given without any thought of immediate exchange, it's a delayed or generalized reciprocity. A birthday gift given or a holiday basket received doesn't imbue the giver or recipient with a sense they must give a gift of the same value in return at that moment. However, there are unwritten rules that apply. While an invited guest has the choice of bringing a gift, it would put them in a socially awkward position if they didn’t bring the birthday boy or girl a token gift at least. In that same vein, people will often have goodie bags filled with small tokens of appreciation for the invited guests to take home after attending a birthday or holiday party.

Kimberley McGee is an award-winning journalist with 20+ years of experience writing about education, jobs, business and more for The New York Times, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Today’s Parent and other publications. She graduated with a B.A. in Journalism from UNLV. Her full bio and clips can be seen at www.vegaswriter.com.