Reciprocity is mutual exchange. It is the back-and-forth movement of goods and services between people. Reciprocity is the defining characteristic of nearly every nonmarket exchange system, and it shapes formal market economics as well. Dynamic social and political aspects of mutual exchange significantly influence the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services in all societies. Nuances in reciprocity also influence how various items and labor are imbued with culturally specific values.
Marshall Sahlins (1972), drawing on the work of Bronislaw Malinowski (1922) and Marcel Mauss (1925), pinpoints three overarching categories of reciprocal exchange among different past and present peoples: (1) generalized reciprocity, (2) balanced reciprocity, and (3) negative reciprocity. These distinct forms of mutual exchange often correspond with differing degrees of closeness in society. Whereas intensely social groups employ generalized reciprocity, moderately engaged communities practice balanced reciprocity, and distant networks of individuals commonly use negative reciprocity. Within a given culture, the different kinds of reciprocal exchange are not exclusive; multiple forms can coexist and be used for interaction with various groups.
Generalized reciprocity is driven by generosity and magnanimity. The exchange consists of pure something-for-nothing gifts. However, since the giver enjoys giving and gains satisfaction from the apparently one-sided transaction, the exchange is, in fact, reciprocal. Although givers engaging in generalized reciprocity may seem disinterested because they do not actively seek compensation for their altruistic actions, they are nonetheless rewarded with contentment for their good deeds. Westerners often only engage in generalized reciprocity when dealing with close family members and friends, but many non-Western societies employ generalized reciprocity on a much wider scale. Successful generalized reciprocity relies overwhelmingly on trust and interpersonal bonds.
Balanced reciprocity consists of giving that is later requited and balanced by return offerings. The original giver must trust the recipient enough to know that the gift will ultimately be fairly and adequately requited. Since there is always a danger that the initial gift will not be properly reciprocated, these offerings are often made publicly. The presence of an audience helps to ensure that gifts are properly repaid in two respects. First, they serve as a public record for exactly what was offered and accepted. Second, the local community can punish those who accept gifts without reciprocating by spreading word of the exchange transgression, thus socially humiliating ungracious recipients and discouraging others from making future gifts to them.
The timing of balanced reciprocity is essential to the success of this informal exchange system. Jacques Derrida (1992) asserts that the only thing the gift truly offers is time—"time to forget, time to return, time for delayed reciprocation that is no longer a return" (Schrift 1997, p. 10). Since an immediate countergift diminishes the necessary display of trust, the initial offering creates a temporal buffer. When discussing the time that a gift offers, Derrida identified a meaningful cross-cultural linguistic similarity between the term present as (1) a description of time and (2) a reference to an offering. All in one, the word present captures the duality of Derrida’s argument. A present—a material gift—provides the recipient with the present, the here and now. The offering requires future reciprocation yet frees the recipient from doing anything in the present; it provides the recipient with time. In a single word, the present presents the present (Mallios 2005).
Mauss notes an important link between perceptions of generalized and balanced reciprocity. He poetically writes, "Society always pays itself in the counterfeit coin of its dream" (Bourdieu 1997, p. 231). Mauss’s metaphor captures two distinct aspects of the gift. "Society paying itself" is a reference to obligatory reciprocation, the mandatory return offerings made by individuals engaging in balanced reciprocity. Yet, the exchange is made "in the counterfeit coin of its dream," an offering that maintains the superficial form of pure something-for-nothing generosity. It appears to be a selfless act of altruism. Although these transactions are indeed mandatory, they are physically indistinguishable from blissful magnanimity. The dream is generosity; the hidden reality is the obligation to give (Mallios 2005).
Negative reciprocity is trade. It is the simultaneous and immediate exchange of one good or service for another. Trade can be characterized by antagonistic haggling or complete anonymity. The transaction is in no way dependent on trust or the closeness of the individuals involved in the exchange. The only relationship of significance is the equation of exchange values between the goods or services being traded.
Chris Gregory (1982) summarizes the differences between balanced reciprocity and negative reciprocity. Calling the former a gift-exchange system and the latter a commodity-exchange system, Gregory explains that, "Commodities are alienable objects transacted by aliens; gifts are inalienable objects transacted by non-aliens" (1982, p. 42). One is a sale between strangers; the other is a loan between friends. There is also an important exchange-form distinction that adds to Gregory’s dichotomy: commodities are alienable objects traded-— something for something—by aliens; gifts are inalienable objects given—something for nothing—by non-aliens (Mallios 2006). Although the initial gift in balanced reciprocity mandates a return gift and is ultimately an exchange of something for something, it nevertheless takes the meaningful form of something for nothing. Gregory presents these two models as opposites, with the giving of inalienable goods between permanently allied and perpetually interdependent transactors on one side and the trading of alienable goods between momentarily allied and perpetually independent transactors on the other.
Distinct differences exist between the world’s many economic systems that are based primarily on balanced reciprocity. Anthropologists often use the terms limited and unlimited exchange to describe an important difference within these economic systems. Limited exchange confines the interaction between a set of partners. It is symmetrically dyadic, meaning that one person gives an item to someone else and that recipient makes a return offering back to the original benefactor. The most common form of reciprocal interaction, limited exchange includes only two people—that is its inherent limitation—and only two sets of offerings. Unlimited exchange, to the contrary, is open-ended. Different people pass gifts on asymmetrically in a series of exchanges. In this case, a person gives a present to another individual, who then regales a third person. Unlimited gift exchange spirals outward to include multiple parties, one of whom will ultimately make an offering to the original gift giver. This final present completes the circular exchange system. Ideally, blood donation in the United States follows a process of unlimited gift exchange. People who give blood pass their offering onto anonymous others, who then feel obliged by these magnanimous gifts to repeat the action at some point later in time. In the long run, donors participating in a successful system of unlimited balanced reciprocity are able to depend on the available blood donations of equally anonymous others should they find themselves or their loved ones deficient. The driving force behind seemingly random acts of kindness, unlimited reciprocity establishes a favorable gift karma that its participants expect to produce far-reaching benefits for all.
A similar distinction concerns even and incremental exchange. Even gift giving results when an offering completely cancels out a previous debt. A present that both eliminates debt and creates a new obligation contributes to incremental gift giving. Repeated incremental gifts further connect exchange partners as they continue to seesaw back and forth in terms of debt owed and debt accrued. This type of gift exchange is more common than even gift giving for the simple fact that evenness is not a primary goal or concern in the gift economy. Social reciprocity hinges on creating and enhancing mutually beneficial relationships, not canceling them out.
Undermining reciprocity is more than a simple economic transgression. Mauss explains that, "To refuse to give, just as to refuse to accept is tantamount to declaring war; it is to reject the bond of alliance and commonality" (1925, p. 13). Failure to perpetuate reciprocal exchanges and relationships that draw individuals closer together, in fact, pushes intended exchange partners away from each other. This denial frequently leads to conflict. Claude Levi-Strauss (1969) identified a link between exchange and hostility. He writes in specific reference to native Nambikwaras of western Brazil and in general of societies that engage in balanced reciprocity, "Exchanges are peacefully resolved wars, and wars are the result of unsuccessful transactions" (Levi-Strauss 1969, p. 62).
One of the most pronounced examples of a reciprocity-based culture clash occurred in 1607 at Jamestown Island, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. Historical records and analogous ethnographic accounts reveal how profit-minded English colonists and their emphasis on negative reciprocity collided with the Powhatan’s indigenous expectations of balanced reciprocity (Mallios 2006). The English failed to reciprocate the Paspaheghs—geographically the closest tribe in the Powhatan chiefdom to the new European outpost—on four separate occasions during the first weeks of colonization. Wowinchopunk, the local leader of the Paspaheghs, gave the settlers food, the land on which the colonists would build James Fort, and other goods, but the English made no return offerings. The natives grew frustrated, at one point even attempting unsuccessfully to steal reciprocal items. A Paspahegh warrior took an iron hatchet from the English camp following the series of unrequited native offerings, but a colonist snatched it back in a confrontation that nearly erupted into violence. Immediately following English trade with indigenous social rivals and enemies of the Paspaheghs, Wowinchopunk and his followers spearheaded a multitribal attack on the colonists at James Fort. Overall, exchange transgressions by the English—be they failures to give, accept, or reciprocate property— immediately preceded nearly every intercultural assault at Jamestown during the colony’s first five years.