What Is Reciprocity in Anthropology?

by Anastasia Leon

In anthropology, reciprocity refers to a mutual exchange of services or goods among social peers. Cultural traditions describe how and what may be exchanged, but all reciprocity serves one distinct purpose: to create or alter social ties. Generalized reciprocity and balanced reciprocity are two common types, but negative reciprocity also occurs widely across cultures.

Generalized Reciprocity

Generalized reciprocity is the proffering of a gift without the expectation of immediate return. Unselfish sharing falls within this category, as does the idea of "paying it forward," when the value of the exchange is often entirely social and non-tangible.

Balanced Reciprocity

Balanced reciprocity demands an immediate reward for giving. One common modern example is the baby shower, where a guest is expected to bring a gift in exchange for sharing a meal and social interaction. A guest may choose not to bring a gift but they risk losing social credit among their peers.

Negative Reciprocity

Negative reciprocity implies that one side loses in the exchange or receives less than they expect. Cheating, manipulation and hard bargaining are often involved in negative reciprocity, although taking things by force is another form.

About the Author

Anastasia Leon began writing professionally in 2001. Her experience as a horticulturalist and nurseryman informs her work, which has appeared in publications such as Mother Earth News and Modern Farmer. Leon is a certified master gardener and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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