Understanding reciprocity

Essay by EshlinvCollege, Undergraduate October 2014

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In order for one to understand how reciprocity works, why it is important in band based societies and its level of relevance to large-scale societies, it is essential that one understands what is meant by the concept of reciprocity. Reciprocity in simple terms, can said to be the process of exchanging favours or positive actions between parties, usually for mutual benefit. Bohanonn (1963:232) writes, " Reciprocity involves exchange of goods between people who are bound in nonmarket, nonhierarchial relationships with one another". It is perhaps well described by the phrase, " do me a favour and I will do you one". This essay will seek to delve into why reciprocity is important to band-based societies and will cite examples as to how such societies protect its core values.

In an anthropological context, it is important for one to understand that there are different types of reciprocity. Having only a simplistic understanding of the term reciprocity as illustrated by the term, "do me a favour and I will do you one", can lead to misunderstandings during fieldwork.

There are three main types of reciprocity which were identified by Marshall Sahlins namely generalized reciprocity, balanced reciprocity and negative reciprocity. Generalized reciprocity occurs during situations in which one gives without the expectation of receiving anything in return. For instance, a parent buying a gift for their toddler. Balanced reciprocity refers to situations in which one gives with the expectation of receiving something in return. For instance, buying someone a birthday gift with the expectation of receiving one in return, buying gifts for children at an orphanage. Negative reciprocity refers to situations in which one expects to get something for nothing. For instance through gambling, theft, begging etc. Yan (1995: 250) states, " The principle of reciprocity was so frequently employed to generalise about...