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Reciprocity, the obligation of the gift, seems so simple and yet upon closer inspection, becomes baffling. Reciprocity according to Marcel Mauss is not the same as the conventional meaning of the word. For Mauss, reciprocity is an obligation one has to society as well as one's partner. It isn't “tit for tat.”

Mauss begins with the observation that, contrary to popular belief, there is no natural impulse to barter and negotiate in exchanges. People, he argues, do not have a natural instinct to pursue their own self-interest as individuals and seek out others who have what they need. Rather, quite often, exchange is compulsory. And it is not only useful things that are traded, everything is, even things that both parties already have in abundance. Gifts are not only required, gift-giving is required in almost every aspect of one's life. He calls this a system of total services (Mauss 1990 [1925], 5).

Mauss concludes that we see so many examples of societies with a system of total services because in fact it reflects an essential quality of society itself, which is that society is a totality, a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. To make this happen, to create and renew the social whole, society imposes upon all members the obligations of the gift. Specifically, Mauss says that the gift entails three obligations: to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. In other words, the obligatory gift is part of an endless cycle, and ties all people together in permanent interdependence.

"They" give gifts, "we" don't? Hmmm... no.

At first glance, Mauss appears to be saying that societies based on this kind of gift are qualitatively different than market-based societies, like the West. In some ways, he is trying to find a way to compare these kinds of societies. It would be a mistake to say that is asserting an “us-versus-them” dichotomy. Gifts are not traditions, markets aren't modern.

Rather, all societies reproduce themselves because the obligations of the gift function to sustain the basis for social life itself. All societies impose the obligations of the gift in some way. This can take a variety of forms. Who gives what to whom, where and when can all be different, and the kinds of bonds between people are thus different. More importantly for me, and this may be one area which Mauss neglects, many societies like to pretend that they no longer adhere to a norm of reciprocity, but in many ways they do. They just don't recognize it. Western societies teach their members to see the world through a certain set of ideological lenses, and the Western ideology of individualism distorts things.

Consider the emotions reciprocity evokes. It sounds like a word for fairness. And yet, there's this poem:

Tit for tat.
Butter for fat.
If you kick my dog,
I'll kick your cat.


And then there's the old saying: “If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.” Sounds a bit shady. Because Westerners tend to assume that individuals always make their own decisions according to their own self-interest, then they also ignore the relationships of interdependence which all societies have, and all people need.

But then that is where things get really interesting. Consider also the feelings evoked by reciprocity by people who recognize its moral force. According to one author, the Inuit people of Greenland have a saying: “By gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs” (Freuchen 1960: 64).

The Kula is conducted is grand ceremonial style and is steeped in formality and decorum. The kula is also a cutthroat competition for “fame” (Munn 1992; Weiner 1992) among men over who can have the right to exchange famous shells. Weiner herself met people who told her that all she was hearing from famous kula men was lies meant to put them in a position where they could claim the most valuable shells (1992, 141). When I lived in the Kula region, many people who did not participate in Kula exchange scoffed at it, called it a game, and suggested that kula traders merely wanted to be important. The system of total services, Mauss tells us, can develop into an “agonistic type”, and create an opportunity for certain people to compete with each other (Mauss 1990 [1925], 7).

People who live in a gift system may themselves see their own reciprocal exchanges as a quid pro quo, or “If you do something for me, I'll do something for you.” People think that it is in their own self-interest to enter into a reciprocal partnership. Or, they may think that their self-interest is harmed by reciprocity. They are afraid of the gift. Reciprocity is an obligation, but does that mean that people embrace their obligation to reciprocate as a good thing? This remains a question for anthropologists today.


Freuchen, Peter. 1960. Peter Freuchen’s Adventures in the Arctic. Edited by Dagmar Freuchen. New York: J. Messner.

Mauss, Marcel. 1990 [1925]. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies [abridged]. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Munn, Nancy D. 1992. The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Weiner, Annette B. 1992. Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Further Reading

Graeber, David. 2012. Debt: The First 5000 Years. New York: Penguin Books.

Kaufman, Frederick. 2009. “Let Them Eat Cash.” Harper’s Magazine, June. http://harpers.org/archive/2009/06/let-them-eat-cash/4/.

reciprocity.txt · Last modified: 2016/07/22 23:08 by ryans