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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, no natural impulse to barter and negotiate in exchanges. People, he argues, do not have a natural instinct to pursue their own self-interest in exchange. 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.

But then that's where things get interesting. 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.

Also, did you know that <anthro>the Inuit people of Greenland have a saying… “By gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs”</anthro> (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 1991) among men over who can have the right to exchange famous shells.

So, although Mauss tries to link the act of gift giving and reciprocity to a sense of moral unity and solidarity with one's community, often people do not experience reciprocity in this way. The system of total services 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 see reciprocity 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.

For our purposes, it is important to remember that Mauss's concept of reciprocity is not just tit-for-tat or quid pro quo. He wanted to argue that we needed to look at it from the perspective of the social whole. We need a sociocentric, not egocentric, perspective on the question. Remember, he is Emile Durkheim's nephew and best student. He drank deeply from the cup of functionalist sociological explanation. So reciprocity is a norm of society, an obligation to society as a whole. People find that their self-interest and their altruistic motives are both reflected in the gift, but that's only part of the story.


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.1469252529.txt.gz · Last modified: 2016/07/22 22:42 by ryans