Why Give Why Receive Why Reciprocate?

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In the field of anthropology, understanding human behavior is a significant aspect of the entire study of anthropology.  Humans have numerous motivations for their actions and these motivations often vary from each other depending on numerous qualities, factors, contexts, and other related considerations.  The question of why give, why receive, and why reciprocate will be explored by this study.  It will present first a general overview of the question to be followed by a critical discussion on the relationship between exchange or reciprocity and politics.  The answer for this question will be supported by ethnographic examples.  The overall goal of this study is to understand reciprocity and human motivation in order to generate a better context for human behavior and relations.

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Main Body

The reason for giving, receiving and reciprocating is for the affirmation of a social relationship.  Giving, receiving and reciprocating can be considered a social, cultural, as well as an economic experience.  In instances where there is a social relationship present and where it needs to be maintained, giving, receiving, and reciprocating is often inherent in the relations as a means to express one’s feelings.  In the classic example of gift giving for instance, gifts are given to celebrate important life events, in order to boost personal relationships and to promote economic exchange, as well as to socialize or teach children appropriate behavioral reactions.  Obligations for communities indicate that individuals are called on to give, to receive, as well as to reciprocate.  Marcel Mauss who is a French anthropologist presents his theory on giving, receiving, and reciprocating.  He studied the practice of gift-giving in numerous primitive, secluded, as well as ancient communities and came to the conclusion that gift-giving and reciprocity is a “self-perpetuating system of reciprocity”. He also discusses obligations which help ensure gift-giving, which are: the obligation to give, to receive, and to repay.  These obligations may be inculcated in a person through religious and moral teachings, or it may also be rooted in the deep and compelling need to acknowledge and maintain status hierarchy and to secure and support peaceful relations.  It may also be founded on the expectation related to reciprocal giving. Such obligations and motives do not recognize the presence of selfless giving.  Instead, these obligations and motives are woven into the social fabric and create a larger obligation by society and individuals to give. Receiving is therefore considered mandatory and refusing is not acceptable, often deemed unsociable.  According to Mauss, tension comes about when a gift is received.  He believes that this implies that the recipient of the gift would now owe the giver something, or at the very least, makes the recipient dependent on the giver. To break or relieve such tension, the recipient would have to recognize his obligation to repay and failure to repay would translate to a decrease in self-esteem.

Based on politics and economics, giving, receiving, and reciprocating are based on the relationship between individuals and government institutions, it may also be between private or corporate institutions and individuals, or in some cases, it may also be between private institutions or corporations and government institutions.  Reciprocity may also be noted between individuals, private or public, or it may be between government institutions or between two or more countries.  The relationship of reciprocity may only be short-term or may be a one-time deal.  Some long-term relationships may include several individuals and institutions.   In the social and family context, parents may feel that the care they gave their children would be reciprocated by the latter during the former’s elderly years.  Businesses may have contracts with each other, for one to provide a business or product to the other in exchange for compensation.  In this case, the reciprocity here is based on a business, not a social arrangement. Governments or states may also establish treaties with each other, possibly for the latter to charge low tariff rates for the other’s goods and vice versa.

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There may also be indirect one-to-one reciprocal relationships between parties, and the basis of the exchange may be a prolonged contact or arrangement.   The benefit felt by one party may be passed on to another party, and so on and so forth and there is an expectation for the benefit to eventually return to the original giver.  This can be noted in the Kula exchange.  The Kula ring covers 18 island communities and participants in this ring are known to travel for miles by canoe to exchange valuables with each other.  Some of these valuables include disc necklaces (traded northwards) and shell armbands (traded southwards).  The gift exchange would take alternate turns between armbands (opening) and necklaces (close) or vice versa.  Other trade items are also bartered during the trade of the armbands and necklaces.   Across the islands, the terms of the trade or exchange are different.  Malinowski, an anthropologist studied the Kula exchange and he and Marcel Mauss debated on this phenomenon.  Mauss would write about the Kula exchange in his book The Gift.  Both anthropologists do agree however that the Kula ring and exchange demonstrates the qualities of reciprocity and gift giving; the exchange also helps explains the existence of gift economies.

In the social context, reciprocity may be based on one-on-one arrangements or many-to-one.  These arrangements may be direct reciprocal or general reciprocal agreements.  Informal groups where arrangements are distributed or rotated to members are considered one-to-many arrangements.  A barn-raising would be an arrangement of direct reciprocity as the beneficiaries are indicated in the activity and the members know what is expected of them.  Memberships can change, and needs may also change depending on the next plans or based on the next individual requiring assistance.

Between individuals and governments, the reciprocity can be noted in the people paying their taxes to the government, and in exchange, the government is required to provide public services, including public health, public schools, roads, bridges, transportation, and other social services.  Justice is also a manifestation of reciprocity, with individuals disobeying or violating the laws getting what society deems is their due – deprivation of their liberty, death, and the payment of fines/penalties.

In conclusion, giving, receiving and reciprocating are done based on social precepts, mostly to maintain relationships.  It is also done to secure balance in society and to give a person what is due him based on what he also brings to society.  Reciprocity is therefore essential in maintaining order and in sustaining specific goals in society sufficient to fulfill numerous ends.

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  1. Becker L, ‘Reciprocity, Justice, and Disability,” [2005] 116 Ethics, 1, 9-13.
  2. Belk R, ‘Gift-giving behaviour’ in: Sheth, J. (Ed.), Research in Marketing (JAI Press, Greenwich, CT, 1979).
  3. Camerer C, ‘Gifts as Economic Signals and Social Symbols’ [1988] 94 American Journal of Sociology, S, 180-S214.
  4. Damon F, ‘The Kula and Generalised Exchange: Considering some Unconsidered Aspects of the Elementary Structures of Kinship,’ [1980] Man 15, 278.
  5. Godelier M, ‘The Enigma of the Gift’ (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999).
  6. Mauss M, in Mayet C and Pine K, ‘The psychology of gift exchange’ (University of Hertfordshire, 2010).
  7. Mauss M, ‘The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies’ (London: Routledge, 1990).
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