Philia - a dialogue on citizenship
advanced search
Home Events Calendar Resources Site Map Contact Us Version Francaise
About Philia Nourishing Ideas Good Conversation Inspiring Action

Nourishing Ideas > Foundational Values > Reciprocity

In our African language we say "a person is a person through other persons." I would not know how to be a human being at all except I learned this from other human beings. We are made for a delicate network of relationships, of interdependence. We are meant to complement each other. Not even the most powerful nation can be completely self-sufficient.
        - Desmond Tutu

Reciprocity is a complex social phenomenon that is difficult to write about. There are no agreed-on definitions, multiple interpretations abound, and all are full of ambiguity and paradox. For many, reciprocity is strictly associated with modern economics, balancing the books, or versions of contract law. This is a utilitarian view that defines reciprocity in terms of self-interest: "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours". At the other end of the scale are those who view reciprocity as a distasteful concept smacking of altruism, in which all actions must be pure and motiveless, with no expectation of return.

The truth is, reciprocity lies somewhere in the middle. Reciprocity is about being favourable to others because others are favourable to you. Not because of some agreed-upon exchange, but simply and profoundly because it is the right thing to do. In other words, reciprocity has an ethical motivation. It is therefore more than mere utility or functionality, more than simply "I help you, then you help me." It is bound up with feeling, relationship and social connection.

The unseen hand of reciprocity guides a system of interpersonal relations that many believe is the primary social glue that holds society together. Indeed, reciprocity is one of the most basic (and most ancient) forces that mould a loose assortment of individuals into a society. Learning about reciprocity can help us understand the silent forces at work in society and the role we can play as citizens in keeping these forces positive and healthy.

If reciprocity is to rise above the narrow world of economic exchange, we should reflect on the various elements embodied in the concept, and on the features that separate it from simple exchange.

1. We do not reciprocate the way we pay back a loan. Though we may later rationalize our giving, the calculation of pluses and minuses is a minor consideration in reciprocal exchanges. Nor is reciprocity always symmetrical. The return may be greater than the gift, we may "pay it forward" to someone else, or it may be non-material, taking the form of gratitude, well-being or inspiration.

2. The back and forth actions of reciprocity are interconnected, yet voluntary and independent of each other.

3. The "rules" of reciprocity are implicit and tacit. Making them explicit kills reciprocity, robbing the act of its spirit and reducing it to mere exchange.

The many facets of reciprocity are revealed in two proverbs from the Inuit of Northern Canada:

1. Friends make gifts and gifts make friends. This proverb speaks to social connection, liking and mutuality. It tells us that reciprocity is based on relationships, and that these relationships are of value in themselves - in fact, are central to reciprocity. It is from this base of relationship that I am motivated / compelled / inspired to contribute to your well-being or happiness.

2. The gift makes the slave as the whip makes the dog. This proverb addresses the shadow side of reciprocity - its obligatory and continuous nature, and the element of dependency it contains. Receiving your gift puts me "at your mercy" and symbolically makes me your slave - or at least a slave to the ceaseless rhythm of reciprocity. This may cause resentment, making some of us want to step aside, break the ties of social obligation that bind us, and go our own way.

What is clear from all the above is that reciprocity is continuous and self-sustaining - a stream of giving, receiving and giving again. For better or worse, it is a fact of life and a vital principle of society. The social bonds of reciprocity permit a general peaceful and free society, underscoring the "social contract" among citizens and between citizens and their government. More than folk wisdom, more than a pattern of economic exchange, more than charity, reciprocity is part of our role as citizens, the sharing of one's gifts for the greater benefit of the whole.

The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him - it cannot fail.
        - Walt Whitman

Have Your Say

Related Items
Books of interest:
The World of the Gift, by Jacques T. Godbout
A Good Life, by Al Etmanski
The Gift, by Marcel Mauss

Other resources:
The Economics of Human Relationships (PDF, 190kb), by Stefano Zamagni
Asset-Based Community Development Institute
Co-directed by John McKnight and John P. Kretzmann, ABCD focuses on an asset-based approach to community development.

On This Site:
Read a translation of Jacques T. Godbout's speech, La Logique du Don (PDF, 100kb), given at the 2003 Philia Symposium in Orford, QC.
Read Ted Kuntz's article, We Can't Get There From Here, for his reflections on charity and reciprocity.
What's New
This page lists all the most recent additions to this website with direct links to those pages.
Philia eZine
Click on the head to subscribe to @philia, our monthly ezine. You can also view current and archived issues here.
print this page
back to top