Reciprocity (cultural anthropology)

Source: Wikipedia.

I wrote a brief essay here on the Forum a while back which suggested that reciprocity as anthropologists understand the term may account for the historical origins of money. The theory (not my own) holds that humans are hardwired by evolution to repay kindness with kindness and insult with insult. In a natural (pre-civilized) society, these tit-for-tat obligations can build up over time until a crisis occurs such that the network of obligations must be resolved. Money, according to this view, came into use as a way of paying off or canceling social debts that needed to be quantified so that they could be settled.

The source article provides some background on the way anthropologists think about reciprocity.

Personally, I think it is wonderful to discover how tit-for-tat psychology might explain historical events or even the unconscious processes that yield evolutionary success, but that doesn’t mean that tit-for-tat is a good rule to live by. More likely, this particular neurological wiring is merely hackable.

To be immune, one must at least conceive of higher possibilities.

10 thoughts on “Reciprocity (cultural anthropology)

  1. I read the Wikipedia article. Interesting.

    I found this quote to be telling:

    “Negative reciprocity is the attempt to get “something for nothing with impunity.” It may be described as ‘haggling,’ ‘barter,’ or ‘theft.’ It is the most impersonal form of exchange, with interested parties seeking to maximize their gains.“

    Negating thievery, isn’t that a description of free market economies? Getting lowest prices for raw materials, the cheapest labor, avoiding expensive regulatory safety and environmental costs are what successful companies do.

    At a price, of course. The big corps have so much power that pressuring vendors until they might go under, keeping low wages and sidestepping environmental responsibilities is not uncommon.

    So on the subject at hand, are we merely accepting a modern substitute for barter and calling it monetary policy? And is that good for a nation?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RE: “Negating thievery, isn’t that a description of free market economies?”

      The negative reciprocity that caught your eye occurs in non-market exchange, according to the anthropologist who wrote about it. I suppose you could extend the concept to marketplace exchange, but then you’d have to take into consideration various features of the marketplace, such as competition between sellers to sell and competition between buyers to buy.

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      1. Haggling is part of buying in most of the world.

        Walmart was known for pressuring vendors, sometimes until they went under. Kind of like Carnegie did. They even sided with China in a TV dumping suit brought by the last TV company in the US a few decades ago. That is putting huge pressures on labor to compete with Third World countries.

        Is that a good thing? The global economy won’t be a level playing field until labor costs are leveled off.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. RE: “Haggling is part of buying in most of the world.”

        Maybe so, but it is not a defect that makes free markets undesireable.

        RE: “The global economy won’t be a level playing field until labor costs are leveled off.”

        Why should the global economy be a level playing field, and how would you know if it was?

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  2. “ Why should the global economy be a level playing field…”

    The industrial West countries have rules for workplace safety, pay, child labor, etc. They also have strong environmental laws.

    Now if the Third World provides cheap labor and lax environmental laws, we are not considering political stability and the global environment. Political instability is a source for war, terrorism and human rights abuses. Fouling the oceans, overfishing, clear cutting rainforests are real problems for all of us even if the offending nation is across the globe. We are also more vulnerable to zoonotic diseases coming from impoverished countries where bush meat is common due to poverty.

    In other words, keeping a few billion people in perpetual poverty does nobody much good.

    IMHANEO

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RE: “In other words, keeping a few billion people in perpetual poverty does nobody much good.”

      It would take a dictator over the whole world to pull something like that off. Conversely, it would take a dictator over the whole world to correct the condition.

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      1. Or, more companies in the West that promote fair trade practices in return for sales.

        It is pretty apparent that isolation is no defense. Health and welfare of the Third World is the next frontier. We can’t just keep ignoring them except for cheap labor and few environmental concerns.

        Future 9/11’s, illegal migration, pandemics, global warming are issues that all humans will pay for.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. RE: “Or, more companies in the West that promote fair trade practices in return for sales.”

        With all due respect, I think you want to be dictator over the whole world to correct conditions you don’t like. You talk of “fair trade practices,” but I don’t think you know what’s fair. For example, you say you want to impose child labor laws and environmental regulations on the rest of the world, but who the heck gives you the right to impose anything on anybody?

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          1. It seems to me that Mr. Roberts believes that slavery makes the world go round. Is his next essay going to be about repealing the 13th Amendment so that slave labor can again be used in the US?

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