Reciprocal Obligation

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In Mauss’s threefold obligation – to give, to receive, and to reciprocate

ag ift – the principle of reciprocity is succinctly symbolized. As ac onsequence

of these obligations a perpetual cycle of exchanges is set up

within and between generations. Social ties are created, sustained, and

strengthened by means of gifts. Acts of gift exchange are at the basis of

human solidarity. The fact that gifts enhance solidarity is not restricted

to the archaic and non-Western societies described byMauss. In our own

society the core meaning of gift giving – its contribution to social ties –

has not changed fundamentally, although obviously its role and functions

in modern, monetarized society cannot be compared with those in

nonmonetarized, archaic society.Whereas in the latter type of society the

entire social system, including its economic, legal, religious, and moral

foundations, was maintained though gift exchange (it was a “total social

phenomenon,” asMauss calls it), in modern society gift exchange has increasingly

cometo be considered the opposite of economic exchange. Gift

exchange is supposed to belong to the private sphere and is associatedwith

informal and not always completely predictable social relations, whereas

economic exchange belongs to the domain of the market with its formalized

and predictable relations (Brown 1986).Nowadays, gift exchange has

become an instance of “social exchange” as opposed to “economic exchange.”

Gift exchange is supposed to support the “morals” implied in social

ties, whereas economic exchange fosters “markets” (Cheal 1988). The

differences between social and economic exchange have been summed up

by Brown (1986): the terms of social, in contrast to economic, exchange

are never explicit and cannot be enforced by law; above all, the definition

of equivalency is not discussible.

Although too sharp an opposition between morals and markets has

been criticized (see Chapter 1), there remains a difference between the

two that relates to their respective potential of bringing about human

solidarity: gifts given in informal relationships invariably affect human

solidarity, whereas goods exchanged on the market do not. Anthropologists

and ethnologists agree on the core role of the moral obligation

to return the gift. Because this obligation alternates between the parties

involved in exchange, durable social bonds and networks are created enabling

patterns of reciprocal exchange to come into existence. Although

in sociological theory reciprocal obligation has been recognized as an

aspect of solidarity (Weesie, Buskens, and Raub 1998), it has received far

less attention in sociology than in anthropology. Nevertheless, the idea

of reciprocity is implied in most contemporary conceptions of solidarity

and related concepts like trust and cooperation (Misztal 1996).