Reciprocity:Gift and Sacrifice

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The fourth dimension, reciprocity, can take two shapes: gift and sacrifice.

This dimension varies mainly in the degree of anonymity and abstractness

of what is coming in return. Reciprocity and mutual sharing have

a long history in social theory. In Auguste Comte’s view, sociology was

the scientific study of friendship and companionship (socius), the latter

termpointing to the importance of sharing basic resources such as bread

(panis) in order to be able to form and maintain social ties. Companionship

is best exemplified by the communal sharing of a meal and the

exchange of food, as is also reflected in the etymological roots of theword

(B. Turner and Rojek 2001). The ritual of hospitality, the sharing of bread

and other food, is a prototypical example of the morality of reciprocity.

The essence is that receiving prompts giving.

Lґevi-Strauss (1961 [1949]) gives an illuminating example in his account

of a ceremonial aspect of the meal. In some lower-price restaurants in

the south of France each guest finds a small bottle of wine in front of

his plate. The bottle is the same as that of this person’s neighbor at the

table and holds just one glass. The contents of the bottle are not poured

in the glass of the owner but in that of his neighbor, and the latter makes

the gesture of reciprocity by doing exactly the same. In the end each

guest has not received more than if he had consumed his own wine.

Instead of silently sitting next to each other as strangers, social bond is

created by the simple act of reciprocal wine pouring. It is impossible

to refuse that gesture without appearing insulting. As a result not only

the wine is returned but conversation is offered in return as well. This

apparently futile scene represents a very basic situation: that in which

individuals enter into contact with strangers and are facing the problem

of either being friendly and establishing a bond or refusing to accept the

stranger as a potential ally altogether. Lґevi-Strauss spends several pages

on this example because he feels that it offers “material for inexhaustible

sociological reflection.”He apparently shares Comte’s view that studying

reciprocity and the formation of social bonds should remain a concern

for sociology.

Of course, not every exchange contains the moral element that leads to

the formation of social ties. Purely economic exchange is not offering the

moral context needed for the coming into existence of social bonds. As

Frans deWaal rightly observes: “Reciprocity can exist without morality;

there can be no morality without reciprocity” (1996: 136). Like Lґevi-

Strauss, de Waal thinks that the link between morality and reciprocity

is particularly evident in hospitality and food sharing. “A link between

morality and reciprocity is nowhere as evident as in the distribution of

resources, such as the sharing of food. To invite others for dinner . . . and

to have the invitation returned on a later date is a universally understood

human ritual of hospitality and friendship” (de Waal 1996: 136). Apparently,

a situation of reciprocity and sharing offers the best guarantee for

a peaceful being together. Hospitality, or the sharing of a meal, seems to

be the epitome of human community.

Why is the informal social contract created by reciprocity so effective

in creating the cement of society? The answer lies in the sublime

reconciliation of individual and social interests resulting from it. Its evolutionary

effectivity has been amply documented in thework of biologists

like Trivers (1971), in de Waal’s animal studies, and in Malinowski’s and

Lґevi-Strauss’s anthropological field studies. Reciprocity represents the

elegant combination of self-interested concerns with the requirements of

social life. AsMarcelMauss said, “Material and moral life, and exchange,

function . . . in a form that is both disinterested and obligatory” (1990

[1923]: 33).

Why is the concept of reciprocity more promising as a cornerstone of

solidarity theory than is the basic assumption of rational choice theory

that humans are rational egoists (Hechter 1987; Coleman and Fararo

1992)? It is because this assumption leaves no room for the aspect of

moral obligation. Although people certainly try to realize their own best

interests in many instances, there is more to human life than mere selfinterest.

Leaving aside the various other criticisms that can be launched

against some of the core aspects of rational choice theory (Sen 1979;

Coleman and Fararo 1992), the fact that people feel morally committed

to their fellow human beings because they have given them something

of value is ignored in contemporary rational choice–inspired theories of


The notion of sacrifice is yet another significant aspect of solidarity that

is generally overlooked in sociological theories; in the anthropological gift

theory, however, it is a recurring theme (Hubert and Mauss 1974; Girard

1993 [1977]; Berking 1999). In the words of the German sociologist and

anthropologist Berking, “It is not only that, in the most varied cultures,

gifts are again and again understood as sacrifices and vice versa. It is also

that gift and sacrifice denote two, admittedly distinguishable, intensities

in the continuum of an anthropology of giving” (1999: 51). Throughout

the centuries people in the most different cultures have sacrificed to gods

or ancestors. Not only animals but occasionally also human beings were

involved in ritual slaughter. An example showing the continuity between

gift and sacrifice is the willingness of human beings to sacrifice their

own lives in order to save another human being – rescuing a child from a

burning house or preventing ap erson fromdrowning. Those who offered

shelter to Jews during the Second World War to save them from Nazi

prosecution put themselves at a serious, sometimes life-threatening risk.

All these examples show a personal sacrifice occurring in the context

of a concrete relationship with one or more other human beings (not

necessarily being acquainted with one another).

The sacrifice of human lives does not only happen at the level of interpersonal

relationships but also at that of groups, communities, clans, and

nations. In the former case the sacrifice is concrete and personal, whereas

in the case of large-scale group solidarity it is abstract and anonymous.

This type of sacrifice can vary from the sacrifice of individual autonomy

and freedom of thinking in the name of a certain group ideal, but group

solidarity can also lead to the sacrifice of anonymous others’ lives, because

they have different convictions or a different group identity. An

extremely high loyalty toward one’s own group combined with extreme

animosity and hate toward outsiders can lead one to sacrifice one’s own

life and that of as many enemies as possible, in order to attain personal

martyrdom and heroism. The Muslim extremists who crashed planes

into the twin towers of theWorld Trade Center on 11 September 2001 and

the Palestinians who attack Israel by killing themselves provide examples

of what Durkheim (1951 [1897]) called altruistic suicide: the sacrifice of

one’s own life for a“ good cause.”

Although the ideology of sacrifice does occur both at the interpersonal

and the group level, the large-scale sacrifice of human lives is more characteristic

for group solidarity than for relationships between individuals.

Ideals of sacrifice have a prominent place in the consciousness of those

who are unified in political or ethnic group solidarity. The stronger the

value the group represents to its members, the more important it is to

preserve internal cohesion. In communist groups and organizations it

was a sign of political virtue to sacrifice one’s personal interests and personal

life to the political cause (Withuis 1990). Groups sharing a strong

ideology are characteristically denying the validity of deviating beliefs and

perspectives. The ideaof sacrifice is abuilt-in feature of their belonging

to the group and a fundament of the group as such.

This type of solidarity is more often found at the other pole of the reciprocity

continuum. At this pole the type of reciprocity is different from

the one belonging to the gift. Where more or less equivalent, concrete,

and personal reciprocity is predominant with the gift, the reciprocity

of sacrifice is of a nonequivalent, abstract, and impersonal nature: the

sacrifice of individuality, autonomy, or human lives is reciprocated with

abstractions like mutual loyalty and ideological purity, collective interest,

or martyrdom. Whereas the gift is recompensed with a countergift,

sacrifice yields heroism and a sense of moral superiority in return.