In cultural anthropology and sociology, reciprocity is a way of defining people's informal exchange of goods and labour; that is, people's informal economic systems. It is the basis of most non-market economies. Since virtually all humans live in some kind of society and have at least a few possessions, reciprocity is common to every culture. Marshall Sahlins, a well known American cultural anthropologist, identified three main types of reciprocity in his book Stone Age Economics (1972).
Generalized reciprocity is the same as virtually uninhibited sharing or giving. It occurs when one person shares goods or labor with another person without expecting anything in return. What makes this interaction "reciprocal" is the sense of satisfaction the giver feels, and the social closeness that the gift fosters. In industrial society this occurs mainly between parents and children, or within married couples. In other cultures generalized reciprocity can occur within entire clans or large kin groups, for instance among the east Semai of Malaya. Between people who engage in generalized reciprocity, there is a maximum amount of trust and a minimum amount of social distance.
Balanced or Symmetrical reciprocity occurs when someone gives to someone else, expecting a fair and tangible return at some undefined future date. It is a very informal system of exchange. The expectation that the giver will be repaid is based on trust and social consequences; that is, a "mooch" who accepts gifts and favors without ever giving himself will find it harder and harder to obtain those favors. In industrial societies this can be found among relatives, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Balanced reciprocity involves a moderate amount of trust and social distance.
Negative reciprocity includes what economists call barter. A person gives goods or labor and expects to be repaid immediately with some other goods or labor of the same value. Negative reciprocity can involve a minimum amount of trust and a maximum social distance; indeed, it can take place among strangers. Negative reciprocity was a prevalent form of exchange to establish friendly relations in nonindustrial societies between different groups.
Economist Steven Suranovic says negative reciprocity occurs when an action that has a negative effect upon someone else is reciprocated with an action that has approximately equal negative effect upon another. If the reaction is not approximately equal in negative value, or worse, the reaction has a much greater negative effect upon the first person, then the reaction will likely be judged unfair. Negative reciprocity fairness requires that negative actions be reciprocated in kind; a “quid pro quo” type of response.
To many scholars, barter was the basis of all economies before the invention of money. Others argue that before money arose, generalized and balanced reciprocity along with redistribution replaced simple exchange in most cases. (After all, barter is usually very difficult to arrange.) In other words, institutions of community democracy, tradition, and command organized production and distribution, so that the distinction between the economy and the rest of society was hard to draw.
Another form of reciprocity is moral reciprocity. Moral reciprocity refers to the general tendency of humans (and, some argue, other animals) to reciprocate both assistance and harm in relation to the subjective interpretation of that assistance or harm as moral or immoral. For example, neoclassical economics holds that rational individuals will only engage in actions that maximize their material gains. Researchers believe that moral reciprocity may be the reason why many individuals are willing to pay a price considered to be irrationally large (within the framework of neoclassical economics) to punish others they believe have acted immorally.