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Peer Production is a form of non-reciprocal exchange, but it can also be called "Generalized Reciprocity". Reciprocity most often refers to situations where a return is expected.


From the Wikipedia article at

"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 Malaysia. 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 is 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." (


Direct and Indirect Reciprocity

Joe Brewer:

"Traditional evolutionary biologists had already worked out a couple of mechanisms by which members of some species innately cohere as cooperative groups. For example, kin selection instinctively prediposes social animals to powerfully favour close genetic relatives. This explains things like bee colonies, lion prides, and human nepotism.

Amongst unrelated, selfish people, reciprocal altruism can explain exchange and cooperation in the absence of a central authority — as long as they live in small communities where people know each other and are locked into repeated interactions over time. In such a context, the promise of future benefits and retaliation against cheating are sufficient for rational calculation to generate the “I will share my Mastodon steak with you now, assuming that you will share with me in the future” principle.

Even in populations where people don’t know each other directly, it’s still possible to generate “spontaneous order” as long as the group has high community cohesion due to ethnic or religious identity. This “indirect reciprocity” was in my opinion best illustrated by economist Avner Greif. Making inferences from documents deposited in the Cairo Geniza, Greif argued that informal institutions regulated commerce amongst the Maghribi Jewish traders as they conducted long-distance trade with one another in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. The strength of ethnoreligious ties (especially as a minority in a wider world), maintained by strong exclusion of outsiders, reproduced a village-like flow of information even within a far-flung community and enabled reputation and ostracism to be the instruments of policing.

Of course, as anyone who has read Thomas Sowell knows, such commercial minorities are abundant even today and operate effectively in corrupt countries with weak legal institutions, such as the Lebanese in West Africa and Latin America, or the Chinese in Southeast Asia. And even in countries with strong legal institutions, ultra-Orthodox Jews conduct a major international trade in diamonds without much reliance on external authorities.

But most people agree these mechanisms — kin selection and reciprocity — by themselves cannot sustain a cooperative equilibrium in much larger societies composed of strangers who may never interact more than once and are separated by great distances." (

Strong Reciprocity

Joe Brewer:

"A possible solution is “strong reciprocity“, sometimes also known as “altruistic punishment“. Behavioural economists claim to have documented the existence of this emotional instinct to engage in costly punishment of non-cooperators. In anonymous experiments intended to mimic collective action situations, strong reciprocators tend to punish free-riders, even when they are not the direct victims, and even when there is no clear or assured benefit in the future from doing so. [2nd vs 3rd party punishment] “Strong reciprocity” could be the psychological basis of the outrage that one sees in reaction to a social norm violation like, say, queue-jumping.

In the 4-player public goods game (PGG), each player is given some money and the choice to contribute any fraction of the amount (including zero) to a common pool. At the end, the total is multiplied by some factor and then divided equally amongst the players. Players only know about one another’s contributions at the end of each game. Then the game is repeated many times.

The experiment is designed so that the players, collectively, do their best if everyone contributes the maximum amount from the beginning. But an individual player has an incentive to free-ride whilst everyone else contributes. The worst collective outcome is obtained if everyone decides to free-ride.

PGG comes in two versions, with and without punishment. In the punishment version, each player is informed anonymously after each round about everyone else’s contributions and is allowed to punish whom ever they deem a free-loader by deducting from the free-loader’s final take. But the punisher must pay for some fraction of the punishment amount from his own take.

In a version of the game without punishment, repeating the game many times always causes cooperation to tank, because those who initially made high contributions learn about the free riders at the end of each iteration and then lower their subsequent contributions. But in the version of the game with punishment, a high level of cooperation is sustained." (


John Restakis (in ch. 6 of Humanizing the Economy):

"Reciprocity is the social mechanism that makes associational life possible. It is the foundation of social life. In its elements, reciprocity is a system of voluntary exchange between individuals based on the understanding that the giving of a favour by one will in future be reciprocated either to the giver or to someone else. A simple example is the loan of a lawn mower by one neighbour - call him Frank, to another – say, Fred. Frank makes the loan on the assumption that at some later date Fred will return the favour. If Fred does not, the basis of reciprocity falls apart. No more loaning of the lawnmower to Fred. Moreover Fred’s non-reciprocity, if it continues, becomes reputational. Others will stop extending favours to Fred also. So willingness to reciprocate is a basic signal of the sociability of an individual. Taken to an extreme, the complete unwillingness of an individual to reciprocate is tantamount to severing the bonds between themselves and other people. Reciprocity is thus a social relation that contains within itself potent emotional and even spiritual dimensions. These elements account for an entirely different set of motivations within individuals than behaviour in the classical sense of “maximizing one’s utility” as a consumer.

Reciprocity animates a vast range of economic activities that rest on the sharing and reinforcement of attitudes and values that are interpersonal and constitute essential bonds between the individual and the human community. What is exchanged in reciprocal transactions are not merely particular goods, services and favours, but more fundamentally the expression of good will and the assurance that one is prepared to help others. It is the foundation of trust. Consequently, the practice of reciprocity has profound social ramifications and entails a clear moral element. Reciprocity is a key for understanding how the institutions of society work. But it is also an economic principle with wholly distinct characteristics that embody social as opposed to merely commercial attributes. When reciprocity finds economic expression in the exchange of goods and services to people and communities it is the social economy that results. Examples range from the provision of burial services through the creation of friendly societies in the 1800s to the promotion of neighborhood safety through organizations like Neighborhood Watch today.

Finally, reciprocity is egalitarian – it presupposes a direct relationship of equality between the individuals involved. It is very different from altruism where the giver may have no relation to the receiver and where there is a clear asymmetry of power, as is the case with charity."

Contemporary Reciprocity

"In experiments and surveys people are not stingy, but their generosity is conditional. Moreover, they distinguish among the goods and services to be distributed, favoring those which meet basic needs, and among the recipients themselves, favoring those thought to be "deserving." Strong reciprocity and basic needs generosity better explain the motivations that undergird egalitarian politics than does unconditional altruism. By "strong reciprocity" we mean a propensity to cooperate and share with others similarly disposed, and a willingness to punish those who violate cooperative and other social norms--even when such sharing and punishing is personally costly. We call a person who acts this way Homo reciprocans. Homo reciprocans cares about the well-being of others and about the processes determining outcomes--whether they are fair, for example, or violate a social norm. He differs in this from the self-regarding and outcome-oriented Homo economicus. We see Homo reciprocans at work in Chicago's neighborhoods, in a recent study that documented a widespread willingness to intervene with co-residents to discourage truancy, public disorders, and antisocial behaviors, as well as the dramatic impact of this "collective efficacy" on community safety and amenities.1

Homo reciprocans is not committed to the abstract goal of equal outcomes, but rather to a rough "balancing out" of burdens and rewards. In earlier times--when, for example, an individual's conventional claim on material resources was conditioned by noble birth or divine origin--what counted as balancing out might entail highly unequal comfort and wealth. But, as we will see, in the absence of specific counter-claims, modern forms of reciprocity often take equal division as a reference point." (

Political Implications for Egalitarianism

" Aside from unconditional altruism, there are two distinct reasons why people might support egalitarian policies. First, many egalitarian programs are forms of social insurance that will be supported even by those who believe they will pay in more than their expected claims over a lifetime. Consider unemployment, health insurance, or other social programs that soften the blows during the rocky periods that people experience in the course of their lives. Even the securely rich support ameliorating the conditions of the poor on prudential, that-might-happen-to-me grounds. Assuming people are broadly prudent and risk-averse, then the insurance motive is consistent with conventional notions of self-interest. The second reason for supporting egalitarian programs, in contrast, is not fundamentally self-regarding: egalitarianism is often based on a commitment to what we are calling "strong reciprocity." It is little surprise that people are more generous than economics textbooks allow; more remarkable is that they are equally unselfish in seeking to punish, often at great cost to themselves, those who have done harm to them and others. Programs designed to tap these other-regarding motives may succeed where others that offend underlying motivational structures have been abandoned.

Both historical and contemporary experimental evidence support this position. Consider first the historical evidence. In his Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt, Barrington Moore, Jr. sought to discern if there might be common motivations--"general conceptions of unfair and unjust behavior"--for the moral outrage fueling struggles for justice throughout human history. "There are grounds," he concludes,

"for suspecting that the welter of moral codes may conceal a certain unity of original form . . . a general ground plan, a conception of what social relationships ought to be. It is a conception that by no means excludes hierarchy and authority, where exceptional qualities and defects can be the source of enormous admiration and awe. At the same time, it is one where services and favors, trust and affection, in the course of mutual exchanges, are ideally expected to find some rough balancing out."

Moore termed the general ground plan he uncovered "the concept of reciprocity--or better, mutual obligation, a term that does not imply equality of burdens or obligations." In like manner, James Scott analyzed agrarian revolts, identifying violations of the "norm of reciprocity" as one the essential triggers of insurrectionary motivations." (

History of Strong Reciprocity

" One is tempted to consider strong reciprocity a late arrival in social evolution, possibly one whose provenance is to be found in Enlightenment individualism, or later in the era of liberal democratic or socialist societies. But this account does not square with overwhelming evidence of the distant etiology of strong reciprocity. The primatologist Christopher Boehm finds that

with the advent of anatomically modern humans who continued to live in small groups and had not yet domesticated plants and animals, it is very likely that all human societies practiced egalitarian behavior and that most of the time they did so very successfully. One main conclusion, then, is that intentional leveling linked to an egalitarian ethos is an immediate and probably an extremely widespread cause of human societies' failing to develop authoritative or coercive leadership.

And anthropologist Bruce Knauft adds:

In all ethnographically known simple societies, cooperative sharing of provisions is extended to mates, offspring, and many others within the band. . . . Archeological evidence suggests that widespread networks facilitating diffuse access to and transfer of resources and information have been pronounced at least since the Upper Paleolithic . . . The strong internalization of a sharing ethic is in many respects the sine qua non of culture in these societies.

Far from being a mere moment in the history of anatomically modern humans, the period described by Knauft and Boehm emerges roughly 100,000 years before the present and extends to the advent and spread of agriculture 12,000 years ago. In short, it spans perhaps 90 percent of the time we have existed on the planet.

One group of contemporary foragers, the Aché of Eastern Paraguay, has been particularly closely studied, with close attention to the amounts and nutritional values of food acquired and consumed by members of the group. Sharing is so widespread, researchers have found, that on average three-quarters of what anyone eats is acquired by someone outside the consumer's nuclear family; even more remarkable, in the case of meat and honey (the main goods foraged by men):

women, children and adult siblings of the accquirer receive no more . . . from their husbands, fathers and brothers respectively than would be expected by chance, and men eat from their own kills a good deal less than would be expected by chance.

The Aché are probably unusually egalitarian, and there is evidence that hunting prowess is rewarded, if not with more food, then with enhanced social esteem and increased mating success. Nevertheless it is typical in foraging societies that families with less successful hunters, and indeed those unable to hunt, are nonetheless adequately provisioned by the group.

The resulting egalitarian distribution of resources is not simply a byproduct of ecological or other constraints; it is deliberately sought. Using data from forty-eight simple societies, Christopher Boehm concluded that they "may be considered to be intentional communities, groups of people that make up their minds about the amount of hierarchy they wish to live with and then see to it that the program is followed." He found evidence that potentially arrogant members of the group were constrained by public opinion, criticism and ridicule, disobedience, ostracism and assassination.

It seems likely then, that "politically assertive egalitarianism" has characterized most of human history. The modern welfare state is thus but an example of a ubiquitous social form. Sharing institutions--from families to extended gift-giving, barn raisings, tithing, or egalitarian division rules for the catch of the hunt--have cropped up in human history with such regularity and under such diverse circumstances that one is tempted to place them among what Talcott Parsons called "evolutionary universals": social institutions that confer such extensive benefits upon their users that they regularly reappear in course of history in otherwise diverse societies." (

How do Netizens experience reciprocity?

Michelle Rowan:

"So, what exactly does reciprocity mean for netizen?

Balanced and Generalised forms of reciprocity are compressed and altered. The exchange offers maximum trust (ie. that unkown users aren’t going to use the information/material in an untoward way), but also allows for maximum social distance through the global network. Youtube is a good example of this. Some users post videos expecting nothing in return, they do it because they know the community will appreciate it. Others share their videos, but expect that one day they will be ‘compensated’ ie. someone will post an equally valuable video at some stage in the future.

Negative is reserved primarily for ecommerce sites, be it Amazon or Ebay, and is largely unchanged.

In sum, web2.0 technologies not only change the way we view exchanges within our community, but change the frequency, type and access to different forms of reciprocity. Through social networking, we can exchange information with those in our outer circles, and in doing so, expand ourselves as we transgress the divisive social circles through online exchange." (

Reciprocity vs Community

Anna Harris:

"Reciprocity – defined as the practice of exchanging things with others usually for mutual benefit. Michel describes reciprocity as the basis of the social bond, and designates it as a voluntary act. Clearly there is some obligation implied if not specified, since 'complete unwillingness' to reciprocate can lead to a severance of social bonds. This unwillingness might also be seen as a result of 'psychological distress' as described by David Smail

In other words 'unwillingness' need not be conceived of as some sort of personal failure, but could also be understood as a response to certain social conditions and structures which have not (yet) evolved to supporting individuals in reaching their full potential. This would indicate that societies where reciprocity is the basis of the social bond, are themselves still in transition, have not evolved beyond / transcended the ego.

To paraphrase one of Thomas Huebl's talks, he describes the ego, which is mainly concerned with getting something for itself, as going through different phases of development: initially in childhood, the child is dominated by its constant need to receive; then the mature adult who looks for a more balanced exchange, (the market or reciprocity), lastly, transcending the ego, by experiencing abundance through connection to higher energies, and being inspired to pass this on by giving in service. Thomas sees this last phase as a precondition for a sustainable society.

I believe this is what we are seeing in the beginnings of the p2p movement, the 'shareable society' and the reclamation of the commons. The traditional role of women as the care-givers, ie. giving without asking for return, also fits in here. Reciprocity is best seen as a stage (of course stages overlap) in our awakening consciousness, the spiritual component to which Bauwens alludes, and a development out of the childhood selfishness/ self-centered focus on private interests and gain.

The same applies to trust. In so far as trust is dependent on an expected return, whether to the giver or someone else, whether now or in the future, there will be an obligation on the receiver, and in that sense it will not be a free association. I understand that Michel is approaching from the viewpoint of designing an economy which serves the interests of the community. However the greatest good is not that which serves the community, but that which serves the community and the individual. The principle of reciprocity, while serving the community, does not provide for the freedom of the individual. On the contrary it obliges the individual to reciprocate at some point." (networked labour mailing list, May 2014)

Key Books to Read

Book Review

From A book review by Bill Ellis:

"THE FABLE OF L'HOMO ECONOMICUS is destroyed by Dominique Temple and Mireille Chabal in: La Réciprocité et La Naissance des Valeurs Humaines (Éditions L'Harmattan, 5-7 rue de L'école Polytechnique, F-75005 Paris FRANCE, 1995, in French).

Modern Economics and the EuroAmerican culture are based on the assumed reality of Homo economicus. That is, that the only motivation of humans is material self-interest. This book examines all cultures throughout history, including our own modern culture, and demonstrates that human motivations and human values have been distorted only in the last couple of hundred years, and more vehemently in the last few decades, to become based on values which are destroying the humanity and life on Earth. Reciprocity is more fundamental and more friendly to both humans and nature.

Reciprocity is the antithesis of exchange or selling. Reciprocity, or gifting, has taken on many forms in different cultures. In some it is imbedded in religion. People produce and distribute goods and services in celebration of their spiritual beliefs. Their work is a gift to the gods, to the Earth, and to humanity, without thought of material return. In other cultures production is for the common good. That is, people see themselves imbedded in their families and communities. They exist only because of their relationships to other people and their bioregion. And these relationships depend on the productive role they play -- how much they can support and give to society. In still others, material welfare is paramount; but one gains insurance of her or his material well-being by giving to others. "To him who gives shall be given." Each person gains prestige in society by how much s/he gives. That prestige demands reciprocity to the giver and to the family of the giver. The more one impoverishes himself in betterment of the community the more the community is beholden to the giver.

This reciprocity on which almost all cultures are based is uniquely vilified by neoliberal economic theory which refuses to recognize that production and distribution can be based on anything but greed and exchange -- giving up something only to gain something else. This distorted economic theory of exchange goes well beyond just the market. Economic reasoning has invaded sociology, education, politics, ethics and the law. Homo economicus is believed to base all values and judgments on economic exchange values, what one can gain materially. It is only in this distorted Western society that reciprocity has been subjugated to the concept of exchange.

Bronislaw Malinowski, Claude Levi-Straus, Marcel Mauss, Marshall Sahlins and other anthropologists have shown the deep roots of reciprocity; Aristotle, Homer, Hobbes, and other political philosophers trace reciprocity from the Greeks as the base of our Western society; and Hegel, Adam Smith, Durkheim and Polanyi and other economists, describe reciprocity's relevance to the age we are in. But it's the future which really concerns Temple and Chabal. Money, exchange, and globalism have replaced the human values inherent in reciprocity with motivations which are leading to social, ecological, economic and political destruction. Reciprocity exists deep in ourselves, our families, and our communities; but it is suppressed by our belief system and its resulting social institutions. We see reciprocity in President Bush's thousand points of light, in the burgeoning NGOs around the world, in volunteerism, in our familles, in our communities, and in many grassroots social innovations. Our future can be assured only if we release this constructive force of reciprocity.

Or as the authors end this book, "Si l'esclave veut etre libre, il ne lui faut pas seulement différer la mort, mais dominer sa propre vie par le souce de celle d'autrui, maitriser la vie avant qu'elle ne le condamne a mort." ($223)

More Information

  1. Strong Reciprocity
  2. Gift Economy

Key essay: