Download Citation on ResearchGate | The Norm Of Reciprocity: A Preliminary Article in American Sociological Review 25(2) · April with 1, Reads. DOI: / Cite this publication. Alvin Ward GOULDNER. Abstract. American sociologist Alvin Gouldner () was the. first to propose the existence of a universal, generalized. norm of reciprocity. He argued that almost all. (). More than four decades ago, Gouldner clarified the concept and its dimensions and assumed the existence of a universal norm of reciprocity in a.

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The manner in which the concept of reciprocity is implicated infunctional theory is explored, enabling a reanalysis of the conceptsof “survival” and “exploitation. Distinctionsare also drawn between 1 reciprocity as a pattern of mutuallycontingent exchange of gratifications, 2 the existential or folkbelief in reciprocity, and 3 the generalized moral norm ofreciprocity. Reciprocity as a moral norm is analyzed; it ishypothesized that it is one of the universal “principal components”of moral codes.

As Westermarck states, “To requite a benefit, or tobe grateful to him who bestows it, is probably everywhere, at leastunder certain circumstances, regarded as a duty. This is a subjectwhich in the present connection calls for special consideration.

While many sociologists concur in thisjudgment, there are nonetheless few concepts in sociology whichremain more obscure and ambiguous. Howard Becker, for example, hasfound this concept so important that he has titled one of hisbooks Man in Reciprocity and has even spoken of man as Homoreciprocusall without venturing to present a straightforwarddefinition of reciprocity.

Instead Becker states, “I don’t propose tofurnish any definition of reciprocity; if you produce some, they willbe your own achievements. Becker is not alone in failing to stipulate formally the meaningof reciprocity, while at the same time affirming its primeimportance.

Indeed, he is in very good company, agreeing with L. Hobhouse, who held that “reciprocity. Yet Hobhousepresents no systematic definition of reciprocity. While hardly anyclearer than Hobhouse, Richard Thurnwald is equally certain of thecentral importance of the “principle of reciprocity”: Simmelremarks that social equilibrium and cohesion could not exist without”the reciprocity of service and return service,” and that ‘allcontacts among men rest on the schema of giving and returning theequivalence.

Were we confronted with only an obscure concept, which we had noreason to assume to be important, we might justifiably consign it tothe Valhalla of intellectual history, there to consort eternally withthe countless incunabula of sociological ingenuity. Howeverconvenient, such a disposition would be rash, for we can readily notethe importance attributed to the concept of reciprocity by suchscholars as George Homans, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Raymond Firth, 6 as well as by such earlier writers as Durkheim, Marx, Mauss,Malinowski, and von Wiese, to name only a few masters.

Accordingly, the aims of this paper are: My concern with reciprocity developed initially from a criticalreexamination of current functional theory, especially the work ofRobert Merton and Talcott Parsons.

The fullest ramifications of whatfollows can best be seen in this theoretical context. Merton’sfamiliar paradigm of functionalism stresses that analysis must beginwith the identification of some problematic pattern of humanbehavior, some institution, role, or shared pattern of belief.

Mertonstipulates clearly the basic functionalist assumption, the way inwhich the problematic pattern is to be understood: Merton’s posture toward the notion of a social survival is bothpragmatic and sceptical. He asserts that the question of survivals islargely an empirical one; if the evidence demonstrates that a givensocial pattern is presently functionless then it simply has to beadmitted provisionally to be a survival.

Contrariwise, if no suchevidence can be adduced “then the quarrel dwindles of its ownaccord. Itis also a sceptical position in that he holds that “even when suchsurvivals are identified in contemporary literate societies they seemto add little to our understanding of human behavior or the dynamicsof social change.

This resolution of the problem of survivals does not seem entirelysatisfactory, for although vital empirical issues are involved thereare also important questions that can only be clarifiedtheoretically. Merton’s discussion implies that certain patterns ofhuman behavior are already known to be, or may in the future be shownto be, social survivals. Can functional theory ignore them on thegrounds that they are not socially consequential? Consequential ornot, such social survivals would in themselves entail patterns ofbehavior or belief which are no less in need of explanation than anyother.

More than that, their very existence, which Merton conceivespossible, would seem to contradict the “central orientation” offunctional theory. Functionalism, to repeat, explains the persistence of socialpatterns in terms of their ongoing consequences for existent socialsystems.


If social survivals, which by definition have no suchconsequences, are conceded to exist or to be possible, then it wouldseen that functionalism is by its own admission incapable ofexplaining them.

To suggest that survivals do not help us tounderstand other patterns of social behavior is beside the mark. Thedecisive issue is whether existent versions of functional theory canexplain social survivals, not whether specific social survivals canexplain other social patterns. It would seem that functionalists have but one of two choices: In the latter case, functionalists must develop furthertheir basic assumptions on the generalized level required.

I believethat one of the strategic ways in which such basic assumptions can bedeveloped is by recognizing the manner in which the concept of reciprocity is tacitly involved in them and by explicating theconcept’s implications for functional theory. The tacit implication of the concept of reciprocity in functionaltheory can be illustrated in Merton’s analysis of the latentfunctions of the political machine in the United States.

Mertoninquires how political machines continue to operate, despite the factthat they frequently run counter to both the mores and the law. The general form of his explanation is to identify theconsequences of the machine for surrounding structures and todemonstrate that the machine performs positive functions which are atthe same time not adequately fulfilled by other existing patterns andstructures. In this case,the patterns of reciprocity, implied in the notion of the”corruption” of the machine, are well known and fully documented.

To state the issue generally: Itis in this sense that some concept of reciprocity apparently has beensmuggled into the basic but unstated postulates of functionalanalysis.

The demonstration that A is functional for B helps toaccount for A’s own persistence and stability only on two relatedassumptions: The second assumption, indeed, is oneimplication of the definition of reciprocity as a transaction.

UnlessB’s services to A are contingent upon the services provided by A, itis pointless to examine the latter if recipocity wishes to account for thepersistence of A. It may be assumed, as a first approximation, that a social unit orgroup is more likely to contribute to another which provides it withbenefits than to one which does not; nonetheless, there are certaingeneral conditions under which one pattern may provide benefits forthe other despite a lack of reciprocity.

An important case ofthis situation is where power arrangements constrain the continuanceof services. If B is considerably more powerful than A, B may force Ato benefit it with little or no reciprocity. This social arrangement,to goulxner sure, is less stable than one in which B’s reciprocity motivates A to continue performing services for B, but it ishardly rciprocity this reason sociologically unimportant. The problem can also be approached in terms of the functionalautonomy 13 of two units relative to each other.

Norm of Reciprocity – Gouldner

For example, B mayhave many alternative sources for supplying the services that itnormally receives from A.

A, however, may be dependent upon B’sservices and have no, or comparatively few, alternatives. Consequently, the continued provision of benefits by one pattern, 14 A, for another, B, depends not only upon 1 the benefits whichA in turn receives from B, but also on 2 the power which Bpossesses relative to A, and 3 the alternative sources of servicesaccessible to each, beyond those provided by the other.

In short, anexplanation of the stability of a pattern, or of the relationshipbetween A and B, requires investigation of mutually contingentbenefits rendered and of the manner in which this mutual contingencyis sustained. The latter, in turn, requires utilization of twodifferent theoretical traditions and general orientations, onestressing the significance of power differences and the otheremphasizing the degree of mutual dependence of the patterns orparties involved. Functional theory, then, requires some assumption concerningreciprocity.

It must however avoid the “Pollyanna Fallacy” whichoptimistically assumes that structures securing “satisfactions” fromothers will invariably be “grateful” and will always reciprocate. Therefore it cannot be merely hypostatized that reciprocity willoperate in every case; its occurrence must, instead, be documentedempirically.

Although reciprocal relations stabilize patterns, itneed not follow that a lack of reciprocity is socially impossible orinvariably disruptive of the patterns involved. Relations with littleor no reciprocity may, for example, occur when power disparitiesallow one reciproxity to coerce the other. There may also be specialmechanisms which compensate for or control the tensions which arisein the event of a breakdown in reciprocity.

Among such compensatorymechanisms there may be culturally shared prescriptions of one-sidedor unconditional generosity, such as the Christian notion of “turningthe other cheek” or “walking the second mile,” the feudal notion of” noblesse oblige ,” or the Roman notion of “clemency.

Thus far reciprocity has been discussed as a mutually contingentexchange of benefits between two or more units, as if it were an “allor none” matter. Once the problem is posed in this way, however, itis apparent that reciprocity is not merely present or absent but is,instead, quantitatively variable–or may be treated as such. Thebenefits exchanged, at one extreme, may be identical or equal.


At theother logical extreme, one party may give feciprocity in return for thebenefits it has received. Both of these extremes are probably rare insocial relations and the intermediary case, in which one party givessomething more or less than that received, is probably more commonthan either of the limiting cases. Having cast the problem of reciprocity in these quantitativeterms, there emerges an norj implication for the question ofsocial survivals.

The quantitative view of reciprocity. Thesefunctionalists made the cogent of the earlier notion of asurvival. It may now be seen that there a survival was tacitlytreated as one of the limiting cases of reciprocity, that is, one inwhich a pattern provides nothing in exchange for the benefitsgiven it.

The polemical opposition of the earlier gouldndr to thisview of a survival rests implicitly on an unqualified principle ofreciprocity. These functionalists made the cogent assumption that asocial pattern which persists must be securing satisfaction of itsown needs from certain other patterns. What was further and moredubiously assumed, however, was that if this pattern continues to be”serviced” this could only be because it reciprocally provided somegratifications to its benefactors.

In the course of the polemic, thequestion of the degree of such gratification– the relation betweenits output and reciprodity obscured. To the early functionalists,the empirical problem became one of unearthing the hiddencontributions made by a seeming survival and, thereby, showing goildner is not in fact functionless.

In effect, this enjoined thefunctionalist to exert his ingenuity to search out the hiddenreciprocities for it was assumed that there must be somereciprocities somewhere. This gouldndr, in certain cases, as AudreyRichards states, to “some far-fetched explanations. If, however, it had been better understood that compensatorymechanisms might have been substituted for reciprocity, or that powerdisparities might have maintained the “survival” despite its lack ofreciprocity, then many fruitful problems may well have emerged.

Aboveall, the early functionalists neglected the fact that a survival isonly the limiting case of a larger class of social phenomena, namely,relations between parties or patterns in which functional reciprocityis not equal.

While the survival, defined as theextreme case of a complete lack of reciprocity may be rare,the larger class of unequal exchanges, of which survivals area part, is frequent.

The tacit conception of survivals as entailingno reciprocity led the early functionalists to neglect the largerclass of unequal exchanges. It is this problem which thefunctionalist polemic against survivals has obscured to the presentday. It was, however, not only the functionalist polemic against theconcept of survivals that obscured the significance and inhibited thestudy of unequal exchanges.

Norm of reciprocity

A similar result is also produced by thesuspicion with which many modern sociologists understandably regardthe concept of “exploitation. In the nownearly-forgotten language of political economy, “exploitation” nork a relationship in which unearned income results from certain kindsof unequal exchange.

Starting perhaps with Sismondi’s notion of “spoliation,” andpossibly even earlier with the physiocrat’s critique of exchange asintrinsically unproductive, the concept of exploitation can be tracedfrom the work of the Saint-Simonians to that of Marx and Proudhon.

Even after theemergence of sociology as a separate discipline the concept ofexploitation appears in the works of E. Ross, 17 von Wiese, andHoward Becker. Ross andBecker-von Wiese, for example speak of various types of exploitation: However, just as the concept of exploitation was being generalizedand made available for social analysis, it almost disappeared fromsociological usage.

This is in the study of sexual relations. As Kanin andHoward remark, “It has been the practice to speak guoldner exploitationwhen males were found to have entered sexual liaisons with women ofcomparative lower status. While she was still immature thefather could use his power to take advantage of her. He goes on to add that “legitimate sexualrelations ordinarily involve a certain amount of reciprocity. Sex isexchanged for something equally valuable.

The continued use of the concept of exploitation in sociologicalanalyses of sexual relations stems largely from the norrm work ofWillard Waller on the dynamics of courtship. Waller’s ambivalentcomments about the concept suggest why it has fallen intosociological disrepute.