July 6, 2015
Reciprocity is something that we engage in every day of our lives, at first within our families, then as we grow older with friends and eventually with the community at large and is mostly something we do without much thought. The exchanges we make may be either for financial or material gain but are most commonly for social or emotional gains. As a social norm reciprocity gives our society stability and is a driving force in the creation of communities and interpersonal relationships. This essay will seek to explain the theory of social exchange, the uses for these exchanges in our society, explore how these exchanges impact society within the context of a neighbourhood scenario and finally explore how reciprocity affects us in virtual communities.
Homans (1958) summarises his theory of social exchange as when two or more parties exchange material or nonmaterial things, costly, rewarding or otherwise and as much as this appears to be the same as an economic transaction what differs is the impact the exchange has on the behaviour of the parties and how it influences society (Homans,  2012, p. 110).
Homans (1958) describes the system of social exchange by using three propositions; these are success – whereby a party continues to behave in a certain manner because they are rewarded for it, stimulus – when a party responds to certain events because it has previously yielded a reward and Deprivation–satiation which is when a reward becomes less valuable due to frequency of receiving that reward in the recent past (Homans,  2012, p. 101) and it is these propositions that influence how our society is created through exchange.
In a close knit society social approval is considered to be of great import, as is having skills and assets to share with the community; social approval is given to the individual by others in their community in what is considered to be a nonmaterial exchange, good behaviour or the sharing of skills is rewarded by approval and thus the success the individual enjoys encourages them to continue behaving in that way as per the success proposition.
In the event that the individual is considered deviant in their behaviour the rest of the community will not reward them and thus pushes the deviant individual to conform or be left out. The community cannot afford to reward the deviant behaviour as it begins to affect them, especially when the community have already invested energy into turning the deviant around but to no avail.
The community may have invested similar amounts of energy into turning around a deviant previously and been successful so they feel justified in doing the same again as per the stimulus proposition (Homans,  2012, p. 102).
An example of the Deprivation-satiation proposition looking at that same scenario of the close knit community where an individual begins to feel that their constant contribution to the community is no longer being fairly reciprocated and therefore might begin to withhold their contribution or become deviant. If that particular individual and their contribution is important to the community then the community is pressured to keep them sated in order to keep them in the fold. (Homans,  2012, p. 110)
It is like this that social control is created in our society; human beings are social creatures and require incorporation into society not only for security and resources but also for companionship and this we are attracted to other human beings for these rewards. Blau (1964) states that individuals are attracted to each other because they anticipate that their communion will be mutually rewarding.
When an acquaintance is made each party begins to demonstrate to each other their abilities and positive attributes in an attempt to impress the other; sometimes to get what we want we must pretend to be someone we are not and exaggerate these abilities and attributes, Goffman writes that we all hide behind masks in order to display a certain image to those we interact with face to face and how we interact with each other shapes our reality. These interactions are made up of little rituals such as greetings, handshakes and behaviour which a path for one individual to interact with another (Bulmer,  2000). Social exchange stems from these processes which start from mutual attraction and from these exchanges another vital building block of society appears; bonds (Blau, 2012, p. 113).
These bonds are further reinforced by shared values and ideas and create solidarity in communities and therefore a shared commonality which links all members of the community together despite many different types of groups appearing within the community; it is also from these communities that institutions are formed (Blau, 2012, p. 116). Gouldner reinforces this idea by calling social exchange the “starting mechanism” (Gouldner, 1960) to social interaction and the creation of small groups.
Another thing produced by social exchange is power, take again for instance the individual who contributes greatly to their community but is not fairly recompensed for their efforts except this time that individual is contributing something vital to the community; the more that the community depends on that individual the more power that they hold and with that power they are able to demand higher rewards of the community. This power however is a double edged sword, should they demand too much then the community can feel unfairly treated and turn against the individual. (Blau, 2012, p. 114) The community has a power of its own; through solidarity they can give or take power from another party within their community through collective approval or disapproval (Blau, 2012, p. 115).
It is also suggested that reciprocation is a stabilising or destabilising force within our society (Gouldner, 1960, p. 167); a real life example of the scenario in the paragraph above and instability could be the disposition of King Louie XVI of France during the revolution of 1792. Gouldner (1960, p. 169) makes a distinction between complementation and reciprocation; the former is connected with the concept of duty and obligation to one because of that one’s rights, whereas reciprocation is egalitarian and based on the rights and obligations of both. This creates a kind of failsafe mechanism within the system of reciprocity that ensures that exploitation or failure to reciprocate is seen as immoral, frowned upon and results in a great loss of social approval and therefore great loss in rewards.
The value of the actions or items exchanged are not always equal, however we have built into our systems of reciprocity the idea that we can only give within our means, for example even though you bought your friend who just lost their job an expensive Christmas present and all they was able to give you in return was some a small gift and some Christmas dinner, the norm of reciprocity would cause you to say something akin to “It’s okay, what my friend has given me is a lot for them at this time.”, even though you may run the risk of embarrassing your friend (Blau, 2012) what you are really doing in this case is indebting them to you and perhaps because you are friends you would naturally expect that in the long run the debt would even itself out. (Gouldner, 1960)
In neighbourhoods all over the world you see examples of reciprocity, it is even a fair bet to say that at least at one time or another you experienced a form of neighbourly reciprocity, from going away on holidays and having a neighbour collect your mail or giving an elderly neighbour a lift to the shops.
Traditionally it is said that neighbours looked out for each other due to a lack of social services, in a time when there was no help available from government agencies for things such as nursing, child care or when there was not enough money for essentials we relied on our neighbours to get by; particularly in lower social economic communities (Abrams, 1986, pp. 92-93).
With our neighbours there is a certain kind of behaviour that is expected, we prefer them to be neither too involved in our lives but we do want them around because of the benefits that can come from good neighbourly relation, we expect our neighbours to reciprocate with us not only their time and resources but also common courtesies. Too much exposure to a neighbour and we complain that they are always coming around for something and thus are taxing on our time and resources with very little reward for us (Abrams, 1986, p. 86).
Intrusiveness can also come by way of noise pollution, the neighbour may not be physically intruding however their lack of adherence to the common courtesy of say not making noise at a late hour does affect the other negatively and is a behaviour for which there will be no reward and decreases that neighbours social capital (Crow, et al., 2002).
Intrusiveness is frowned upon however it is sometimes necessary, especially when it is used to stop more immoral acts to occur within our communities, for example let’s look at the mention of domestic violence in a neighbourhood context as per Crow, Allan and Summers (2002) and apply it to the concepts of reciprocity and collective disapproval which Blau outlines.
The violence that occurs next door may not be considered to be a neighbours business however one of the benefits of living close to others is that of protection of the individual within the community. If the neighbour knocks on the door and tries to handle the situation personally then they put themselves at risk, can potentially cause more feelings of shame for the victim and make things worse; however if the neighbour calls the police then they have done their duty of protecting a neighbour and because domestic violence is a crime then the perpetrator receives the full force of disapproval not only from others in the neighbourhood but also of judicial system. If this occurs in a small community then it is generally known who the neighbour that called the police was; however in larger communities like the ones in Simmel’s Metropolis (1903) one can be anonymous in their helpful actions and seek neither repercussions nor reward for protecting another member of their community.
The reason why the intrusiveness of constantly having another in your private space does not happen with friends or family is because one tends to feel a certain obligation towards family and we choose our friends and feel that we are investing time and resources for a relationship which gives us ample social rewards. Neighbours are not necessarily chosen relations, our relationship with them happens purely by chance and can be transient in nature, and after all you may not live in the same place your whole life. (Abrams, 1986, p. 96)
We can however choose to make friends with our neighbours, even though this can be fraught with many obstacles; primarily that of having enough trust to reveal your true self to another who will also reciprocate, and also runs the risk of becoming too much of an infringement of one’s time and resources (Abrams, 1986, pp. 96-97).
There is a notion that neighbourhood relations are declining due to increasing individualism and detraditionalization (Crow, et al., 2002, p. 128), however Abrams argues that the sense of neighbourhoods are not disappearing, they are changing from the tradition neighbourhoods to modern ones where our interactions with our neighbours are driven more by choice than by need. (Abrams, 1986, p. 94)
As we become more and more reliant on technology not only for our day to day financial, educational and entertainment needs could it be that our neighbours will become virtual ones? We are becoming increasingly reliant on Internet communities and social media platforms to fulfil our social interaction needs but could they have already become our new vessels for reciprocity?
It’s easy to reciprocate on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat with little pieties; on most of these platforms it is not material things that we are exchanging, what we are exchanging is social approval in the form of likes, shares and comments. Our social media profiles have become an extension of ourselves which can be admired and rewarded for behaving in a manner which our peers approve of; we are encouraged to continue posting certain things for these likes and when something we do does not gain as much attention we take it down.
In certain circumstances a person behaving in a way that other members of the online community do not approve of faces very real consequences, not just being ostracised from their online community but also having to endure death threats and physical and psychological violence; these ramifications are a lot more common for young people who use social media frequently (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011, pp. 801-802).
Online interactions are not necessarily negative however and can mimic the positive aspects of neighbouring and reciprocation, for example in the form of online affinity groups. The basis of Participatory cultures lie within these affinity groups, which have existed in our society for a long time prior to the internet (TEDxNYED, 2010) and now that they are online these groups share their knowledge, skills and values online with others who share their passion all around the world. In participatory cultures it is not only a common affinity for a certain thing but also egalitarianism and mentorship which links its members together; obstacles such as age, experience, gender politics and economics are seemingly erased because in these communities it’s about what one can contribute, how one can grow and develop and how much of these experiences they have to share. (Delwiche & Henderson, 2012). Approval is given much the same way as it is through social media platforms and fits the framework of Homan’s three propositions for social exchange; how interactions build communities and exchanges which build bonds are also similar to offline communities hence these online communities could potentially become more than an extension of neighbourliness, perhaps one which is not bound by time zones, cultures specifics or distance.
In conclusion the building blocks of society which are created by reciprocation are able to be seen and reproduced in any type of human interaction, whether it be in the creation of new communities both real and virtual, within family structures, between friends and finally in our neighbourhoods, be they traditional or modern.
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Abrams, P., 1986. The Sociology of Informal Neighbouring. In: B. Martin, ed. Neighbours : the work of Philip Abrams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 83-99.
Blau, P. M., 2012. Exchange and Power in Social Life. In: C. Calhoun, J. Gerteis, J. Moody & S. &. V. I. Pfaff, eds. Contemporary Sociological Theory. West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 112-123.
Bulmer, H.,  2000. Actionism vs. Interaction: Relations in Public-Mircostudies of the Public Order by Erving Goffman. In: G. Fine & G. Smith, eds. Erving Goffman. London: Sage, pp. 3-8.
Crow, G., Allan, G. & Summers, M., 2002. Neither Busybodies nor Nobodies: Managing Proximity and Distance in Neighbourly Relations. Sociology, 36(1), pp. 127-145.
Delwiche, A. & Henderson, J. J., 2012. The Participatory Cultures Handbook. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Gouldner, A. W., 1960. The Norm of Reciprocity: A Preliminary Statement. American Sociological Review, 25(2), pp. 161-178.
Homans, G. C.,  2012. Social Behaviour As Exchange. In: C. G. J. M. J. Calhoun & S. &. V. I. Pfaff, eds. Contemporary Sociological Theory. West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 100-111.
O’Keeffe, G. S. & Clarke-Pearson, K. &. C. o. C. a. M., 2011. Clinical Report—The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families. Pediatrics, 127(4), pp. 800-804.
Simmel, G.,  1950. The Metropolis and Mental Life. In: K. H. Wolff, ed. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. London: The Free Press, pp. 409-424.
TEDxNYED, 2010. TEDxNYED – Henry Jenkins – 03/06/10. [Online]
Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFCLKa0XRlw&feature=youtu.be&list=PLvhlPeLAwGCaFACwMIZ_NIlLkxVLNityR