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Civic Provocation: Is Reciprocity Possible?

In civic engagement and higher ed, reciprocity has long been a god term – a guiding reference point, constantly evoked yet whose meaning is left decidedly vague. In a concept review on this topic published in the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning in 2012, Lina Dostilio and her co-authors argued that such vagueness lends the concept – meant to be, in their words, vibrant and robust – to being "applied as dogma" (18). 

The CCE's interim executive director Sylvia Gale (SG) sits down to unpack this dilemma with Derek Miller (DM), who, since 2018, has helped to connect University of Richmond faculty with community organizations in our region as the CCE's assistant director of community relationships and community-engaged learning.


SG: Before coming to the CCE, you taught anthropology here at UR. How does your field invite us to complicate our understandings of the idea of reciprocity?

DM: It is a funny thing, I was just went back to read one of my favorite books, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value by David Graeber, and in it he comments how reciprocity is so widely used that it is almost meaningless. So different discipline, same challenges. I do think it is fair to say that reciprocity is one of the most discussed concepts within the field of anthropology. 

Much of this debate really started with Marcel Mauss' famous essay The Gift. In this, Mauss looks across cultures and notices that gift giving and not barter is the most common form of exchange. He goes on to argue that gift giving is about creating society and not maximizing individual value. While it is clearly much more complicated than that (hence the 100 years of anthropological debate on this subject), I think it is clear why reciprocity resonates within the CBL world as it is a term that looks at exchanges not in terms of simply market values but instead as a form of social connections.

SG: Yes! That really does resonate. At its heart, community engagement is relational. Are there typologies of exchanges that might be useful as we think about community-university partnerships in particular? 

DM: Marshall Sahlins famously set out the idea that there were three types of reciprocity.

Balanced reciprocity is when something is given with the expectation of immediate return. This can be understood as market exchanges (buying something from a grocery store) but also within certain forms of gift-giving like when folks swap Christmas gifts. The market exchange encourages individualistic thinking (what I can I buy and for how much). The gift-giving exchange indicates a relationship and in our own society we reserve balanced gift-giving for certain forms of intimacy.

Generalized reciprocity is when the giving of something is done with no expectation of immediate return. We go to a coffee shop and I offer to buy you coffee. I don't expect you to buy my coffee or to immediately buy me something of equivalent value. But the feeling is that sometime in the future you will probably give something in return. We know it is polite to refuse the offer to buy coffee once, but also that to outright refuse the offer could be seen as rude. That we have these responses suggests an idea that relationships are involved.

Negative reciprocity is where the exchange is distinctively uneven and one person gets something far more valuable than the other. This should not be seen necessarily negatively in any ethical or moral stance. Negative reciprocity could be someone being deceitful to get the most out of the opportunity, but it also could be a nephew being kind to a rich uncle who is more than happy to pay for that nephew's college. 

I do think these general models of reciprocity are helpful for thinking about community-engagement in general. I don't necessarily think one is preferred over the other, but instead we should ask how and why we would enter into which form of reciprocity. Each creates connections, but of a different kind.  

For the anthropologist, the real analysis would be to focus in on what roles these exchanges have in creating and changing social relationships. You need to put the reciprocity within its larger social context (thinking about issues of power, prestige, and resources) and then think through how the exchange itself is an essential part of this process. 

So, I would turn this back to you Sylvia, as we think through reciprocity in a community engagement context, should the give and take have to be equal, or to use the term often used "mutually beneficial”? I placed that in terms of an ethical perspective but we can also talk about it from a practical perspective. 

SG: That is such a good question. I have been thinking recently about the ways that, earlier in my career especially, I considered reciprocity (which I understood to signal an equal exchange) to be the highest form of community partnership. And so often these terms --"reciprocal and mutually beneficial" --are used together by people in higher ed to refer to their community partnerships as if to doubly signal the partnership's attainment of an enlightened state. In fact, an earlier version of the CCE's mission statement had these two phrases in it! But what's changed for me is that I understand that to be equitable a partnership does not necessarily have to be reciprocal.

Consider, for example, a CBL class that goes on a study trip in downtown Richmond, perhaps a walking tour of the historic African-American neighborhood of Jackson Ward or a walk along the Richmond Slave Trail, guided by a community expert. However transformational this experience may be for students, this is a transactional relationship in many ways. The students are taking far more than they are giving. And yet, we can make it an equitable exchange by being sure to value the guide's time and expertise appropriately; this is why the CCE spends significant funds on honoraria for guest speakers and the like. So, all university-community relationships consist of some form of exchange, but I think it's false (maybe even arrogant) to hold that the exchange is equal. As university partners we need to be honest about when we are primarily receiving, and find ways to balance that.

DM: Totally! I also think you highlight a key challenge in all of this. How do we balance the ledger book? That is to say, how do we put a value on a learning opportunity that then translates into dollars back to the community? And what are those other values that may be gained, say a greater knowledge about Jackson Ward, that may have major positive impacts in the future? And what can we do in the here and now to honor the time and expertise we are benefitting from? This is something I feel the CCE really focuses on. 

As an anthropologist, I am always trying to put things into larger cultural and social contexts. I worry sometimes that we focus purely on the exchange without considering the positionalities of the various actors involved including the University. Are we not in a way the rich uncle? Should we in fact be aiming for unequal exchanges that send more to the community than we gain? Do we owe this ethically, even just when you consider the various taxes that we are exempted from as a non-profit?

SG: This is exactly why the rampant use (usually by people on the higher ed side) of the terms "reciprocal and mutually beneficial" to describe university-community partnerships is troubling to me. It isn't that I don't think these are worthy goals. But describing a partnership like this elides the deep and structural imbalances that constrain or at least influence all community-university partnerships. Loyola University's community engagement folks, post-Katrina, developed a "Community Engagement Partnership Rubric" that was framed with these words: "Loyola University New Orleans operates in a transactional partnership paradigm with some history of inadvertently exploitative practices. The Office of Community Engaged Learning, Teaching and Scholarship (OCELTS) is now ushering in university-wide standards to interrupt and improve those patterns in current and future community engagement initiatives." (Community Engagement Partnership Rubric, Office of Community Engaged Learning, Teaching & Scholarship, Loyola University New Orleans. Designed by Kelly Brotzman, Joe Deegan, Heather Mack). I nearly fell off my chair the first time I read that. Yes! Let's be honest about our histories, and realistic about our aims. Rather than claiming reciprocity, let's acknowledge that we have a great deal of healing and accounting to do before we can, on a grand scale, even come close to an equal exchange.

DM: That is such a powerful and poignant example from Loyola. An honest acknowledgment of our histories and our current situations is key. And I think, for me, that is the take away from the anthropology of reciprocity. Each exchange is embedded within a deeper history and society. Marcel Mauss famously said gift giving was "a total social fact," that is to say that the giving of gifts involves every aspect of society and in giving a gift we impact every aspect of society.

And maybe this is the key for students in CBL as they are an important part of this social relationship. If we seek to situate each action in terms of the larger context, including an honest conversation about the University's own history in the community, and ask our community partners what they would like and honestly listen and honor that, then we can start this healing and accounting. Instead of seeking some artificial notion of an equal exchange or mutual benefits, we instead push our students to consider what sort of relationship their CBL activities are creating.  This pushes away from a purely transactional approach, to which a focus on balanced reciprocity is too often simplified.

SG: Yes, and what it pushes us towards is much messier and also potentially more transformative, as it invites our students to consider not only what they can gain and offer within a community exchange, but also how the terms of those exchanges are structured and constrained. And you can consider that context whether the CBL experience is a field trip or a semester-long collaborative project. As much as we want students to gain confidence in their own abilities to contribute to addressing complex social problems, we also know that a key step along this journey is the awareness of how complicated those social problems really are. If a CBL class can model a humble, self-reflective, and curious stance to becoming a civic actor...then perhaps we have really made a contribution to students' development of lives of purpose.