How does collectivism influence reciprocity?

How does collectivism influence reciprocity? November 19, 2018

In the first post, I gave an overview of reciprocity in China. We then considered why the practice of reciprocity differs across cultures. These two posts highlight key ideas from my recent talk given at the Patronage Symposium. The video is available here. Click here for the PDF.

Credit: Flickr/smemon

We tend to classify Western cultures as “individualistic” and most non-Western cultures as “collectivistic.” In reality, even so-called “individualistic” (sub)cultures have “collectivist” tendencies. Why? Because humans are social beings. All people simultaneously belong to multiple groups. Families, classmates, sports teams, unions, and nations are a few examples.

To understand the link between collectivism and reciprocity, one should further clarify the meaning of “group.” What does it mean to belong to the same in-group? What separates insiders from outsiders?

Two Types of Collectivism

In recent scholarship, researchers distinguish 2 types of collectivism: “categorical collectivism” and “relational collectivism.” People from so-called “individualistic” cultures usually are “categorical collectivists.” Herrmann-Pillath writes,

Categorical collectivism refers to shared ascriptions of a group of people, such as shared ethnicity or shared membership to an organization.” Examples include nationality, ethnicity, gender, common interest, alumni of the same school, among others. Group membership is “defined in terms of prototypical properties that are shared among members of a common ingroup.[1]

By contrast, East Asian cultures typically perceive groups as primarily relationship-based and so are called “relational collectivists.” They primarily identify with those whom they are interdependent and have ongoing interaction. Such close relationships transcend abstract categories. They stress cooperation, personal loyalty, and maintaining group harmony.

Because these two forms of “collectivism” prioritize different “groups,” their definitions of “insider” differ. These dynamics influence the degree of trust between people, and therefore reciprocity.

Two Types of Reciprocity

Relational collectivists are more accustomed to unbalanced reciprocity (or “altruistic reciprocity”).[2] Chinese renqing is an example of unbalanced reciprocity. Partners perpetuate their debt to one another through an unbalanced exchange of gifts and favors.

Categorical collectivists usually favor balanced reciprocity.[3] Studies repeatedly show them uncomfortable with unequal exchanges, whether in their favor or against them.

I’ll summarize three implications:

(1) Because categorical collectivists emphasize balanced exchange, reciprocity is akin to a transaction, which is characterized by immediate and equal repayment of debt. Therefore, reciprocity plays less of a role in forming and sustaining close relationships.

(2) People are primed to think of their group identity only when their categorical collective is explicitly contrasted with other groups.

(3) Reciprocity is an unfitting and impractical means of forming one’s categorical collective identity. Exchanging favors and gifts does not affect a social identity based on shared attributes.

Relational collectivists are more discriminate. Unbalanced reciprocity (or renqing) is well suited to foster trust. These people engender positive affections for one another by exchanging favors and extending mutual social debts.

I have only scratched the surface. In the video (and PDF), I develop these thoughts and suggest several practical implications for the church. I hope you find these reflections helpful. Drop me a comment with your thoughts and experiences.


[1] Brewer and Chen, “Where (Who) Are Collectives in Collectivism? Towards Conceptual Clarification of Individualism and Collectivism.” Psychological Review 111 (1): 137

[2] Yiming Jing, “How Interpersonal trust is developed from social exchange.”

[3] “Balanced reciprocity”, cf. Yiming Jing, How Interpersonal trust is developed from social exchange.”

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