Reciprocity is a social norm that obligates people to do good to those who have done good to them and to make reparations for any harm they do to others. Reciprocity is foundational to human relationships and a key component of social exchange theory. The concept of reciprocity informs theories of relationship marketing and public relations. This entry discusses the meaning of reciprocity, its role in social exchange theory, and its relevance to corporate reputation.
The Concept of Reciprocity
In its simplest form, the concept of reciprocity can be summarized with the Latin phrase quid pro quo (literally, “something for something”). When one person helps another, the person who received the help is generally expected to repay the first person in some way. Reciprocity seeks to achieve balance in social exchanges. Some scholars believe that reciprocity can include the idea of repaying evil for evil (i.e., negative reciprocity), but others argue that reciprocity only supports offenders making reparations, not victims seeking revenge.
American philosopher Lawrence Becker has argued that reciprocity is a moral duty, and people come to recognize this duty as they develop their sense of morality. Alvin Gouldner, a sociologist, hypothesized that reciprocity is a universal human norm that exists across cultures and religions. However, this does not mean that all cultures or individuals practice reciprocity the same way. Social psychology suggests that some people keep score, or pay attention to reciprocal obligations, more than others. Furthermore, when people or organizations have more power, they may try to exploit others in a relationship by taking more than they give.
Reciprocity and Social Exchange Theory
Reciprocity is an important principle in social exchange theory, which views human relationships in terms of shared benefits and obligations. When people interact, they do so according to certain rules, and reciprocity is one of these rules. For example, someone who fails to reciprocate a kindness will be seen as rude or ungrateful, but someone who does reciprocate will be seen as fair and trustworthy. Over time, reciprocity tends to increase loyalty and mutual commitment in a relationship.
Not all social exchanges are governed by the norm of reciprocity. For example, people sometimes act altruistically, helping others without expecting anything in return. People also negotiate specific rules or obligations for specific exchanges. However, at the beginning of a relationship, when people are strangers, they tend to expect one another to follow the norm of reciprocity. This observation has important implications for corporate reputation management.
Reciprocity and Corporate Reputation
Reciprocity relates to a corporation’s reputation in several ways. Corporate reputation is closely related to the corporation’s perceived social legitimacy. Social legitimacy refers to the public’s belief that a corporation performs a worthwhile function in society and shares society’s basic values. When corporations provide benefits in proportion to what they take from stakeholders, they will tend to have greater social legitimacy and stronger reputations. Corporations that seem to take more than they give will lose social legitimacy, and their reputations will suffer.
Reciprocity is a particularly important part of relationship marketing. Instead of treating each business transaction as a separate event, relationship marketing seeks to build ongoing relationships with customers through two-way communication. Relationship marketing requires a company to show that it can listen to its customers, understand their needs, and consistently meet those needs over time. Successful relationship marketing shows customers that a company wants to invest in the relationship, which makes customers more likely to reciprocate by investing in the relationship too. Customers who feel a strong relationship with a company tend to be more loyal and to have more positive perceptions of the company’s reputation.
Reciprocity also provides a foundation for some approaches to public relations. James Grunig’s theory of excellent public relations urges organizations to follow the norm of reciprocity when dealing with stakeholders. Although organizations may have the power to exploit their stakeholders, they can build stronger relationships with stakeholders and improve their long-term reputations through a more symmetrical approach. The symmetrical approach to public relations emphasizes listening as well as speaking, and it seeks to find mutually beneficial solutions instead of taking advantage of stakeholders. Organizations that embrace the norm of reciprocity are better positioned to recognize the advantages of symmetrical public relations.
Fund-raising is another area of public relations and marketing that draws on reciprocity. Fund-raising expert Kathleen Kelly has argued that reciprocity is a part of maintaining relationships with donors. In this context, reciprocity means thanking donors and recognizing them for their gifts. Although a message of gratitude may not have the same monetary value as a financial donation, it does give donors the good feeling of knowing that their gifts make a difference. When a nonprofit organization thanks a donor, it is essentially acknowledging that it is indebted to the donor. In this way, the organization is recognizing and respecting the norm of reciprocity. Not to express thanks would be to ignore the norm of reciprocity and to devalue both the donation and the relationship with the donor.
In conclusion, reciprocity is a fundamental social value that forms the foundation of many relationships—especially business relationships. Organizations honor this value when they give as much value to their stakeholders as they receive. Honoring the norm of reciprocity enhances an organization’s reputation by showing that the organization shares society’s values and seeks the good of others, not just itself.
Becker, L. C. (1986). Reciprocity. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Cropanzano, R., & Mitchell, M. S. (2005). Social exchange theory: An interdisciplinary review. Journal of Management, 31(6), 874–900.
Gouldner, A. W. (1960). The norm of reciprocity: A preliminary statement. American Sociological Review, 25(2), 161–178.
Grunig, J. E., & White, J. (1992). The effects of worldviews on public relations theory and practice. In J. E. Grunig (Ed.), Excellence in public relations and communication management (pp. 31–64). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Kelly, K. S. (1998). Effective fund-raising management. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.