The calculus of reciprocity: Principles and implications of Aboriginal sharing

Author/editor: Schwab, RG
Year published: 1995
Issue no.: 100


Over the past two decades a rapidly expanding body of policy research has emerged related to the place of Indigenous Australians in the wider economy. Traditionally, the policy focus of much of that research has been on formal supply-side and demand-side issues, while the microscopic, cultural experience of Indigenous Australians has tended to be overlooked. This paper attempts to shift the focus of research to a higher level of resolution to examine one of the prominent cultural factors that affects the position of Aboriginal Australians in the wider economy: reciprocity. Drawing on ethnographic evidence, the paper first sketches the broad cultural patterns of sharing and reciprocity in Aboriginal communities. It then goes on to demonstrate that the notions of sharing that underlie the act of sharing are part of a complex cultural system involving a calculus of reciprocity in which individuals and groups make decisions regarding the provision of economic assistance to one another but also variously display, shape or deny social alliances. Some of the key features of that system are illustrated through the identification and exploration of a set of 'principles of reciprocity'. The paper concludes with a discussion of general implications of the principles of reciprocity relevant to policy and research related to poverty, housing, labour market participation and family welfare.

ISBN: 0 7315 1774 1

ISSN:1036 1774

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