Communality and Reciprocity – The Role of Language

If you’re not familiar with the ongoing Animate series of videos from the RSA, they are well worth a look. Whilst these short animations, based on excerpts from RSA lectures, may be fairly rudimentary, the visual annotation provides an innovative way of disseminating key concepts and ideas. I particularly recommend watching Sir Ken Robinson’s on changing paradigms if you have even the slightest interest in education.

In the latest Animate, Steven Pinker references Hollywood movies and everyday scenarios to explain the role of innuendo as a language-based negotiation of culturally defined social relations. He describes the dual purpose of language, that is; (i) to convey content, and (ii) to negotiate one of three specific ‘relationship types’, which anthropologist Alan Fiske defines as dominance, communality and reciprocity. He explains how the perceived appropriateness of a social interaction can be acceptable or anomalous to each relationship type, and is characterised by whether or not there is a mutual understanding. He goes on to argue that the visibility of this shared knowledge has profound consequences for political uprisings (which has particular resonance with current events in North Africa and the Middle East, and the role of social media.)

Hew and Hara (2007) present reciprocity as one of six motivators to sharing knowledge in online environments. Reciprocity can be direct – between a provider and a receiver – or generalised, indirectly by a third party (Ekeh, 1974). Whilst personal gain refers to increasing one’s own welfare (such as recognition, reputation and self-esteem), altruism increases the welfare of another person. Hoffman (1981) views group commitment or ‘collectivism’ as a variant of reciprocal altruism, in which the individual member increases the welfare of the community by identifying with and valuing a collective vision or purpose.

Pinker’s ideas introduce a fresh perspective to these types of discourses into the understanding of online knowledge exchange and community development, and raise a number of interesting questions. How are our participation, mutuality and reciprocity characterised by the (increasingly multimodal) forms of language apparent in our social interactions on the web? And are these defined by inherent technological cultures (‘nettiquette’ etc.) or by dominant social factors, power relations and hierarchies external to the web environment?


Ekeh, P. P. (1974). Social exchange theory: The two traditions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hew, K. F., & Hara, N. (2007). Knowledge Sharing In Online Environments: A Qualitative Case Study. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(14), 2310-2324.

Hoffman, M. L. (1981). Is altruism part of human nature? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40(1), 121-137.

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2 Responses to “Communality and Reciprocity – The Role of Language”

  1. Tweets that mention Communality and Reciprocity - The Role of Language | PhD Blog (dot) Net -- Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by antonella esposito and qui_oui, Andy Coverdale. Andy Coverdale said: New blog post. Communality and Reciprocity – The Role of Language. [...]

  2. virginia Yonkers Says:

    There is another term related to this: perspective taking. There has been quite a bit of research done, especially in Holland, on the ability to see another person’s perspective in online environments.

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