Groups and Group Sizes

The table below summarises the basic structure of groups and their corresponding reciprocities.

For the detail see the entries for each of the five groups – Small Group, Neighbourhood, Community, County, Nation – and the entry for Reciprocity and Cooperation.


Groups and the Reciprocal Cooperation Within Them

Group Name



Group Size

Name for Type of Reciprocal Cooperation


Nature of Reciprocal Cooperationa

1. Small Group

(a) Primary Group

Up to about 5–6.

Family; household group; supper table.

(b) Sympathy Group

Up to about 12–15.

Extended family; close friends; gang.

The typical group gathering is 2–5. Five (or six) feels complete, but is small enough to sustain a single conversation. Its members are drawn, at least in part, from a wider group of 12–15.

Direct engagement

Group solidarity.

Generalised reciprocity.b

Members provide services for each other without expectation of reciprocal exchange. Individuals’ own interests are essentially the same as those of the group.

2. Neighbourhood

Precinct; compartment; (army) company; large group.

Collaboration among 150 active participants, if this comprises one from each family, forms a neighbourhood of around 500.


Working together.


A mixture of generalised and balanced reciprocity.

Community membership requires cooperation and services, but contributions vary. Since deals are never completely closed, they leave a benign, bonding, network of mutual obligation.

3. Community

(or) Parish

Intentional community; village, or group of villages; the local landscape; town.

The upper limit to the scale of a community with small-scale elegance, judgment and presence is about 5,000.


Balanced reciprocity.c

When goods and services are supplied, this sets up an obligation which must be repaid (balanced). But these need not necessarily be money deals, nor the “best” deals: gifts, cooperation on projects and delayed completion sustain a network of obligation.

4. County

A group of communities, small enough to reflect local knowledge and represent local needs.


Negative reciprocity.d

Buyers and sellers go for the best deal, and deals are closed, with no obligation remaining. At the same time, the county is vital for networking, sharing ideas, and mutual aid between communities, including representation at national level.

5. Nation

So long as they comprise a modular panarchy of groups of the scale suggested in this table, the size of nations may vary widely.


Negative reciprocity.

Although negative exchange exists at this level, interaction is mainly cultural and political. The nation affirms identity and keeps the peace. There is potential for encounters at national level to mature into any of the smaller-scale reciprocities.

a. The column on the nature of reciprocal cooperation is influenced by readings of Marshall Sahlins, “On the Sociology of Primitive Exchange”, in Michael Banton, ed. (1965), The Relevance of Models for Social Anthropology; Marshall Sahlins, (1972), Stone Age Economics; and Manning Nash (1966), Primitive and Peasant Economic Systems.

b. “Generalised reciprocity”: Sahlins, “On the Sociology of Primitive Exchange”; Sahlins (1972), pp 193–4.

c. “Balanced reciprocity”: Sahlins (1972), pp 194–5.

d. “Negative reciprocity”: Sahlins (1972), pp 195–6.


« Back to List of Entries
David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

Comment on this entry: