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Being a Roommate is a Job, and You Can Get Fired From It

There is a fantastic and (in certain circles) famous chapter written by anthropologist Igor Kopytoff on the commoditization of things. It is fortunately available through the University of Pennsylvania here. He covers many interesting ideas, but two are particularly relevant to the topic of living with roommates.

I believe roommates coexist based upon the exchange of commodities and “gifts”. Kopytoff's lengthy definitions are both introduced as follows:

“What, then, makes a thing a commodity? A commodity is a thing that has use value and can be exchanged in a discrete transaction for a counterpart, the very fact of exchange indicating that the counterpart has, in the immediate context, an equivalent value.... I refer to the transaction involving commodities as discrete in order to stress that the primary and immediate purpose of the transaction is to obtain the counterpart value.... While exchanges of things usually involve commodities, a notable exception is the exchanges that mark relations of reciprocity, as these have been classically defined in anthropology. Here, gifts are given in order to evoke an obligation to give back a gift, which in turn will evoke a similar obligation - a never-ending chain of gifts and obligations.” (Kopytoff, pp. 68-9; Cambridge, 1986)

How does this apply? Roommates coexist within a specific sphere which involves the exchange of both commodities and gifts. I use both terms because there are instances of discrete exchanges as well as a “never-ending chain of gifts and obligations”. Discrete exchanges could range from, say, picking up an item or two from a store on the expectation of money being returned to the assistance in some particular skilled task, e.g. the installation of a shelf or changing a part on a car. If in any of these instances there is no explicit agreement (“Here's some money for x from the store”), the status quo is slowly eroded away by the lack of any counterpart being returned - hence the numerous warnings regarding mixing business and friendship or lending money to friends, etc. Especially if the burden, monetarily or otherwise, is significant, the failure to return a fair counterpart in a commodity exchange can create significant strife.

While discrete transactions certainly occur in any given household, I feel like Kopytoff's assertions about gift-giving are more directly relevant to the environment created in a roommate situation.