Reciprocity has been traditionally treated in sociological and anthropological theory as a force of integration that keeps network members tied together through a complex web of obligations and interdependencies. This article suggests that in the context of poverty it can be a burden and source of relational stress that leads to the demise of social relationships. It is argued that poverty can make it difficult for individuals to maintain relations with others and participate in social support networks because they do not have many resources to share and reciprocate. Recently published ethnographic studies on the social networks of low-income families in the United States form the basis for a micro-level model linking poverty to social fragmentation. By focusing on the suppressive effect of reciprocity, this model identifies two major emergent mechanisms – exclusion and withdrawal – operating in two realms – material and normative – that are conducive to social fragmentation. This article thus promotes our understanding of the ways in which relational dynamics affect low-income families’ social well-being and contributes methodologically by laying the groundwork for future empirical research.
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