A barn raising describes a collective action of a community, in which a barn for one of the members is assembled collectively by members of the community. Barn raising was particularly common in 18th- and 19th-century rural North America. A barn was a necessary structure for any farmer, for example for storage of cereals and hay and keeping of animals. Yet a barn was also a large and costly structure, whose assemble required more labor than a typical family could provide. Barn raising addressed the need by enlisting members of the community, unpaid, to assist in the building of their neighbors’ barns. Because each member was entitled to recruit others for help, the favor would eventually return to each participant.
Barn raising is an example of a fundamental form of human cooperation – indirect reciprocity. In contrast to direct reciprocity (“I help you and you help me”), indirect reciprocity follows the principle of “You help me and I’ll help someone else” or “I help you and someone else will help me.” It is also known as generalized exchange or pay it forward.