Marcel Mauss  

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Marcel Mauss (10 May 1872 – 10 February 1950) was a French sociologist. The nephew of Émile Durkheim, Mauss, in his academic work, crossed the boundaries between sociology and anthropology. Today, he is perhaps better recognised for his influence on the latter discipline, particularly with respect to his analyses of topics such as magic, sacrifice and gift exchange in different cultures around the world. Mauss had a significant influence upon Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of structural anthropology. His most famous work is The Gift (1925).



While Mauss is known for several of his own works - most notably his masterpiece Essai sur le Don ('The Gift') - much of his best work was done in collaboration with members of the Annee Sociologique, including Durkheim himself (Primitive Classification), Henri Hubert (Outline of a General Theory of Magic and Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice), Paul Fauconnet (Sociology) and others.

Like many prominent French academics, Mauss did not train a great number of students. Nonetheless, many anthropologists claim to have followed in his footsteps, most notably Claude Lévi-Strauss. The essay on The Gift is the origin for anthropological studies of reciprocity. His analysis of the Potlatch has been used by many interested in gift economies and Open Source software, although this latter use sometimes differs from Mauss's original formulation. See also Hyde's revolutionary critique of Mauss in "Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property".


Mauss was born in Epinal to a Jewish family, and studied philosophy at Bordeaux, where Émile Durkheim was teaching at the time and agregated in 1893. Instead of taking the usual route of teaching at a lycée, however, Mauss moved to Paris and took up the study of comparative religion and the Sanskrit language. His first publication in 1896 marked the beginning of a prolific career that would produce several landmarks in the sociological literature.

Like many members of Année Sociologique Mauss was attracted to socialism, particularly that espoused by Jean Jaurès. He was particularly active in the events of the Dreyfus affair and towards the end of the century he helped edit such left-wing papers as le Populaire, l'Humanité and le Mouvement Socialiste, the last in collaboration with Georges Sorel.

Mauss took up a chair in the 'history of religion and uncivilized peoples' at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in 1901. It was at this time that he began drawing more and more on ethnography, and his work began increasingly to look like what we would today call anthropology.

The years of World War I were absolutely devastating for Mauss. Many of his friends and colleagues died in the war, and Durkheim died shortly before its end. The postwar years were also difficult politically for Mauss. Durkheim had made changes to school curriculums across France, and after his death a backlash against his students began. Like many other followers of Durkheim, Mauss took refuge in administration, securing Durkheim's legacy by founding institutions such as l'Institut Français de Sociologie (1924) and l'Institut d'Ethnologie in 1926. In 1931 he took up the chair of Sociology at the Collège de France. He actively fought against anti-semitism and racial politics both before and after World War II. He died in 1950.

Theoretical views

In his classic work The Gift, Mauss argued that gifts are never "free". Rather, human history is full of examples that gifts give rise to reciprocal exchange. The famous question that drove his inquiry into the anthropology of the gift was: "What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?" (1990:3). The answer is simple: the gift is a "total prestation", imbued with "spiritual mechanisms", engaging the honour of both giver and receiver (the term "total prestation" or "total social fact" (fait social total) was coined by his student Maurice Leenhardt after Durkheim's social fact). Such transactions transcend the divisions between the spiritual and the material in a way that according to Mauss is almost "magical". The giver does not merely give an object but also part of himself, for the object is indissolubly tied to the giver: "the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them" (1990:31). Because of this bond between giver and gift, the act of giving creates a social bond with an obligation to reciprocate on part of the recipient. To not reciprocate means to lose honour and status, but the spiritual implications can be even worse: in Polynesia, failure to reciprocate means to lose mana, one's spiritual source of authority and wealth. Mauss distinguished between three obligations: giving - the necessary initial step for the creation and maintenance of social relationships; receiving, for to refuse to receive is to reject the social bond; and reciprocating in order to demonstrate one's own liberality, honour and wealth.

An important notion in Mauss' conceptualisation of gift exchange is what Gregory (1982, 1997) refers to as "inalienability". In a commodity economy there is a strong distinction between objects and persons through the notion of private property. Objects are sold, meaning that the ownership rights are fully transferred to the new owner. The object has thereby become "alienated" from its original owner. In a gift economy, however, the objects that are given are inalienated from the givers; they are "loaned rather than sold and ceded". It is the fact that the identity of the giver is invariably bound up with the object given that causes the gift to have a power which compels the recipient to reciprocate. Because gifts are inalienable they must be returned; the act of giving creates a gift-debt that has to be repaid. Gift exchange therefore leads to a mutual interdependence between giver and receiver. According to Mauss, the "free" gift that is not returned is a contradiction because it cannot create social ties. Following the Durkheimian quest for understanding social cohesion through the concept of solidarity, Mauss's argument is that solidarity is achieved through the social bonds created by gift exchange.


Mauss's views on the nature of gift exchange have not been without their critics. Testart (1998) for example argues that there are "free" gifts, such as passers-by giving money to beggars in e.g. a large Western city. Donor and receiver do not know each other and are unlikely to ever meet again. In this context, the donation certainly creates no obligation on the side of the beggar to reciprocate; neither the donor nor the beggar have such an expectation. Moreover, the transaction does not establish a relationship between the two, much less a mutual interdependence . Testart also suggests that there are different kinds of obligations: a) feelings of obligation, e.g. created by having been invited for dinner and having a feeling that one should reciprocate; b) social obligations, meaning that the social context obliges one to reciprocate, and that a failure to do so would not only affect one's relationship with the giver but also affect one's reputation in general; and c) legal obligations, as established through a legal contract. Testart argues that only the latter can actually be enforced. He feels that Mauss overstated the magnitude of the obligation created by social pressures, particularly in his description of the potlatch amongst North American Indians.

Another example of a non-reciprocal "free" gift is provided by Laidlaw (2000). He describes the social context of Indian Jain renouncers, a group of itinerant celibate renouncers living an ascetic life of spiritual purification and salvation. The principle of non-violence influences the diet of Jain renouncers and compels them to avoid preparing food as this could potentially involve violence against microscopic organisms. Since Jain renouncers do not work, they rely on food donations from lay families within the Jain community. However, the former must not appear to be having any wants or desires, and only very hesitantly and apologetically receive the food prepared by the latter. Laidlaw describes how the renouncers produce litanies of refusal when receiving the food and never show thankfulness or appreciation for it. In order not to appear as beggars, they visit families at random, attempting not to create relationships with a family by returning there regularly. What is given is not considered a gift by either donors or receivers, and since appearing as having any wants would spoil the Jain renouncer's spiritual purity there absolutely must not be anything given in return. Consequently, what Jain renouncers receive is supposed to be a spontaneous free gift without any strings attached, and the elaborate culturally constructed process surrounding this procedure is meant to ensure that this is what happens.

In his argumentation, Laidlaw employs Derrida's four criteria for a "free gift":

  • There is no reciprocity
  • The recipient must not recognise the gift as a gift or himself as the recipient of a gift
  • The donor must not recognise the gift, either
  • The thing itself cannot appear as a "gift"

Laidlaw argues that food donations received by Jain renouncers fulfil all four criteria. They are a non-reciprocated free gift, although they aren't a very altruistic one since such donations are the "paradigmatic religious good deed" (punya), and the local lay families are very eager to make them regularly.

Laidlaw's example poses a further challenge to Mauss's definition of the gift. The gift itself is alienated from the original owner in two ways: first, it is given without any expectation to receive it or an equivalent object in return; second, what is given is not of permanence. Cooking something for another person may or may not create obligations, but since the object given is necessarily consumed in the process it becomes questionable whether there remains an "indissoluble bond of a thing with its original owner" (Gregory, 1982:18). Similarly, money given to beggars in a context where giver and receiver are aliens (as in Testart's example) appears to be fully alienated from the former, particularly since money - in contrast to other objects - often (albeit not always) has no inherent personal qualities.

"Free" gifts therefore challenge all three aspects of the Maussian notion of the gift: it can be questioned whether

  • there is an inalienable bond between giver and the object that is given
  • the gift necessarily creates an obligation to reciprocate, or
  • gift exchange forms a mutual interdependence between the parties involved.

See also


  • Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice, (with Henri Hubert) 1898.
  • La sociologie: objet et méthode, (with Paul Fauconnet) 1901.
  • De quelques formes primitives de classification, (with Durkheim) 1902.
  • Esquisse d'une théorie générale de la magie, (with Henri Hubert) 1902.
  • Essai sur le don, 1924.
  • Sociologie et anthropologie, (selected writings) 1950.

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