Marcel Mauss

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Marcel Mauss
Born(1872-05-10)10 May 1872
Died10 February 1950(1950-02-10) (aged 77)
Nationality French
Scientific career
Fields Sociology; anthropology
Institutions École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS)
Influences Émile Durkheim
Influenced Claude Lévi-Strauss
Keith Hart
Gayle Rubin
Georges Bataille

Marcel Mauss (French:  [mos] ; 10 May 1872 – 10 February 1950) was a French sociologist. The nephew of Émile Durkheim, Mauss' academic work traversed 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. [1] His most famous book is The Gift (1925).

France Republic with mainland in Europe and numerous oversea territories

France, officially the French Republic, is a country whose territory consists of metropolitan France in Western Europe and several overseas regions and territories. The metropolitan area of France extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel and the North Sea, and from the Rhine to the Atlantic Ocean. It is bordered by Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany to the northeast, Switzerland and Italy to the east, and Andorra and Spain to the south. The overseas territories include French Guiana in South America and several islands in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. The country's 18 integral regions span a combined area of 643,801 square kilometres (248,573 sq mi) and a total population of 67.3 million. France, a sovereign state, is a unitary semi-presidential republic with its capital in Paris, the country's largest city and main cultural and commercial centre. Other major urban areas include Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille and Nice.

Émile Durkheim French sociologist (1858-1917)

David Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist. He formally established the academic discipline and—with W. E. B. Du Bois, Karl Marx and Max Weber—is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science.

Anthropology is the scientific study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology and cultural anthropology study the norms and values of societies. Linguistic anthropology studies how language affects social life. Biological or physical anthropology studies the biological development of humans.



Mauss was born in Épinal, Vosges, to a Jewish family, and studied philosophy at Bordeaux, where his maternal uncle Émile Durkheim was teaching at the time. He passed the agrégation in 1893. He was also first cousin of the much younger Claudette (née Raphael) Bloch, a marine biologist and mother of Maurice Bloch, who has become a noted anthropologist. Instead of taking the usual route of teaching at a lycée following college, Mauss moved to Paris and took up the study of comparative religion and Sanskrit.

Épinal Prefecture and commune in Grand Est, France

Épinal ; is a commune in northeastern France and the capital (prefecture) of the Vosges department. Inhabitants are known as Spinaliens.

Vosges (department) Department of France

Vosges is an eastern department of France named after the Vosges mountain range. It consists of 17 cantons and 507 communes, of which 234 are rural, including the commune of Domrémy-la-Pucelle, where Joan of Arc was born.

Bordeaux Prefecture and commune in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France

Bordeaux is a port city on the Garonne in the Gironde department in Southwestern France.

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, especially that espoused by Jean Jaurès. He was particularly active in the events of the Dreyfus affair. 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.

Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production and workers' self-management, as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Social ownership can be public, collective or cooperative ownership, or citizen ownership of equity. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, with social ownership being the common element shared by its various forms.

Jean Jaurès French / Occitan Socialist leader

Auguste Marie Joseph Jean Léon Jaurès, commonly referred to as Jean Jaurès, was a French Socialist leader. Initially a moderate republican, he was later one of the first social democrats, becoming the leader, in 1902, of the French Socialist Party, which opposed Jules Guesde's revolutionary Socialist Party of France. The two parties merged in 1905 in the French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO). An antimilitarist, Jaurès was assassinated at the outbreak of World War I, and remains one of the main historical figures of the French Left.

Dreyfus affair Sociopolitical controversy in France where an Alsatian Jew was falsely convicted of treason

The Dreyfus Affair was a political scandal that divided the Third French Republic from 1894 until its resolution in 1906. 'The Affair', as it is known in French, has come to symbolise modern injustice in the Francophone world, and it remains one of the most notable examples of a complex miscarriage of justice and antisemitism. The role played by the press and public opinion proved influential in the conflict.

In 1901, Mauss took up a chair in the 'history of religion and uncivilized peoples' at the École pratique des hautes études (EPHE), one of the grandes écoles in Paris. It was at this time that he began drawing more on ethnography, and his work began to develop characteristics now associated with formal anthropology.

The École pratique des hautes études, abbreviated EPHE, is a Grand Établissement in Paris, France, and a constituent college of PSL Research University. It is counted among France's most prestigious research and higher education institutions. It is highly selective and member of the elite Université PSL. Its degrees in religious studies and in history count among the best in the world. Closely linked to École française d'Extrême-Orient and Institut français du Proche-Orient, EPHE has formed continuously world-class experts in Asian and Islamic studies and among them investment bankers, diplomat and military officers specialized in these areas. Particularly, leading researchers in military strategy have taught in EPHE for more than a century. Moreover, famous researchers in natural sciences teach and taught in EPHE. Highly regarded for its top level in both natural and human sciences, EPHE has relations and exchange programs with world-renowned institutions such as Cambridge, Princeton, and Al-Azhar.

The Grandes Écoles of France are higher education establishments that are outside the main framework of the French public university system. The Grandes Écoles are highly selective, elite, and prestigious institutions; their graduates have dominated upper levels of the private and public sectors of French society for decades.

The years of World War I were absolutely devastating for Mauss. Many of his friends and colleagues died in the war, and his uncle Durkheim died shortly before its end. Politically, the postwar years were also difficult for Mauss. Durkheim had made changes to school curricula across France, and after his death a backlash against his students began.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

Like many other followers of Durkheim, Mauss took refuge in administration. He secured Durkheim's legacy by founding institutions to carry out directions of research, such as l'Institut Français de Sociologie (1924) and l'Institut d'Ethnologie in 1926. Among students he influenced was George Devereux, later an influential anthropologist who combined ethnology with psychoanalysis.

George Devereux ethnologist

Georges Devereux was a Hungarian-French ethnologist and psychoanalyst, often considered the founder of ethnopsychiatry.

Psychoanalysis psychological theory that was founded in 1890 by the Viennese neurologist Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalysis is a set of theories and therapeutic techniques related to the study of the unconscious mind, which together form a method of treatment for mental-health disorders. The discipline was established in the early 1890s by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud and stemmed partly from the clinical work of Josef Breuer and others. Psychoanalysis was later developed in different directions, mostly by students of Freud such as Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav Jung, and by neo-Freudians such as Erich Fromm, Karen Horney and Harry Stack Sullivan. Freud retained the term psychoanalysis for his own school of thought.

In 1931, Mauss 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 truly free. Rather, human history is full of examples of gifts bringing about 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?". [2] The answer is simple: the gift is a "total prestation" (see law of obligations), 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 the part of the recipient. Not to 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. To cite Goldman-Ida's summary, "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" (2018:341).

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. Because of this, the notion of an expected return of the gift creates a relationship over time between two individuals. In other words, through gift-giving, a social bond evolves that is assumed to continue through space and time until the future moment of exchange. 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 emphasizes that exchanging gifts resulted from the will of attaching other people 'to put people under obligations', because "in theory such gifts are voluntary, but in fact they are given and repaid under obligation". [3]


Mauss's views on the nature of gift exchange have had critics. French anthropologist Alain Testart (1998), for example, argues that there are "free" gifts, such as passers-by giving money to beggars, e.g. in a large Western city. Donor and receiver do not know each other and are unlikely ever to 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. 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 British anthropologist James 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 Jainist interpretation of the doctrine of ahimsa (an extremely rigorous application of principles of nonviolence) 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 receives the food prepared by the latter.

"Free" gifts therefore challenge the aspects of the Maussian notion of the gift unless the moral and non-material qualities of gifting are considered. These aspects are, of course, at the heart of the gift, as demonstrated in books such as Annette Weiner's (1992) Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping While Giving.

Mauss offers one possible response to such criticisms in the section "Note on Alms".


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 Année Sociologique, including Durkheim (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. Nevertheless, 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 inspired Georges Bataille (The Accursed Share), then the situationists (the name of the first situationist journal was Potlatch). This term has been used by many interested in gift economies and open-source software, although this latter use sometimes differs from Mauss' original formulation. See also Lewis Hyde's revolutionary critique of Mauss in "Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property".

He also influenced the Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales and David Graeber. [4]

Selected works

See also

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  1. Barth, Fredrik (2005). One Discipline, Four Ways: British, German, French, and American Anthropology. University of Chicago Press, p. 208, Quote: "Marcel Mauss' two most influential followers were Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1908) and Louis Dumont (1911–1998). The impact of his work on both of them was strong."
  2. Mauss, Marcel (2002). The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchanges in Archaic Societies (PDF). London: Routledge. p. 4. ISBN   978-0-203-71568-0.
  3. D. Walczak. 2015. The process of exchange, solidarity and sustainable development in building a community of responsibility. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 6 (1S1), p. 506. Archived 8 February 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  4. [Graeber, D., Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, pp 160-161, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001]

Further reading