Sociology Index

THE GIFT - Marcel Mauss' 1925 Essay

Marcel Mauss was among French sociologists and anthropologist. Marcel Mauss's work profoundly influenced the field of anthropology, and topics such as magic, sacrifice, and gift exchange in primitive cultures. The Gift is the title of Marcel Mauss' 1925 essay, a short book, which has inspired complex discussions on a wide range of subjects in anthropology. It was a prime influence behind Claude Levi-Strauss's structuralism. Before Marcel Mauss’ book 'The Gift' was published we did not suspect the economical importance of the gift and its role in ancient societies. Even today, we can notice this function of the gift, for example when a young couple gets married.

Marcel Mauss' 1925 essay explores the way in which gift giving among tribal societies is a moral exchange, driven by obligation, and how the giving away of one's possessions as gifts creates individual wealth and status. Marcel Mauss describes the obligations attendent on gift-giving: the obligation to give gifts, the obligation to receive them, and the obligation to return the gift.

Marcel Mauss’ book 'The Gift' is a comparative study of the institution of the gift in different primitive and archaic cultures. This book is very important for two reasons: Mauss notes the existence of a logically structured communication system and at the same time he enters the concept of the total social phenomenon in anthropological theory: the concept of a multidimensional phenomenon which is at the same time economical, juridical, moral, religious, mythological and esthetical.

Gift-giving is thus steeped in morality, and by giving, receiving and returning gifts, a moral bond between the persons exchanging gifts. At the same time, Mauss emphasizes the competitive and strategic aspect of gift-giving: by giving more than one's competitors, one lays claim to greater respect than them, and gift-giving contests (such as the famous North-West Coast Native American potlatch).

The objects and services exchanged in "primitive" gift-giving are, as Mauss points out, thus laden with "power" (the Polynesian words mana and hau are used to refer to this "power in the gift"). Though a similar "power" is present to a certain extent in modern gifts as well, Mauss shows that gifts in traditional societies are more complex and multivalent than anything we know from modern society.

The gift, as Mauss sees it, is more than a simple commodity or memento changing hands - it is a "total prestation", which metonymically stands for every aspect of the society it is part of. The gift is economic, political, kinship-oriented, legal, mythological, religious, magical, practical, personal and social. By moving such an object through the social landscape, the gift-giver so to speak rearranges the fabric of sociality, and it is this that forms the basis of the gift's power.