|Mauss, Marcel-Israël (1872–1950)|
French anthropologist and sociologist; nephew and colleague of Durkheim; often considered the father of modern French anthropology. Mauss cooperated with Durkheim and the circle around the journal Année sociologique on a number of projects; and after his uncle's death, became the leading figure in that circle. His written production was not extensive, and consists mainly of a number of articles on a wide variety of subjects - from sacrifice to personhood, many of which have been highly influential in anthropology. In 1925, along with Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and Paul Rivet, he founded the Institute d’etnologie at the University of Paris. Though he never did fieldwork, Mauss advocated a stringent methodology, which, particularly through his student, Marcel Griaule, would influence French anthropology profoundly.
Mauss's most influential work is his Essay sur le don (1923–24; English translation: The Gift. Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies, 1954), a comparative essay on gift-giving and exchange in "primitive" societies. On the basis of empirical examples from a wide range of societies, Mauss describes the obligations attendent on gift-giving: the obligation to give gifts (by giving, one shows oneself as generous, and thus as deserving of respect), the obligation to receive them (by receiving the gift, one shows respect to the giver, and concommittantly proves one's own generocity), and the obligation to return the gift (thus demonstrating that one's honor is - at least - equivalent to that of the original giver). 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), are thus common in the ethnographic record. In this work, Mauss thus lays the foundation for a theoretical understanding of the nature of social relations.
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" (préstation totale), which metonymically (as part for whole) 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.
The Gift is a short book, which has inspired complex discussions on a wide range of subjects in anthropology. Most prominently, it was a prime influence behind Lévi-Strauss's structuralism (where the gift is understood as a prototype of symbolic exchange, and interpreted as the basic mechanism underlying the creation of meaning). Lévi-Strauss acknowledges his debt to Mauss in Introduction à l'oeuvre de Marcel Mauss (1950; English translation: Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, 1987). Later, the book was extensively debated by neo-Marxian and poststructuralist authors, such as Maurice Godelier, Jacques Derrida, and Pierre Bourdieu; it has deeply influenced for example economic anthropology (Polanyi), methodological individualist theory (Bailey), feminist and gender studies (Strathern) etc. The vastly productive anthropological subdiscipline of exchange theory (Weiner, Thomas etc.) is based on the work of Mauss (with additional founding contributions from e.g. Marx and Simmel).
To browse texts on AnthroBase dealing with Marcel Mauss, see:
The text of Lévi-Strauss's Introduction to the
Work of Marcel Mauss has been published online (in French) at:
A detailed biographical summary of Mauss's life and
work (in German) is available at: