Sociology Index

THE GIFT - Marcel Mauss' 1925 Essay

The Gift is the title of Marcel Mauss' 1925 essay exploring 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 by expanding and cementing a complex network of personal and family obligations to the giver.

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.

Before this book 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.

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.

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" (pr�station 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 L�vi-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).