Sociology Index

Marcel Mauss

Marcel Mauss (1872 – 1950) was a French sociologist. The nephew of David Émile Durkheim, Marcel 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 Marcel Mauss (1925). In 1901, Marcel Mauss began drawing more on ethnography, and his work began to develop characteristics now associated with formal anthropology.

Marcel Mauss is known for several of his own works, most notably his masterpiece Essai sur le Don  or 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 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. 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. These institutions stimulated the development of fieldwork-based anthropology by young academics. Among students he influenced was George Devereux, Jeanne Cuisinier, Alfred Metraux, Marcel Griaule, Georges Dumezil, Denise Paulme, Michel Leiris, Germaine Dieterlen, Louis Dumont, Andre-Georges Haudricourt, Jacques Soustelle, and Germaine Tillion.

In 1902, Marcel Mauss became a Chair as a Professor of Primitive Religion at École. From 1931–1940, Mauss also served chair of the Sociology department at the Collège de France. In addition to this, he actively fought against anti-semitism and racial politics both before and after World War II. He died in 1950.

Marcel Mauss learning under Durkheim at Bordeaux led to them doing work together called Primitive Classification which was published in the Annee Sociologi In this work, Mauss and Durkheim were attempting to make a french version of the sociology of knowledge. Mauss and Durkheim wished to demonstrate the different ways of human thought. The work by these two looked to show how these conceived thoughts of space and time is connected back to societal patterns. They focused their study on tribal societies because they felt it would be easier for them to get an in depth study.

Mauss has been credited for his analytic framework which has been characterized as more supple, more appropriate for the application of empirical studies, and more fruitful. His work fell into two categories, major ethnological works on exchange as a symbolic system, and social science methodology. In his 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 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?"

The answer is simple: the gift is a total prestation, imbued with spiritual mechanisms, engaging the honour of both giver and receiver. 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". 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.

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, the objects that are given are inalienated from the givers; they are "loaned rather than sold and ceded". 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. 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' 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".

Mauss also focused on the topic of sacrifice. The book Sacrifice and its Function which he wrote with Henri Hubert in 1899 argued that sacrifice is a process involving sacrilising and desacralising. This was when the "former directed the holy towards the person or object, and the latter away from a person or object."

Mauss and Hubert wrote another book titled A General Theory of Magic in 1902. They studied magic in 'primitive' societies and how it has manifested into our thoughts and social actions. They argue that social facts are subjective and therefore should be considered magic, but society is not open to accepting this. In the book, Mauss and Hubert state:

"In magic, we have officers, actions, and representations: we call a person who accomplishes magical actions a magician, even if he is not professional; magical representations are those ideas and beliefs which correspond to magical actions; as for these actions, with regard to which we have defined the other elements of magic, we shall call them magical rites. At this stage it is important to distinguish between these activities and other social practices with which they might be confused."