The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies Analysis

Marcel Mauss


The Gift may best be understood within the context of Marcel Mauss’s attempt to develop a sociological approach to economic phenomena. Contrary to the predominant understanding of economics, Mauss saw economic transactions not in isolation from other social phenomena, but as part of a social totality. This sociological approach to economic relations may be traced back as far as French mathematician and philosopher Auguste Comte’s claims, in the 1800’s, that economic theorists were mistaken in viewing the economy as an autonomous, fully rationalized entity.

A Theory of Gift Exchange

Mauss initiates his investigation into gift exchange in archaic societies by posing two questions: What is the principle by which a gift received must be repaid? and What force is there in the thing given that compels the recipient to make a return? Relying on the fieldwork of a number of anthropologists, Mauss focuses his inquiry primarily on the tribal customs of the peoples of Melanesia, Polynesia, and the American Pacific Northwest. Contrary to the standard view, according to which primitive societies lack economic markets in any but the most rudimentary sense, the evidence provided by a study of these cultures suggests strongly that such societies possess highly developed and symbolically elaborate markets for the exchange of economic goods.

Whereas the market in modern societies is understood to be a discrete sphere of fully rationalized activity, the primitive market is at once economic, moral, aesthetic, and religious. Market exchanges are not enacted, as in modern society, primarily between individuals but between groups, such as families, clans, and tribes. Also, although material objects of recognized value are often objects of primitive exchange, such exchange may additionally involve human beings (women and children), feasts, military aid, or highly symbolic “goods” such as entertainments. This system of exchange in the broadest sense of the term may be called total prestation.

Although archaic societies do engage in...

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Commonalities in Gift Exchange

Mauss declines to offer a general theory explaining how the system of gift exchange must have spread geographically; nevertheless, he finds common traits of the system not only in Polynesia, Melanesia, and the American Pacific Northwest but also among the pygmies of Africa and in Indo-European cultures. Among these common traits are the rules of generosity. To illustrate the rule-bound nature of obligatory generosity, Mauss examines the gift-giving rituals of the Andaman islanders in Southeast Asia. Here a friendly rivalry characterizes the exchange of presents, with highest distinction belonging to those who give the most valuable gifts. Although most of the needs of Andaman islanders are met through such obligatory exchanges, the primary purpose of exchange is not practical but moral. Exchange seeks above all to enhance amicable relations among those involved. So powerful is the bond created through the system of reciprocity that an identity of persons is thereby established. Parties to an exchange are placed under a perpetual obligation to exchange further gifts. Rites of reunion, weeping, and embracing may accompany such perpetual acts of giving and may be considered the symbolic equivalents of exchange.

Turning to the principles, motives, and intensity of gift exchange, Mauss finds the clearest examples in Melanesia, among the Trobriand islanders, whose system of prestation is called the kula, a form of exchange that must be further distinguished from the gimwali, a mere straightforward exchange of useful goods that functions in supplementary fashion within the total system, but which is regarded by the islanders as inferior to the more aristocratic kula. Whereas the gimwali is exemplified by aggressive bargaining, the kula is undertaken only by chiefs who, as representatives of their tribes or villages, exchange a variety of valuable goods in a highly ceremonial and apparently disinterested fashion. The term kula can be translated as “ring” and thus serves as a metaphor for the circularity of exchange, which among the Trobrianders involves maritime expeditions between islands on...

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Indo-European and European Cultures

Turning to an examination of gift exchange in Indo-European cultures, Mauss draws his examples from ancient Roman, Hindu, and Germanic custom. Here he wishes to establish that the distinction between “pure” gift giving and obligatory exchange is of relatively recent vintage even in such highly advanced civilizations. In ancient Rome, for example, where scholars generally assume a distinction between gift giving and obligatory exchange, the concept of the nexum, or legal bond, reveals a substratum of obligatory exchange. The oldest form of contract in Roman law, the nexum, reveals an affinity with the Melanesian hau, wherein the object exchanged is identified with the person who offers the object, thus establishing a personal bond and an obligatory element that the more familiar written contract of sale in modern exchange does not assume. In Brahmanic India, there is clear evidence of ritual of the potlatch type depicted in the Vedas and inscribed in the Brahmanic Code. Here again, the crucial similarity to the potlatch is the obligatory nature of gift exchange and the confusion of persons with objects given. Likewise, the obligatory nature of gift giving in premodern Germanic culture is evidenced by etymologies of the numerous cognates of the German term for gift giving (geben), as well as in elaborately documented studies of Germanic folklore. Moreover, the notion of the pledge, or wadium, in...

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Additional Reading

Durkheim, Émile, and Marcel Mauss. Primitive Classification. Edited and translated by Rodney Needham. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Needham’s introduction to this translation provides a reliable guide to the methodology employed by Durkheim and Mauss throughout their research and is particularly helpful in highlighting the significance of the principle of interpreting social “facts” only in relation to the totality of a social complex. The Gift is generally recognized as the outstanding example of this methodology.

Gane, Mike. The Radical Sociology of Durkheim and Mauss. London: Routledge, 1992. Although much of this volume by a well-known American sociologist deals with Durkheim and the philosophical school L’Année sociologique, chapter 6, titled “Institutional Socialism and the Sociological Critique of Communism,” deals at length with the political involvements that informed and, to some degree, motivated the writing of The Gift. Gane depicts Mauss as a deeply committed democratic socialist opposed to the totalitarian extremes of communism, on one hand, and the alienating, socially irresponsible tendencies of capitalism on the other. Gane’s reconstruction of Mauss’s politics is particularly helpful in illuminating the final chapter of The Gift, which attempts...

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