The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies

by Marcel Mauss
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Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 24, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 308

In this treatise, Mauss examines one's obligation to return the favor when he or she receives a gift in archaic civilizations. The motivations for reciprocity are studied from sociological, economic, and moral perspectives. Mauss mainly focuses on three geographic areas in order to draw his conclusions. These include Polynesia, Melanesia,...

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In this treatise, Mauss examines one's obligation to return the favor when he or she receives a gift in archaic civilizations. The motivations for reciprocity are studied from sociological, economic, and moral perspectives. Mauss mainly focuses on three geographic areas in order to draw his conclusions. These include Polynesia, Melanesia, and the American Northwest, archaic societies about which the author believes sufficient information exists regarding his central question to justify extensive study.

Within these broader areas, tribes and various peoples are referenced in comparison to each other. Mauss mentions Maori, Tongan, Mangerevan, and Tahitian societies in relation to the concept of the tonga, or the nature of the perceived value of possessions. In the North American Pacific Northwest, the Tlingit and Haida are singled out as examples of Mauss's "potlatch" system, an adversarial and competitive system of giving and receiving which forms the basis of society. The Dayak people are offered as an example of how central giving—specifically, sharing meals in this instance—can be to a society's laws and moral codes. The areas of Northeastern Siberia and Western Alaska are especially noted for their reciprocity to nature and to the gods which they believe in. The Pygmies—cited as one of the most ancient civilizations—engaged in a competitive and obligatory exchange of gifts. The Trobriand Islands, Entrecasteaux Islands, and Amphlett Islands were areas all involved in a complex "potlatch" system. Specific tribes from this region include the Dobu, Kiriwina, Sinaketa, Kitav, and Vakuta. The New Caledonians embody the "potlatch" system; Fiji, New Guinea, and much of Papua practiced a "potlatch" system. The Tsimshian and Kwakiutl are the final North American examples of a slightly less entrenched "potlatch" system than that of Melanesia.

In his final chapter, Mauss then attempts to extrapolate many of the findings about obligatory giving from these archaic civilizations into modern civilization.

Analysis

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The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies by Marcel Mauss discusses the significance and meaning of giving gifts in ancient societies. According to the author, gifts were a form of strengthening societal bonds. Mauss contends that gifts have to be reciprocated and implies that givers of gifts always expect something in return.

The author suggests that gifts in archaic societies were a means of survival and way of life. He discusses forms of competitive giving such as potlatch and kula and the roles they played in modern commerce. The writer states that modern trade has many similarities with giving gifts in archaic societies.

While the author makes valid points, one could beg to differ with some of his arguments. In his discussion, Mauss claims that giving gifts was primarily driven by competition and selfish ambitions. Mauss notes:

But, just as the Trobrian kula is only an extreme case of the exchange of gifts, so the potlatch in societies living on the Northwest American coast is only a kind of monstrous product of the system of presents. (54)

One could argue with the author’s insinuation that gifts are “monstrous,” because there are several instances where giving is not driven by selfish ambitions or competition—for instance, a gift from a parent to a child. In many cases, people are motivated to give gifts in a bid to match the anticipated reciprocal actions of the recipients.

Context

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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

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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 buying, selling, and barter, these transactions are subsidiary to and take place largely within the broader context of reciprocal exchange, or gift giving and receiving. Essential to an understanding of the system of reciprocal exchange is its involuntary nature. Primitive gift giving may appear to be gratuitous, but in fact it involves a delicate balance of expectations and obligations. It is not a discrete act but an elaborate continuation of social relations. Moreover, this obligatory system of gift exchange is hedged by powerful sanctions including, at the most extreme, acts of war.

Mauss distinguishes three types of obligation: the obligation to give gifts, the obligation to receive gifts, and the obligation to repay gifts received. Motivating the circularity of obligation is the belief, which Mauss illustrates with examples taken from Samoan culture, that gifts exchanged under obligation contain an intrinsically magical power, a mana. In Samoan culture this mana, or hau, which inhabits the gift is inextricably a part of its original owner and cannot, like a modern gift, be considered inert. Rather, the gift is a “person” in its own right and even when abandoned by its owner can never truly be alienated from him or her. The hau that resides in the gift demands repatriation; the one who receives the gift must repay in turn through the giving of some equivalent gift.

Mauss summarizes the system of obligation in Samoa when he notes that in all instances of exchange, there are generally acknowledged rights and duties concerned with consuming and repaying existing alongside those concerned with giving and receiving. This pattern of reciprocity is highly symmetrical and is above all a pattern of spiritual bonds between things that are also persons. The system is also perpetual, an endless chain of giving and receiving, passing and repassing between individuals, families, clans, tribes, sexes, and generations, as well as between all of these and the gods.

Commonalities in Gift Exchange

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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 days specifically set aside for intertribal gift exchange and feasting. The circle of mutual obligation is dispersed over a vast territorial expanse, knitting together the various island tribes into a single cultural unit. Theoretically, the valuables of the kula never cease to circulate. The gift received is the property of the recipient, but this ownership is both possession and loan, a trust and a pledge of future giving.

Among the highly developed and wealthy tribes of the northwest coast of America, Mauss finds the most accentuated form of total prestation, the potlatch. During the summer months the northwest American tribes do their hunting and fishing, and in general accomplish most of the practical business of life. Radically distinct from this are the winter months, the period of the potlatch, which are feverish with the movement of tribes. This is the season of feasts, marriages, and visitations, and upon all such occasions the rituals of the potlatch are much in evidence. All the goods that have been hoarded during the summer months of industry are squandered without restraint in highly competitive rites of exchange and consumption. Central to the process of socialization mediated by the potlatch are the activities of various intertribal societies, such as the men’s and women’s societies of the Kwakiutl, which cut across tribal lines.

Two further traits associated with total prestation are especially evident among the northwest American tribes: credit and honor. According to modern economic theory, sale on credit is the product of a long evolutionary development and was unknown among primitive tribes. The origins of credit, however, do not conform to the usual evolutionary model. Among the northwest American tribes, gift giving and receiving account for the whole of economic life. Within the context of such total prestation, the notion of credit is implicit. It is in the nature of the gift that it cannot be repaid at once; thus, the notion of time, so crucial to the idea of credit, is already well developed in the potlatch and similar systems. In paying a visit, contracting a marriage or alliance, making a treaty, or attending a feast, the idea of time—the deferral of counter-prestation according to a prescribed place and date—is ever assumed and woven into the fabric of the potlatch. Barter arises only later, by way of a simplification of the system of gift giving on borrowed time, or credit.

The role of honor is central to systems of gift exchange, particularly in the potlatch, to the degree that the prestige of an individual is tied closely to expenditure. In the potlatch, one not only returns gifts but returns them with interest. To do otherwise would compromise both individual and tribal honor. Among the northwestern American tribes, therefore, competitive gift giving is displayed in the most extreme forms and transcends the usual rituals of exchange. Some systems of potlatch require the expenditure of the whole of one’s possessions, reserving nothing. Rivalry and antagonism, motivated by what may seem an exaggerated notion of honor, are basic elements of such systems. Political status, social rank, marriages, and alliances all are treated as a conflict of wealth. Accumulation of wealth occurs solely for the purposes of expenditure, or unadulterated destruction—for example, burning all one’s possessions or casting them into the sea—to humiliate a rival.

Indo-European and European Cultures

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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 Germanic custom displays a clear affinity to the Roman nexum. In both cases, to give an object in exchange is also to give a part of oneself, a part that resides in the object and that may carry its own intrinsic sanctions in the form of magical spells.

Finally, Mauss offers a number of observations on the social and economic life of societies such as those of Europe. It is only in Western societies that people have been turned into purely economic animals. This has produced severe social consequences, most evidently in the rise of class warfare, which is itself but a symptom of widespread social disintegration. On the other hand, recent movements have led to a new awareness of the need for social solidarity and responsibility. The concept of social insurance, for example, undertaken by the state for the benefit of the old, the infirm, and the unemployed, is not so much a novel development as a return to the premodern system of total prestation. From this recognition, a further course of action should be deduced. It is crucial that in modern societies, the wealthy should come to understand themselves as the benefactors of the whole social body. Whether at the level of the state or on the part of individuals, a system of obligatory giving should become the binding force of society. Limits should be placed on those forms of economic activity undertaken for sheer profit alone, such as market speculation and usury. Honor, disinterestedness, and corporate solidarity should become the watchwords of a revitalized civilization.

Historians of sociology generally agree that The Gift is Mauss’s single most influential work. Certainly it was the first systematic attempt to elaborate the relationship between patterns of exchange and the social structure as a whole. The main line of influence of The Gift has been on French ethnology, particularly on the work of structural anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, who regarded the work as a major turning point in the development of sociological method. In addition, The Gift has stimulated many further studies, including extensive fieldwork, on the problems of ceremonial exchange and kinship organization in primitive societies. Although specific aspects of Mauss’s view of gift exchange have been challenged, his fundamental argument remains widely accepted.

Bibliography

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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 to hold up the archaic economy of reciprocal exchange as a political model for modern times.

Godelier, Maurice. The Enigma of the Gift. Translated by Nora Scott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Provides an analyis of the work of Mauss.

James, Wendy, and N. J. Allen, eds. Marcel Mauss: A Centenary Tribute. New York: Berghahn Books, 1998. An homage to the work of Marcel Mauss that affirms the enduring significance of his ideas.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “French Sociology.” In Twentieth Century Sociology, edited by Georges Gurvitch and Wilbert E. Moore. New York: Philosophical Library, 1945. Lévi-Strauss’s introduction to French sociology is dedicated to Mauss and focuses largely on the contribution of Durkheim, Mauss, and L’Année sociologique to the development of modern sociology. Lévi-Strauss’s work is particularly useful for an understanding of the close ties in the French tradition between sociological research and social criticism. Lévi-Strauss appraises the central importance of The Gift and reviews some early criticism of the work.

Raison, Timothy, ed. The Founding Fathers of Sociology. London: Scholar Press, 1979. This anthology is intended to introduce the student of sociology to the leading figures of the tradition, and it contains useful chapters on both Mauss and Durkheim. The chapter on Mauss, by Michael Wood, contains several insightful pages on The Gift, illuminating some of the central problems raised by the work. Wood’s style is highly readable and should present no difficulties for the uninitiated.

Sahlins, Marshall. Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine Atherton, 1972. This well-known text contains an outstanding chapter on The Gift (“The Spirit of the Gift”) that examines Mauss’s interpretation of the hau as the master concept of the work. Sahlins reviews the substantial criticism directed at this concept and contributes his own reinterpretation of the meaning of the hau. This chapter is outstanding for its explication of the tradition of political philosophy that lies behind The Gift, informing its fundamental assumptions.

Szacki, Jerzy. History of Sociological Thought. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. No serious understanding of Mauss’s work, including The Gift, is possible without some knowledge of his collaboration with the other members of the sociological circle that formed around Émile Durkheim, L’Année sociologique. Even The Gift, which bears only Mauss’s name, was a collaborative work. Szacki is especially good at delineating the principles that bound the circle together and at demonstrating precisely where Mauss, Durkheim’s most prominent student, parted company with the master.

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