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

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

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.

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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.


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.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 3,247 words.)