The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies

by Marcel Mauss
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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664

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Marcel Mauss’s 1925 essay on The Gift (in French, Essai sur le Don) has become a classic in the sociology and anthropology of economics. Building on the legacy of his mentor, Émile Durkheim, Mauss took up “economy” in the most expansive sense of the word. He addressed principles of exchange in societies which he calls “primitive” or “archaic,” or “early”—although contemporary with his own era—where non-monetary exchanges predominated, even if not used exclusively. The exchanges he studies are, E. E. Evans Pritchard notes in his introduction to the 1954 English edition, “total social movements of activities.”

The most fundamental premise that Mauss lays out is that gifts are not given freely to the extent that receiving a gift requires the recipient to give one in return. This is the reason that the gift is the foundation of economic concepts and behaviors. He lays out this premise on page one as the phenomena that his book addresses—“prestations which are in theory voluntary, disinterested and spontaneous, but are in fact obligatory and interested.” He further notes that his inquiry will pose these questions:

In primitive and archaic society, what is the principle whereby the gift received has to be repaid? What force is there in the thing which compels the recipient to make a return?

The contracts that people enter into through such gifts and obligations, he maintains, are part and parcel of morality, as “the law of things remains bound up with the law of persons.”

One institution in which prestation played an important role was the “potlatch” carried out by various indigenous groups in the Northwest Coast of North America, in parts of the US and Canada. Among the Tlingit and Haida in particular, lavish feasts not only demand extravagant gifts be given but that they be destroyed. In the potlatch,

the whole clan . . . makes contracts involving all its members and everything it possesses. But the agonistic character of the prestation is pronounced. Essentially usurious and extravagant, it is above all a struggle among nobles to determine their position in the hierarchy to the ultimate benefit, if successful, of their own clans.

In Samoa, Mauss addresses gifts that bind even babies into social contracts, and provides data on the male or female gender of gifts. There, “tonga” is both female property and indestructible property, and can be a person: a baby is a tonga, a piece of feminine property, but when it involves the child’s mother’s brother, tonga refers to every manner of property that can make a “man rich, powerful, or influential” and is potentially exchangeable, even giving him magical power: “objects of value such as emblems, charms, mats, and sacred idols, and perhaps even traditions, magic and ritual.” Thus the “thing” which compels repayment need not be an object but can be an idea or practice.

In analyzing the obligation to return a gift, Mauss points out the possible consequences of refusal: “To refuse to give, or to fail to invite, is—like refusing to accept—the equivalent of a declaration of war; it is a refusal of friendship and intercourse.” Reciprocal giving is, therefore, both social and moral, being “first and foremost a pattern of spiritual bonds between things which are to some extent parts of persons.”

This emphasis on spirituality Mauss extends into analyzing gifts and reciprocal obligations between humans and gods, often as sacrifice. Among the Toradja of the Celebes islands, not only are gifts made to gods, but “the idea of purchase from gods is universally understood.”

At the book’s end, Mauss comments on the negative aspects of reciprocity, such as battles and war, and suggest ways to move beyond them.

It is by opposing reason to emotion and setting up the will for peace that peoples succeed in substituting alliance, gift and commerce for war, isolation and stagnation. . . . In order to trade, man must first lay down his spear.

All quotations are from the Ian Cunnison translation, published by Cohen and West, 1954.

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