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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2770

Article abstract: Combining strong philosophical training with sociological interests, Mauss was one of the key figures in twentieth century French sociology. Generally considered one of the pioneers of functionalist methodology, he made major contributions to sociological thought in the areas of the theory of religion, economic exchange, and primitive classification.

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Early Life

Born and reared in a firmly orthodox Jewish family, Marcel Mauss was the nephew of Émile Durkheim, already at the time of Mauss’s birth one of the leading figures in French sociology. Durkheim, who took pains to direct his nephew’s education, both early and late, steered Mauss toward philosophical studies at Bordeaux, where he was thoroughly grounded in neo-Kantian thought. Later, at the École Practique des Hautes Études, Mauss turned to the history of religion, and in 1897-1898 he embarked upon a tour that included a period of study under British social theorist Edward Tylor, often considered the father of cultural anthropology. During his university years, Mauss also began an intensive study of languages, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Sanskrit, that would serve him well throughout his career. By 1901, Mauss had assumed a teaching chair at the École Practique in the history of the religion and philosophy of “noncivilized” peoples, a position he held for the rest of his life.

Life’s Work

Durkheim’s intellectual influence on Mauss can hardly be overstated. The earliest fruit of their collaboration (which lasted until the elder man’s death in 1917) was the study Primitive Classification. Its assemblage of factual materials reflects Mauss’s more empirical bent, and the theoretical interpretation is largely Durkheim’s. Considered a pioneering effort to uncover the origins of such classifications as space, time, number, and hierarchy in the social structure, Primitive Classification theorizes from data gathered from studies of Australian aborigines and the American Zuñi, as well as from traditional Chinese culture. The work’s methodology, which seeks to establish formal correspondences between social and symbolic classifications, reflects Durkheim’s lifelong insistence on the unity of all social phenomena—a conviction that Mauss shared. Although Primitive Classification has met with substantial criticism over the years, it remains an important and influential theoretical contribution.

Although Primitive Classification is the only major work formally coauthored by Durkheim and Mauss, it is important to note that all of Mauss’s work was produced through intimate collaboration with the group of disciples and students that formed the Durkheim circle. As early as 1898, the Durkheim group founded L’Année sociologique, both the name of the journal in which most of their work first appeared and the moniker by which the circle itself was known. Aside from Mauss, the school of Durkheim included Henri Hubert and Paul Fauconnet. The emergence of such a school, whose thought and methodology were remarkably unified, was made possible first of all by the unsystematic nature of Durkheim’s approach to sociology. Although the term functionalism has long been associated with the Année sociologique, the Durkheimian method was largely free of dogmatism. It amounted to a set of questions, problems, and suggestions applicable across a range of fields, including religion, law, morals, demography, and economics. Another reason for the emergence and cohesion of the school was Durkheim’s conviction that sociology as a science must not be isolated from the process of political and social change. The Durkheim circle, and especially Mauss, were deeply committed democratic socialists and saw the ultimate purpose of their work as advancing social reform.

Most important, however, the Durkheimists were unified by their common commitment to an overriding methodological principle: The proper object of sociological study is the whole of society; no social fact should be studied in isolation from the total range of social phenomena. Mauss’s own commitment to such a principle is evident in another early collaborative work, his Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice (1898; Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function, 1962), coauthored with Henri Hubert and first published in L’Année sociologique. In this study, Hubert and Mauss built particularly upon the earlier work of Scottish Semitic scholar William Robertson Smith while rejecting his methodology. Sacrifice, according to Smith, should be understood in evolutionary or genetic terms. Thus, sacrifice as first practiced emerged out of primitive hunting and nomadic cultures and involved the immolation and consumption of totem animals in a communal meal. Later, according to this genealogy, the totemistic aspect of sacrifice disappears, while the communal aspect is refined, as in the religion of the Semites, whose sacrificial practices were the focus of Smith’s theorizing. Against this genetic thesis, Hubert and Mauss argue for the methodological primacy of “typical facts.” What is important, they claim, is not to establish a theory of sacrifice based upon a causal chain of historical descent, but to grasp what is most typical or representative of sacrifice across the total range of social praxis.

In attempting to bring this methodology to bear upon the reality of sacrifice and thus to formulate a general theory, Hubert and Mauss focus on two cultures whose sacrificial ethos was well documented: those of India (in the Vedas) and Israel. What is to be concluded from such a study, they argue, is that the most primordial component of sacrifice is the expulsion of a sacred spirit, whether pure or impure. Rites of expulsion, negotiating between the realms of the sacred and the profane, replace Smith’s emphasis on communion as the fundamental element of sacrifice. In the quintessential sacrificial act, claim Hubert and Mauss, the separation between the divine and the human spheres is overcome. It is true that they recognize communion as one aspect of sacrifice, but they emphatically reject the notion that various kinds of sacrifices are the offspring of some earlier, simpler form. All the sacrifices of which people are aware, they argue, are already complex social forms. The apparently various sacrificial forms nevertheless possess a fundamental unity, which is in turn a question of process—a process that involves the establishment of a line of communication between the sacred and profane worlds by way of an intermediary, or sacrificial victim.

In the years before World War I, Mauss took a leading role in editing L’Année sociologique, and along with Hubert he directed its religious sociology section. In addition, he collaborated in the writing of several other sections and contributed a substantial number of reviews and notes. Under Mauss’s direction, the journal became the principal means by which the discipline of sociology was established in France on a solidly professional basis. Its contributors were not only sociologists; they included members of a range of related fields in the social sciences, particularly those who shared the methodological aims of the journal.

World War I claimed the lives of a number of L’Année sociologique’s collaborators. The effects of the war, followed by the death of the journal’s founder, Durkheim, threatened to bring a unique and profoundly influential project to a halt. In the years following his master’s death, however, Mauss assumed the central role in the group and twice revived the journal after its collapse (once for several years in the 1920’s, and again in the 1930’s). Also during this period, while pursuing his own research, he devotedly edited posthumous works by Durkheim, Hubert, and others.

Although some historians have seen Mauss’s contribution to sociology as merely a continuation of Durkheim’s methods, others have detected a significant break. There can be no doubt that until the end of his career, Mauss carried on in the spirit of Durkheim and continued to adhere to the central vision of an integrated sociology, understood as the science of total social facts. On the other hand, with the publication of Mauss’s single most important work, “Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques” (1923-1924; The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, 1954), a significant shift, amounting to a reform of Durkheimian method, is indicated. Whereas for Durkheim an integrated sociology was focused on the social collective, Mauss attempts in The Gift and in subsequent works to strike a balance between the collective and the individual. Collective ideas are no longer the primary locus of the cultural process; rather, a true understanding of people within the social milieu must also include the person in his or her individuality—an emphasis that opens the way for the integration of psychology into the sociological sphere in a far more significant fashion than Durkheim would have countenanced.

The Gift is among the earliest studies of gift exchange in primitive societies, and the first to inquire systematically into the norm of reciprocity that, according to Mauss, governs gift exchange. Relying, as was his custom, on the fieldwork of others, Mauss examines the rites of exchange in Melanesia, Polynesia, and the American Northwest, as well as in the premodern Germanic, Roman, and Brahmanic Indian cultures. Contrary to the prevailing view that primitive economies lacked markets, Mauss is able to show that economic life in the archaic world is part of a totality that includes religious, moral, legal, aesthetic, and mythological elements. In other words, each of these cultural elements is inextricably related to all the others, and no act of exchange can be interpreted narrowly as merely economic. In all the societies examined, Mauss finds clear evidence of what he terms obligatory, or reciprocal, gift exchange. Unlike the exchange of gifts in modern societies, primitive rites of exchange always involve the obligation to give gifts, to receive gifts, and to repay gifts given. Such obligations generally are accompanied by formal ritual and governed by a variety of sanctions. In most cases, exchange in the societies studied may be termed total prestation, a phrase that Mauss employs to suggest that within such cultures everything of real importance—birth, death, marriage, kinship, warfare, and so on—is intrinsically related to, or woven into the web of, gift giving. As for purely utilitarian forms of exchange, these either are nonexistent in archaic societies, or they exist only in a subsidiary fashion alongside the system of gift exchange. Finally, Mauss asserts that the object exchanged in primitive gift giving is itself in some sense a “person”; that is, a spirit (in Maori, the hau) inhabits the gift, which can never be alienated from the original giver. Thus, ownership in gift-giving societies is never absolute.

Underlying Mauss’s study of prestation in primitive societies was a set of political commitments that were consistently held throughout his life. As early as 1904, he was taking part in a range of socialist activities, participating in support groups for striking workers, campaigning for democratic socialist candidates, and deeply involved in the cooperative movement. Both Durkheim and Mauss looked to the corporations of the high Middle Ages as exemplars of social and economic life, and they believed that the advent of capitalism had exacerbated social divisions to a pathological degree. Neither Mauss nor Durkheim, however, ever supported the communist alternative, fearing its totalitarian tendencies. Mauss’s politics are strikingly in evidence in The Gift; in a final chapter, he upholds the reciprocal system of obligations as a model for the reform of modern economic life.

Although Mauss remained active as a teacher and a scholar throughout the 1920’s and most of the 1930’s, his career was effectively brought to an end by the German invasion of France and the subsequent disintegration of L’Année sociologique. A number of his scholarly projects remained unfinished at the end of his life, including works on the sociology of money and prayer, and the manuscripts are believed to have been destroyed during World War II.


Mauss’s influence, both as a faithful disciple of Durkheimian functionalism and as an original theorist in his own right, has been extensive. As a central figure in L’Année sociologique, Mauss, especially after Durkheim’s death, could be credited with maintaining the cohesion of the group and thus with advancing its influence as a sociological movement not only in France but to some degree in the Anglo-Saxon nations as well. Among French sociologists and ethnologists, such well-known figures as Georges Dumézil, Louis Dumont, and, most important, Claude Lévi-Strauss were directly inspired by Mauss—the latter having claimed for The Gift the status of a major turning point in the history of the social sciences. In the reciprocal pattern of exchanges that Mauss explored in The Gift, Lévi-Strauss found the essential formula for his own structuralist account of primitive mentality and social structure. Mauss’s influence has also spread in more recent years into the broader areas of social theory and philosophy, as is evidenced by the profound impact The Gift has had and continues to have on the writings of Jean Baudrillard and, more recently, Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstructionist theory. For Baudrillard, especially, the patterns of symbolic exchange discussed in The Gift serve as a model whereby the simulacral economies of postindustrial capitalism may be critiqued and supplanted.

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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