Marcel Mauss Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2770 words.)