Marcel Mauss

Marcel Mauss (French: [mos]; 10 May 1872 – 10 February 1950) was a French sociologist. The nephew of Émile Durkheim, Mauss' academic work traversed the boundaries between sociology and anthropology. Today, he is perhaps better recognised for his influence on the latter discipline, particularly with respect to his analyses of topics such as magic, sacrifice, and gift exchange in different cultures around the world. Mauss had a significant influence upon Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of structural anthropology.[1] His most famous book is The Gift (1925).

Marcel Mauss
Born(1872-05-10)10 May 1872
Died10 February 1950(1950-02-10) (aged 77)
Scientific career
InstitutionsÉcole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS)
InfluencesÉmile Durkheim


Mauss was born in Épinal, Vosges, to a Jewish family, and studied philosophy at Bordeaux, where his maternal uncle Émile Durkheim was teaching at the time. In the 1890s, Mauss began his lifelong study of linguistics, Indology, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and the 'history of religions and uncivilized peoples' at the École pratique des hautes études[2]. He passed the agrégation in 1893. He was also first cousin of the much younger Claudette (née Raphael) Bloch, a marine biologist and mother of Maurice Bloch, who has become a noted anthropologist. Instead of taking the usual route of teaching at a lycée following college, Mauss moved to Paris and took up the study of comparative religion and Sanskrit.

His first publication in 1896 marked the beginning of a prolific career that would produce several landmarks in the sociological literature. Like many members of Année Sociologique, Mauss was attracted to socialism, especially that espoused by Jean Jaurès. He was particularly active in the events of the Dreyfus affair. Towards the end of the century, he helped edit such left-wing papers as Le Populaire, L'Humanité and Le Mouvement socialiste, the last in collaboration with Georges Sorel.

In 1901, Mauss began drawing more on ethnography, and his work began to develop characteristics now associated with formal anthropology.

Mauss served in the French army during World War I from 1914-1919 as an interpreter.[3] These years were absolutely devastating for Mauss. Many of his friends and colleagues died in the war, and his uncle Durkheim died shortly before its end. Politically, the postwar years were also difficult for Mauss. Durkheim had made changes to school curricula across France, and after his death a backlash against his students began.

Like many other followers of Durkheim, Mauss took refuge in administration. He secured Durkheim's legacy by founding institutions to carry out directions of research, such as l'Institut Français de Sociologie (1924) and l'Institut d'Ethnologie in 1926. These institutions stimulated the development of fieldwork-based anthropology by young academics. Among students he influenced was George Devereux, Jeanne Cuisinier, Alfred Metraux, Marcel Griaule, Georges Dumezil, Denise Paulme, Michel Leiris, Germaine Dieterlen, Louis Dumont, Andre-Georges Haudricourt, Jacques Soustelle, and Germaine Tillion.[4]

In 1902, Mauss became a Chair as a Professor of Primitive Religion at École.[5] From 1931-1940, Mauss also served chair of the Sociology department at the Collège de France. In addition to this, he actively fought against anti-semitism and racial politics both before and after World War II. He died in 1950.

Theoretical views

Mauss has been credited for his analytic framework which has been characterized as more supple, more appropriate for the application of empirical studies, and more fruitful. His work fell into two categories, one being major ethnological works on exchange as a symbolic system, body techniques and the category of the person, and the second being social science methodology.[6] In his classic work The Gift [see external links for PDF], Mauss argued that gifts are never truly free, rather, human history is full of examples of gifts bringing about reciprocal exchange. The famous question that drove his inquiry into the anthropology of the gift was: "What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?".[7] The answer is simple: the gift is a "total prestation" (see law of obligations), imbued with "spiritual mechanisms", engaging the honour of both giver and receiver (the term "total prestation" or "total social fact" (fait social total) was coined by his student Maurice Leenhardt after Durkheim's social fact). Such transactions transcend the divisions between the spiritual and the material in a way that, according to Mauss, is almost "magical". The giver does not merely give an object but also part of himself, for the object is indissolubly tied to the giver: "the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them" (1990:31). Because of this bond between giver and gift, the act of giving creates a social bond with an obligation to reciprocate on the part of the recipient. Not to reciprocate means to lose honour and status, but the spiritual implications can be even worse: in Polynesia, failure to reciprocate means to lose mana, one's spiritual source of authority and wealth. To cite Goldman-Ida's summary, "Mauss distinguished between three obligations: giving, the necessary initial step for the creation and maintenance of social relationships; receiving, for to refuse to receive is to reject the social bond; and reciprocating in order to demonstrate one's own liberality, honour, and wealth" (2018:341).

An important notion in Mauss' conceptualisation of gift exchange is what Gregory (1982, 1997) refers to as "inalienability". In a commodity economy, there is a strong distinction between objects and persons through the notion of private property. Objects are sold, meaning that the ownership rights are fully transferred to the new owner. The object has thereby become "alienated" from its original owner. In a gift economy, however, the objects that are given are inalienated from the givers; they are "loaned rather than sold and ceded". It is the fact that the identity of the giver is invariably bound up with the object given that causes the gift to have a power which compels the recipient to reciprocate. Because gifts are inalienable they must be returned; the act of giving creates a gift-debt that has to be repaid. Because of this, the notion of an expected return of the gift creates a relationship over time between two individuals. In other words, through gift-giving, a social bond evolves that is assumed to continue through space and time until the future moment of exchange. Gift exchange therefore leads to a mutual interdependence between giver and receiver. According to Mauss, the "free" gift that is not returned is a contradiction because it cannot create social ties. Following the Durkheimian quest for understanding social cohesion through the concept of solidarity, Mauss' argument is that solidarity is achieved through the social bonds created by gift exchange. Mauss emphasizes that exchanging gifts resulted from the will of attaching other people  'to put people under obligations', because "in theory such gifts are voluntary, but in fact they are given and repaid under obligation".[8]

Mauss also focused on the topic of sacrifice. The book Sacrifice and its Function which he wrote with Henri Hubert in 1899 argued that sacrifice is a process involving sacralising and desacralising. This was when the "former directed the holy towards the person or object, and the latter away from a person or object."[9] Mauss and Hubert proposed that the body is better understood not as a natural given. Instead, it should be seen as the product of specific training in attributes, deportments, and habits. Furthermore, the body techniques are biological, sociological, and psychological and in doing an analysis of the body, one must apprehend these elements simultaneously. They defined the person as a category of thought, the articulation of particular embodiment of law and morality. Mauss and Hubert believed that a person was constituted by personages (a set of roles) which were executed through the behaviors and exercise of specific body techniques and attributes.

Mauss and Hubert wrote another book titled A General Theory of Magic in 1902 [see external links for PDF]. They studied magic in 'primitive' societies and how it has manifested into our thoughts and social actions. They argue that social facts are subjective and therefore should be considered magic, but society is not open to accepting this. In the book, Mauss and Hubert state:

In magic, we have officers, actions, and representations: we call a person who accomplishes magical actions a magician, even if he is not professional; magical representations are those ideas and beliefs which correspond to magical actions; as for these actions, with regard to which we have defined the other elements of magic, we shall call them magical rites. At this stage it is important to distinguish between these activities and other social practices with which they might be confused.[10]

They go on to say that only social occurrences can be considered magical. Individual actions are not magic because if the whole community does not believe in efficacy of a group of actions, it is not social and therefore, cannot be magical.


While Mauss is known for several of his own works  most notably his masterpiece Essai sur le Don ('The Gift')  much of his best work was done in collaboration with members of the Année Sociologique, including Durkheim (Primitive Classification), Henri Hubert (Outline of a General Theory of Magic and Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice), Paul Fauconnet (Sociology) and others.

Mauss influenced French anthropology and social science. He did not have a great number of students like many other Sociologists did, however, he taught ethnographic method to first generation French anthropology students. In addition to this, Mauss' ideas have had a significant impact on Anglophile post-structuralist perspectives in anthropology, cultural studies, and cultural history. He modified post-structuralist and post-Foucauldian intellectuals because he combines an ethnographic approach with contextualization that is historical, sociological, and psychological.

Mauss served as an important link between the sociology of Durkheim and contemporary French sociologists. Some of these sociologists include: Claude Levi Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu, Marcel Granet, and Louis Dumont. The essay on The Gift is the origin for anthropological studies of reciprocity. His analysis of the Potlatch has inspired Georges Bataille (The Accursed Share), then the situationists (the name of the first situationist journal was Potlatch). This term has been used by many interested in gift economies and open-source software, although this latter use sometimes differs from Mauss' original formulation. See also Lewis Hyde's revolutionary critique of Mauss in "Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property". He also impacted the Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales and David Graeber.[11]


Mauss' views on the nature of gift exchange have had critics. French anthropologist Alain Testart (1998), for example, argues that there are "free" gifts, such as passers-by giving money to beggars, e.g. in a large Western city. Donor and receiver do not know each other and are unlikely ever to meet again. In this context, the donation certainly creates no obligation on the side of the beggar to reciprocate; neither the donor nor the beggar have such an expectation. Testart argues that only the latter can actually be enforced. He feels that Mauss overstated the magnitude of the obligation created by social pressures, particularly in his description of the potlatch amongst North American Indians.

Another example of a non-reciprocal "free" gift is provided by British anthropologist James Laidlaw (2000). He describes the social context of Indian Jain renouncers, a group of itinerant celibate renouncers living an ascetic life of spiritual purification and salvation. The Jainist interpretation of the doctrine of ahimsa (an extremely rigorous application of principles of nonviolence) influences the diet of Jain renouncers and compels them to avoid preparing food, as this could potentially involve violence against microscopic organisms. Since Jain renouncers do not work, they rely on food donations from lay families within the Jain community. However, the former must not appear to be having any wants or desires, and only very hesitantly and apologetically receives the food prepared by the latter."Free" gifts therefore challenge the aspects of the Maussian notion of the gift unless the moral and non-material qualities of gifting are considered. These aspects are, of course, at the heart of the gift, as demonstrated in books such as Annette Weiner's (1992) Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping While Giving.

Mauss' view on sacrifice was also controversial at the time. This was because it conflicted with the psychologisation of individuals and social behavior. In addition to this, Mauss' terms like persona and habitus have been used among some sociological approaches. They have also been included in recent sociological and cultural studies by Pierre Bourdieu.

Selected works

  • Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice, (with Henri Hubert) 1898.
  • La sociologie: objet et méthode, (with Paul Fauconnet) 1901.
  • De quelques formes primitives de classification, (with Durkheim) 1902.
  • Esquisse d'une théorie générale de la magie, (with Henri Hubert) 1902.
  • Essai sur le don, 1925.
  • Les techniques du corps, 1934. Marcel Mauss, «Les techniques du corps» (1934) Journal de Psychologie 32 (3-4). Reprinted in Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie, 1936, Paris: PUF.
  • Sociologie et anthropologie, (selected writings) 1950.
  • Manuel d'ethnographie. 1967. Editions Payot & Rivages. (Manual of Ethnography 2009. Translated by N. J. Allen. Berghan Books.)

See also


  1. Barth, Fredrik (2005). One Discipline, Four Ways: British, German, French, and American Anthropology. University of Chicago Press, p. 208, Quote: "Marcel Mauss' two most influential followers were Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1908) and Louis Dumont (1911–1998). The impact of his work on both of them was strong."
  2. Sica, Alan. Social Thought: From Enlightenment to the Present. p. 306.
  3. Scott, John. Fifty Key Sociologists: The Formative Theorists.
  4. Scott, John. Fifty Key Sociologists: The Formative Theorists.
  5. Cashmore, Ellis; Rojek. Dictionary of Cultural Theorists. Chris.
  6. Cashmore, Ellis; Rojek, Chris. Dictionary of Cultural Theorists.
  7. Mauss, Marcel (2002). The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchanges in Archaic Societies (PDF). London: Routledge. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-203-71568-0.
  8. "D. Walczak. 2015. The process of exchange, solidarity and sustainable development in building a community of responsibility. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 6 (1S1), p. 506". Archived from the original on 8 February 2015.
  9. Cashmore, Ellis; Rojek, Chris. Dictionary of Cultural Theorists. p. 350.
  10. Sica, Alan. Social Thought from the Enlightenment to the Present. p. 308.
  11. [Graeber, D., Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, pp 160-161, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001]

Further reading

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