The French-born sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss is best known for his analysis of gift-giving societies and their relationship to more modern economic systems. Mauss is often described as the father of modern French anthropology. Although Mauss did not conduct fieldwork himself, his focus on ethnology was instrumental in influencing members of disciplines such as sociology, philosophy, and psychology to recognize the benefits of fieldwork.
Although Mauss studied a wide range of topics, his most significant publication is The Gift (1925), which was written as his response to Lenin’s New Economic Policy of 1921. Mauss observed the events in Russia and believed that because the market could not simply be done away with, revolutionaries needed to develop a more intellectual and complete understanding of the market economy. He wanted to determine where the market came from and whether there were alternatives to the market economy. At the time, most people believed that the goal of humans was to maximize their pleasure by accumulating goods that would increase their comfort. Therefore, it was thought that some form of the market economy must have always existed and would have, in its early forms, relied on barter exchange.
Using several different societies of Melanesia, Polynesia, and northwestern North America, Mauss examined the roles and functions of gift giving and discovered that barter did not exist in these societies. Mauss described the system of gift giving that existed in these societies and noted that gift giving was related to obligation in several different ways. There was an obligation to give gifts in certain settings, there was an obligation to receive gifts that were offered, and there was the expectation that gifts would be reciprocated at a future date. Moreover, Mauss explained the competitive nature that often accompanied gift giving whereby the person who gave the gift received increased status. This was particularly the case with the potlatch system of societies on the northwest coast of North America. Therefore, Mauss illustrated the complexities inherent in gift exchange and the connections between gift giving and other aspects of society, such as religion, economics, politics, and mythology, while demonstrating that in some societies the goal was not to accumulate goods but rather to give away as much as possible so as to gain status.
At Bordeaux, Mauss studied philosophy and then later turned his focus to religion at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (Practical School of Higher Studies). On completion of his studies, he was hired by his alma mater as a professor of primitive religion. From 1900 to 1902, Mauss taught Hindu and Buddhist philosophy at the University of Paris before becoming the chair of the Department of History of Religion of Primitive People, where he remained until 1930. Mauss, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and Paul Rivet worked together to found the Institute ddetnologie (Ethnology Institute) at the University of Paris in 1925. Mauss lectured at the College of France from 1931 to 1939. He was influenced by his uncle and mentor, Émile Durkheim. Together, they founded the journal Lannée Sociologique (The Sociological Year), in which Durkheim’s theories and methodology were developed. On the death of Durkheim, Mauss became editor of the journal. Although Mauss worked on a minimum of five books on a variety of topics, including the origin of money, nationalism, and prayer, he did not complete any of these works.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1987). Introduction to the work of Marcel Mauss (F. Baker, Trans.). London: Routlege & Kegan Paul.
- Mauss, M. (1967). The gift: Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies (I. Cunnison, Trans., with an introduction by E. E. Evans-Pritchard). New York: Norton.
- Mauss, M. (1979). Sociology and psychology: Essays (B. Brewster, Trans.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.