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The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies
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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2002
Format: Paperback
In his The Gift, Marcel Mauss attempts to explain and understand gifts in primitive societies. Mauss first decides to show that the motives behind giving gifts are more complicated than commonly believed to be. In modern day society, gifts are often thought of as something given out of good will and without the expectance of something in return. Mauss shows us that in many tribal and native cultures, this is not necessarily true. In discussing the Maori, he says, "They had a kind of exchange system, or rather one of giving presents that must ultimately either be reciprocated or given back" (10). The principle of gift giving is governed by the concept of mana, which is the authority, honor, and prestige derived from the wealth and glory of being a superior gift giver. One must give gifts in order to maintain and increase mana and reciprocates them in order to prevent oneself from losing it. The obligations to give and receive are both very important. To reject a gift leads to two problems. Initially, Mauss states that to do so "is to reject the bond of alliance and commonality" (13). To reject such an important bond in a society that so heavily values communal identity is "tantamount to declaring war" (13). The second problem is that of losing mana and being viewed as afraid to accept gifts because one is unable to reciprocate them. The concept of gift giving as one that has the motives of power and authority involved displaces the common belief of gift giving. Durkheim's influence on Mauss is apparent in Mauss' discussion of the contract and sacred qualities. The sacred quality of exchange and contracts also has a relationship to appeasing the gods according to Mauss, or so it is viewed in primitive societies (and according to Durkheim the remnants of such beliefs continue in today's society). Mauss says that the ideal of the gift as distributive justice arises from the belief that the gods punish those with great wealth who are not generous. Therefore, if a gift are given out of generosity and to promote justice, does that mean that those with less wealth have not only less honor and authority, but also a lower level of justness because they are unable to give great gifts?
Gift giving appears to be a "total" social phenomenon or service because of how it works on not only economic levels, but also social levels. The motives for gift giving are not as magnanimous as one may believe because as Mauss says concerning exchange-gifts, "They are kept for the sheer pleasure of possessing them" (23). He seeks to understand the blind accumulation of wealth and says that it is motivated by "competition, rivalry, ostentatiousness, the seeking after the grandiose" (28). To him, these are somewhat negative motives, although he does not explicitly say so. Mauss shows how gift giving evolves with the Native Americans where the concept of honor is more exaggerated and the idea of "credit" and a time limit on the reciprocation of gifts is highlighted. A gift is essentially given with the motive that not only does one gain honor, respect, and authority from it, but that one will also receive something in return. Now if this something received in return is usually paid "with interest" so to speak as it is expected to be of greater value than the original gift. If Mauss is indeed correct, then why is there not a greater disparity of wealth in these primitive societies? If one is wealthy, then one could seek to continuously extend one's own authority and wealth at the same time by giving all the time, since accepting the gift is virtually required, a wealthy person could do so and gain interest on all the gifts given.
Overall, it's interesting and provocative. It is helpful to have read Durkheim's Professional Ethics and Civic Morals (then you realize that Mauss is just following in Durkheim's footsteps). What kind of society do they propose? It's not too clear. I'm still trying to figure that one out, but nonetheless, it's a provocative book, as is Durkheim's.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2000
Format: Paperback
Mauss' book is a part sociological, part anthropological study of the practice of gift exchange. First, he explores the various forms this practice takes in distinct ethnographic settings. In each case, one catches a glimpse of what Mauss calls the 'total social fact': the notion that exchanging gifts signifies, beneath its voluntary and individualistic façade, a complex social affair. On the one hand, bonds of solidarity are created/maintained between implicated social groups; on the other, political relations of subordination (in which the donor often, if not always, occupies the dominant position) are reproduced/contested. Second, Mauss moves on to problematize the notion that the thing exchanged is merely an 'inert and lifeless object' and the synchronic view of gift exchange as a short-lived act devoid of temporality. Working his way through his ethnographic observations, Mauss unearths the historical dimension of the gift, which now appears to possess a 'spiritual' power irredemiably related to the donor and a historicity (and story) beyond the momentary encounter between donor and recipient. What follows from these two complementary arguments is that gift exchange, contrary to the individualistic notion that it merely involves the persons exchanging the gifts, establishes a wider social/political nexus, connecting the social groups the donor and recipient are members of. Finally, Mauss returns to the present and redeems the gift from its 'archaic' context to explore its potential as a social-democratic tool against 'unbridled' capitalist exchange.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2008
Format: Paperback
There's a lot of talk here and there about what really separates the "modern" from the "primitive". And with good reason. Mauss's "The Gift" has become one of those landmark books that has become a staple for anthropology and social theory; however, I think it deserves far more. If you can, for all 80 pgs of it, discard the notion that this is old-fashioned armchair ethnography, The Gift is an immensely enlightening read. Seriously.

Mauss looks comparatively at several societies through the present and history. He finds, in the end, one common thread that unites them all. That all gifts are given and received with some degree of reciprocity. In short, there is no such thing as a free, or pure, gift. As he says, "Pure gift? Nonsense". His final chapter goes on to explore how, despite the ways in which capitalism somewhat shatters and fragments the gift relationship by severing close ties in trade/exchange between persons, this basic principle of reciprocity and giving still exists in our social structure.

The more you read it, the more you start to see this relationship. Everywhere. It's really pretty cool. Everything is a little game of give and take, even our conversations with one another involve one offering something, one returning. Besides, Mauss is quite a good writer for his time, and the 80 pgs are an easy read. Plus, the book is thin enough to fit in your back pocket. What more could you want?
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2013
Format: Paperback
Marcel Mauss' "The Gift" (1925) is one of the most influential pieces of anthropology written in the twentieth century. It explores the economies of pre-capitalist cultures and peoples from several different parts of the world, including Melanesia, Polynesia, and the Pacific Northwest. This specific edition, with an introduction by Mary Douglas (a magnificent anthropologist in her own right), is especially recommended, and sheds a tremendous amount of light on Mauss' sometimes unclear conclusions. In fact, if you can't read the book, Douglas' introduction stands by itself as a wonderful summary of Mauss' ideas.

For those interested in the history of anthropology and its development over time, Mauss was one of Durkheim's greatest students (Durkheim was also Mauss' uncle) and his influence can be seen quite a bit in this work. While Durkheim believed in the individual and the potential for individual action, he was a vocal critic of individualism per se. For example, he recognized that it couldn't explain rule-governed action, a phenomenon rife in every culture. Durkheim's positivism is also on display; Mauss never feels his point is made unless he has shown it several times over with people from different parts of the world.

The main idea here is the centrality of what Mauss calls the "gift." What is a gift? It is an item given within a complex set of social relations and institutions which at the same time comprises those relations and institutions. Mauss also emphasizes that most all cultures see gifts as obligatory and mutual. "Even the idea of a pure gift is a contradiction. By ignoring the universal custom of compulsory gifts we make our own record incomprehensible to ourselves: right across the globe and as far back as we can go in the history of human civilization, the major transfer of goods has been by cycles of obligatory returns of gifts" (viii). Just as important is the way in which gifts function within an economic system. He even hints at how these "gift economies" softly echo the dynamics of Adam Smith's invisible hand. "Gift complements market in so far as it operates where the latter is absent" (xiv).

The following quote, again from Douglas' introduction, is central and important: "Like the market it [the gift] supplies each individual with personal incentives for collaborating in the patter of exchanges. Gifts are given in a context of public drama, with nothing secret about them. In being more directly cued to public esteem, the distribution of honor, and the sanctions of religion, the gift economy is more visible than the market. Just by being visible, the resultant distribution of goods and services is more readily subject to public scrutiny and judgments of fairness than are the results of market exchange. In operating a gift system a people are more aware of what they are doing, as shown by the sacralization for their institutions of giving" (xiv).

As mentioned above, Mauss' work is exhaustively ethnographic. He talks about the Maori's concept of the "hau," or the spirit that inheres in things and that must be passed on. "What imposes obligation in the present received and exchanged is the fact that the thing received is not inactive. Even when it has been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses something of him. Through it the giver has a hold over the beneficiary just as, being its owner, through it he has a hold over the thief" (p. 11-12). Mauss again emphasizes the importance of reciprocity: "In this system of ideas one clearly and logically realized that one must give back to another person what is really part and parcel of his nature and substance, because to accept something from somebody is to accept some part of his spiritual essence, of his soul. To retain that thing would be dangerous and mortal, not only because it would be against law and morality, but also because that thing coming from the person not only morally, but physically and spiritually, that essence, that food, those goods, whether movable or immovable, those women or those descendants, those rituals or those acts of communion - all exert a magical or religious hold over you" (p. 12).

In the second chapter, Mauss discusses the Trobriand people (who are perhaps best known from Malinowski's ethnographic work "Argonauts of the Western Pacific"). Things look remarkably the same. "At the bottom of this system of internal kula [the Trobriand gift economy], the system of gift-through-exchange permeates all the economic, tribal, and moral life of the Trobriand people. It is `impregnated' with it, as Malinowski very neatly expressed it. It is a constant `give and take.' The process is marked by a continuous flow in all directions of presents given, accepted, and reciprocated, obligatorily and out of self-interest, by reason of greatness and for services rendered, through challenges and pledges" (p. 29).

Many western civilizations seem to have some economies in which item exchange obligatory, and others where it isn't. Mauss recognizes this, and addresses it. He asks rhetorically, "Yet are not such distinctions fairly recent in the legal systems of our great civilizations? Have these not gone through a previous phase in which they did not display such a cold, calculating mentality? Have they not in fact practiced these customs of the gift that is exchanged, in which persons and things merge?" (p. 47-48). He claims that a more detailed analysis of Indo-European legal theory will indeed show that this transition can be located historically. Whether Mauss ever finds this transition point, at least in this essay, is questionable.

In the last chapter, Mauss attempts to tie the gift economy to trends in social democracy, and here he completely fails, as Douglas again points out in the introduction. He says that the concept of a social safety net provided by the mutual sharing of tax dollars is analogous to the gift economy. However, he completely ignores the coercive power of the modern state in making this comparison. Part of the reason why potlatch confers such honor with many of these people is because the person or family of their own accord decide how much to sacrifice in the act of gift-giving. The state, on the other hand, makes laws, which makes this giving non-obligatory. If you don't "give," you must pay the punishment. Mauss' politics shine through here, but unfortunately they have nothing to do with the topic at hand.

Mauss' style is dry and demonstrative. Much of the book is taken up with etymologies of Indo-European words, sometimes in a convoluted attempt to support his ideas. Even when the ideas are clearly presented, the translator sometimes leaves many words untranslated, which has you paging back and forth to remind you of their meaning. Thankfully, the book is only around eighty pages. It was a huge influence on Lewis Hyde's "The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property," which turns thirty this year, and which looks to be much more interesting.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Mauss was the first to recognize that gift giving in non-industrial societies is far more than a simple exchange of goods, as it is thought to be in the West. He was able to use data from the potlatch in North America and the kulu ring in the Trobriands near New Guinea.
His central point is that the material objects are subsidiary to the social bonds that an exchange establishes. He notes that the giver becomes a kind of superior to the recepient--until the recepient 'pays back' the gift. Most often the exchanges are of equal value so a sense of balance is maintained in the social relations.
Feasting is the most common exchange and involves speechs, often dancing, and sometimes games. Food is likely to be the same in these societies so the exchange is equal, and if both groups are 'stuffed' at the first meeting they must wait. A 'waiting' period likely becomes established: a season or a year, even more. In the potlatch a village (or other group) lavished food and items like blankets and elaborate carving, even copper 'shields' that became valuable the way antiques become valuable in the West. The first reports had villages 'fighting' with property. Later analysis shows that establishing social bonds was really more important.
Additional work shows that the exchange of women is even better at establishing social bonds. When two men, say from different clans, exchange sisters, an enduring relation is established. Anthropologists have found 'sister exchange marriage' in diverse locations from around the world. And if the practice is continued in the next generation, people will be marrying what anthropologists call 'cross cousins', children of siblings of opposite sex. The practice follows from clan exogamy with all the men and women of a clan of the same generation being 'brothers and sisters' to each other.
In economics Mauss' work is exemplified by Polyani.The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time It is hard to see how he could have so well understood the nature of reciprocity, and its influence even today in the West, were it not for Mauss.
In short, The Gift is an invaluable book to social science. [...]
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VINE VOICEon June 17, 2008
Format: Paperback
Marcel Mauss' seminal work of ethnography reviews the practice of the 'potlatch' in a number of archaic societies throughout the world. His analysis and empirical data are far reaching and highly specific, drawing on a number of the finest researchers in the field (such as Malinowski). Mauss' observations present a picture of a highly complex system of reciprocity, a social contract so important and complex that it often results in competition and often warfare between cross-existing tribes. The ideas in this book are so easily accepted and integrated into our understanding of reciprocity by now that today they seem almost unoriginal. Although Mauss' conclusion that individuals ought to be expected to work, and that absolute reciprocity or 'communism' is dangerous are problematic views, 'The Gift' remains a cornerstone in the field.
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Mauss's "The Gift" is a classic text for economic anthropology and the discipline in general. Written in 1923, partially in response to Malinowski's findings about the Kula ring (discussed in "Argonauts of the Western Pacific" published in 1922), Mauss is questioning the idea that a "gift" can ever be given without the expectation of some sort of return. At the time this was a very new way of approaching economic analysis in societies that did not use some form of money, and this book continues to be influential in that context.
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on May 18, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Worth the read because it responds to the lurking suspicion in my mind that there is more to philanthropy than selfless giving.
Mauss posits the notion that all so-called " free gifts" are actually part of a complex and deeply ingrained cultural practice in us all of exchanging gifts. Whether for religious or charitable purposes, this insight suggests that in fact they are all part of a set of mutual obligations and are not "free" at all.
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on November 17, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This book reports on the traditions and obligations surrounding gift exchanges in primitive societies. Very interesting, although the author's style is somewhat stilted. The idea that objects have their own "personalities" and "want" to be exchanged was intriguing. The obligations surrounding gift exchanges in primitive societies were similar to our current obsession with giving equally valuable Christmas gifts, though much more extensive.
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on April 27, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This edition is on a low quality paper, which doesn't justify the price. Better to pay a bit more for a bit better paper quality
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