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Influential Anthropology (With a Superb Introduction by Mary Douglas)
on March 3, 2013
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.