Marcel Mauss

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Marcel Mauss (May 10, 1872 – February 10, 1950) was a French sociologist known for his role in elaborating on and securing the legacy of his uncle, Émile Durkheim and the journal L'Année Sociologique. His pioneering work on reciprocity and gift exchange in primitive cultures made him highly influential in anthropology. Mauss viewed gift giving as binding people together in a social relationship that went beyond the material value of the object involved. Thus, he recognized that the act of giving and receiving had an internal component that creates a spiritual connection between human beings, transcending the immediate, physical interaction. This "total social fact" could then be the basis of all types of relationship in human society.


Marcel Mauss was born in 1872 in Epinal, France, into an Orthodox Jewish family. His uncle, the renowned sociologist Émile Durkheim, influenced his interest in philosophy, and Mauss entered the University of Bordeaux where Durkheim was a philosophy professor. Mauss studied there under Alfred Espinas and Octave Hamelin. Although he never received a formal degree, in 1895 he became Agrégé de Philosophie, passing the teaching exam in philosophy.

Instead of taking the usual route of teaching at a lycée, Mauss moved to Paris and took up the study of comparative religion, particularly Sanskrit. From 1897 to 1898, he took a study trip to Oxford, England, where he met Edward Burnett Tylor, considered the founder of cultural anthropology. Mauss’s first publication, in 1896, marked the beginning of a prolific career that would produce several landmarks in the sociological literature.

In 1900, Mauss joined the faculty of the École Pratique des Hautes Études at the University of Paris. He took up his first important position as chair in History of Religion and Uncivilized Peoples in 1902, succeeding the famous professor Leon Marillier. It was at this time that he began drawing more and more on ethnography, and his work increasingly began to look like what came to be called anthropology. Mauss continued to teach this course at the University of Paris until 1930, and after that at the College de France.

Mauss had a different approach from most other scholars of his time. Unlike those who spent most of their time on theoretical knowledge, Mauss was rather practical and socially active. He was a member of the group involved with L'Année Sociologique, and through this was attracted to socialism, particularly that espoused by Jean Jaurès. Mauss was active in the events of the Dreyfus affair, supporting Émile Zola, and 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. As a scholar, Mauss always remained active in society, never losing sight of reality around him.

The years of World War I were devastating for Mauss. Many of his friends and colleagues died in the war, including Durkheim’s son. Durkheim died of grief shortly thereafter, and Mauss was left practically alone to continue Durkheim's work.

The postwar years proved politically difficult for Mauss. Durkheim had previously made changes to school curricula across France, and after his death a backlash against his students began. Like many others, Mauss took refuge in administration, securing Durkheim's legacy by founding institutions such as l'Institut Français de Sociologie in 1924 and l'Institut d'Ethnologie in 1926. In 1931, he took up the chair of Sociology at the College de France. He actively fought against anti-semitism and racial politics both before and after WWII. Mauss died in 1950.


The most significant work by Marcel Mauss is found in two areas: his masterpiece The Gift, and his work in the L'Année Sociologique circle.

The Gift

In his classic work The Gift, Mauss argued that gifts are never "free." Rather, he noted that human history is full of examples that gifts give rise to reciprocal exchange. His 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?" The answer, according to Mauss, was simple: the gift is a "total social fact," imbued with "spiritual mechanisms," engaging the honor of both giver and receiver.

In this way, a "total social fact" (in French fait social total) is "an activity that has implications throughout society, in the economic, legal, political, and religious spheres" (Sedgewick 2002, 95). "Diverse strands of social and psychological life are woven together through what he [Mauss] comes to call 'total social facts'. A total social fact is such that it informs and organizes seemingly quite distinct practices and institutions" (Edgar 2002, 157). The term "total social fact" was coined by Mauss' student Maurice Leenhardt, after the concept of the "social fact," regarded by Durkheim as the basic unit of sociological understanding.

Mauss' analysis drew on a wide range of ethnographic examples, including Bronislaw Malinowski's study of kula exchange, the institution of the potlatch, and Polynesian ethnography, to demonstrate how widespread the practices of gift giving were in non-European societies. In later sections of the book, he examined Indian history, and suggested that traces of gift exchange could be found in more "developed" societies as well. In the conclusion of the book he suggested that industrialized, secular societies, such as his own, could benefit from recognizing this dynamic of gift giving.

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." Because of this bond between giver and gift, the act of giving creates a social bond with an obligation to reciprocate on part of the recipient. To not reciprocate means to lose honor 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.

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, honor and wealth.

Mauss' views on sacrifice[1] also reflect this position, viewing sacrifice as a form of exchange.

An important notion in Mauss' conceptualization of gift exchange is what Gregory (1982, 1997) referred 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 that 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. 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.

Critique of The Gift

Mauss' view on the nature of gift exchange has not been without its critics. Testart (1998), for example, argued that there are "free" gifts, such as passers-by giving money to beggars in a large city. Donor and receiver do not know each other and are unlikely to ever 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 has such an expectation. Moreover, the transaction does not establish a relationship between the two, much less a mutual interdependence.

Additionally, critics have noted that there are different kinds of obligations:

  • feelings of obligation, (e.g. created by having been invited for dinner and having a feeling that one should reciprocate);
  • social obligations, meaning that the social context obliges one to reciprocate, and that a failure to do so would not only affect one's relationship with the giver but also affect one's reputation in general;
  • legal obligations, established through a legal contract.

It can be argued that only the legal form can actually be enforced. Mauss’ critics, therefore, claim that he overstated the magnitude of the obligation created by social pressures.

L'Année Sociologique

As a member of L'Année Sociologique circle, Mauss regarded himself as a sociologist and an anthropologist, as in his view the two existed inseparably from each other. At the time when British and American academia started to distinguish between sociology and anthropology, and when the term ethnology was used in the same manner as anthropology in France, Mauss refused to make a distinction between the three.

He claimed that there was only one science of social facts, and that the division into different social sciences was harmful. He saw "general ethnology" as the first chapter of sociology, arguing that sociologists needed to understand ethnology in order to study society in general. Mauss believed that one of the best ways to promote the development of sociology was to train ethnologists and ethnographers, who would then be equipped with knowledge of data collection. In his view, like Auguste Comte's dream of sociology as the all-encompassing discipline, sociology was the science to enfold the other social sciences—anthropology, psychology, archaeology, law, history, and comparative religion—which would provide the necessary data.

In 1926, together with Lucien Levy-Bruhl and Paul Rivet, Mauss founded the Institut d’Ethnologie in Paris. As there was no department or discipline of "ethnography" or "anthropology" in any French university at the time, the Institute was the first organized academic body to specialize in that field. By the 1940s, the Institute became the leading anthropological research and training center in France.


While Mauss is known for several of his own works, most notably his masterpiece Essai sur le Don (The Gift), many of his best works were done in collaboration with members of the L'Année Sociologique group: Émile Durkheim (Primitive Classification) and Henri Hubert (General Theory of Magic and Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice). Mauss tended to work on several different topics simultaneously, but unfortunately many of them he never finished (such as his work on prayer, on nationalism, and on the origins of money)

Like many prominent French academics, Mauss did not train a great number of students. Nonetheless, many anthropologists claimed to have followed in his footsteps, most notably Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In anthropology, Mauss' work created a large field of studies of reciprocity and exchange. His analysis of the potlatch has been used by many interested in gift exchange. His work also influenced the development of economic anthropology by those such as Karl Polanyi. He also influenced artists and political activists who found in his image of gift giving a way to think about social relationships outside of capitalist economies. Many have seen Mauss' work as an example of the way in which selfless giving can promote a better way of life. It should be noted, however, that Mauss himself described gift exchange as often highly competitive, and at times antagonistic and self-interested.


  • Mauss, Marcel, and Henri Hubert. 1981 (original 1898). Sacrifice: Its Nature and Functions. translated by W.D. Halls. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226356795
  • Mauss, Marcel. 2001 (original 1902). General Theory of Magic. Routledge. ISBN 0415253969
  • Mauss, Marcel, and Emile Durkheim. 1967 (original 1902). Primitive Classification. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226173348
  • Mauss, Marcel. 2000 (original 1925). The Gift: Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. translated by W.D. Halls. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 039332043X
  • Mauss, Marcel. 1985 (original 1950). Sociologie et anthropologie. PUF. ISBN 2130390897
  • Mauss, Marcel. 1979. Sociology and psychology: Essays. Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710088779
  • Mauss, Marcel. 2003. On Prayer. edited by W.S.F. Pickering and translated by H. Morphy, and S. Leslie. Durkheim Press. ISBN 157181633X
  • Mauss, Marcel. 2006. Techniques, Technology And Civilization. ISBN 1571816623


  1. Marcel Mauss, and Henri Hubert.Sacrifice: Its Nature and Functions. translated by W.D. Halls. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226356795

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Allen, N.J., W. James, and M. Mauss. (eds.). 1998. Marcel Mauss: A Centenary Tribute. Berghahn Books. ISBN 1571817050
  • Edgar, Andrew. 2002. Cultural Theory: The Key Thinkers. Routledge Key Guides Series. Routledge. ISBN 0415232813
  • Fournier, Marcel. 2005. Marcel Mauss: A Biography. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691117772
  • Gregory, Christopher A. 1982. Gifts and Commodities. Academic Press. ISBN 0123014603
  • Gregory, Christopher A. 1997. Savage money: The anthropology and politics of commodity exchange. Routledge. ISBN 9057020920
  • Laidlaw, J. 2000. "A free gift makes no friends" in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 6:617-634.
  • Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1987. Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. Routledge. ISBN 0415151589
  • Moebius, Stephan, and Christian Papilloud. 2005. Gift – Marcel Mauss' Kulturtheorie der Gabe. Wiesbaden: VS. ISBN 9783531147314
  • Sedgewick, Peter. 2002. Cultural Theory: The Key Concepts. Routledge Key Guides Series. Routledge. ISBN 0415284260.
  • Testart, A. 1998. "Uncertainties of the 'Obligation to Reciprocate': A Critique of Mauss" in Marcel Mauss: A Centenary Tribute. New York: Berghahn Books. ISBN 9781571817051

External Links

All links retrieved November 5, 2022.

  • AnthroBase – Some discussion on Mauss’s works
  • The works of Marcel Mauss - available free of charge (in French only) in the "Les classiques des sciences sociales" web site, inside the "Les auteurs classiques" collection.


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