The Gift Marcel Mauss analysis

The Gift
Marcel Mauss
non-fiction

In the book “The Gift” Marcel Mauss discusses a system of exchange and obligation which exists in several societies in the form of potlatch or the system of total services.

Throughout the book, Mauss repeatedly states that gifts given on various occasions among people in Polynesia and in the American Northwest have to be reciprocated. For example, among the Samoan, gifts of any kind, material or ritual, contain a pert of person’s spiritual essence. Keeping and not reciprocating them would be highly dangerous and immoral because active gifts seek to return to their original owner and to the place of origin. In Andaman Islands gifts serve as links between families, supporting the system of contract and exchange. In Trobriand Islands there is a system of intertribal trade called kula. During this event presents circulate among participants in a very strict order, and such circulation serves to reinforce legal principles and has strong spiritual connotations. It is not a mere exchange of gifts done in order to please somebody; it is a very elaborate system of services which “forms the framework for a whole series of other exchanges, extremely diverse in scope” (Mauss 1950:27).

In the American Northwest, there is potlatch, or the system of exchanged gifts. It is more violent than the system of exchange in Melanesia, and the notion of honor plays a huge role in it. Services performed during the potlatch gathering are seen as acts of honor, and the chief can keep his high status only by sharing his good fortune. The author says that “the obligation to give is the essence of potlatch” (Mauss 1950-39), and so is the obligation to reciprocate. Competition and power play are very prominent, and there is indeed a very strong connection between “circulation of gifts and circulation of rights and persons” (Mauss 1950:46). 

In the last chapter the author compares the notion of gift in the European society with that in the societies of Melanesia and the American Northwest. In the western society people generally see gifts are something that should be given free, in contrast to obligations and services that should be reciprocated. However, if we look at the history of Indo-European law systems, classical Hindu laws, Celtic laws, and others, we will notice that the system of exchange and obligation is not foreign to them. For example, in German villages there is something called gage (a pledge), during which gifts are exchanged to seal the contract between two parties. Mauss emphasizes throughout the book that gifts play a huge role in what he calls “total services of the agonistic type.” The system of exchange in several societies discussed by him serves to create and maintain social ties, reinforce laws and rights, and keep the society function in a certain way. 

Marcel Mauss, 1990 [1950] The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. W.D. Halls, trans. Norton & Company, Inc. New York. 

Photo source: Pixabay. 

 


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