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Catherine Lucas: January 2012

Marcel Mauss: The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies

A Critical Review

Introduction

This essay will critically explore Mauss’ theories and findings relating to gift reciprocation, honour, and the concept of ‘free’ or ‘pure’ gifts without agenda. In the process of doing so I will incorporate the usage of these concepts by a variety of theorists writing on contemporary themes of gift use and exchange in modern societies. Although Mauss’ most acclaimed work in the influence of following anthropologists and sociologists, “The Gift” has encountered many criticisms where certain hypothesises appear to conflict with contemporary practices. Although focused on archaic societies, I will endeavour to show throughout the essay in a balanced manner, how we can use Mauss’ ideas in an enduring way when looking at certain aspects of economical and gift exchange systems in contemporary anthropology.

In order to begin to explore these three areas, we must first understand the ‘Potlatch’, the system through which gifts are exchanged, encompassing the acts of giving, receiving and most importantly in the text, the way they are reciprocated. As Mauss has it:

“The potlatch itself, so typical a phenomenon, and at the same time so characteristic of these tribes, [Melanesian and Polynesian] is none other than the system of gifts exchanged.” (Mauss, edited in 2001, p.45)

Particularly focusing on the Polynesians, Mauss shows us how from the development of this “whole system of gifts and this form of exchange” (ibid, p.26) we can trace societal meanings of generosity and responsibility of wealth. Generosity is the focus of the first part of the essay, and from this we look at concepts of honour. Finally, we can engage with contemporary criticisms to challenge theories surrounding the notions of ‘free’ gifts.

The Obligation to Reciprocate: Generosity and Greed

Mauss explores the obligations on us to give gifts and more importantly to reciprocate that which is given – in either equal or greater value than that which was received. In each given example of the practices and rituals of gift giving in a diverse variety of societies, (Hindu, Germanic, Roman, etc.) although the practice of gift exchange and the reasons behind them may differ, Mauss consistently impresses on us the constant re-encountering of the obligation to reciprocate gifts. The value of the returning gift is essential to maintaining alliances between parties and partial relations; giving too much may incur as much offence to the recipient as returning goods or services with too little value.

Mauss’ method of impressing this upon us through examples and folk tales of social ramifications from these errors serve to put the practical aspects of these theories into context. Mauss also uses the original native word in the subsequent Mother language for these exchanges, which are crucial to understanding the original symbolic meanings of the gift exchange.

If there is one criticism that I must give to his attempts, it is to the lack of consistent translation that Mauss is occasionally guilty of when evaluating words against others from different languages. For example, in exploring Germanic terms alongside Hindu, the un-translated words may be compared for the intricacies in their meanings, without re-evaluation of these given words. The denseness of information requires careful translation references on the part of the reader, in order to glean a full understanding of their symbolic connotations.

However, it should be noted that Mauss attempts simple translation of the root and the inherent symbolic meaning of unfamiliar words wherever necessary to differentiate a classification of ‘gift’.

Out of the obligation to give gifts, one can further explore the symbolic nature of generosity. Looking at wedding gifts in Germanic societies, Mauss gives a keen example of this symbolism by looking at the meaning behind the giving tradition: “In a few places the generosity of these gifts is proof of the fertility of the young couple.” (Mauss, 2001 ed. p.78) Generosity versus greed is an integral theme to the underlying moral intention inherent in gift exchange. A recurring notion is that “the recipient puts himself in a position of dependence vis-à-vis the donor” (ibid p.76) and by this notion Mauss illustrates the intricate moral balance inherent in gift exchange.

If we view the gift exchange as a moral contract there must be moral implications to how much is given and why. Gifts of too great a value, in the wrong context, may denote ill feeling towards the recipient of the object or service rendered. It shows a vulgar display of wealth intended to ‘flatten’ the recipient, and implies a challenge of further reciprocal wealth.

This display is very different to generosity of given wealth. It is a display intended to challenge rivals. Mauss explores the fear of being ‘beaten’ by superior gifts in his initial exploration of the Potlatch and its three main obligations, “to give, to receive, to reciprocate,” by focusing on the element of prestige acquired by giving a gift of high value. It is the issue of being obligated to accept a gift you fear being unable to match in reciprocation that is the focus here.

As Mauss asserts:

“The obligation to accept is no less constraining. One has no right to refuse to attend the potlatch. To act in this way is to show that one is afraid of having to reciprocate, to fear being “flattened” [i.e. losing one’s name]…to admit oneself beaten in advance…”(Ibid p.52)

To be ‘beaten’ by a gift is to show inferior wealth, and also inferior generosity by failure of appropriate reciprocation. Mauss uses direct and firm language when expressing this idea, further cementing its importance in the theory. The physicality of the language – the notion of being ‘flattened,’ implies a physical presence of this shame on the beaten party, and the resultant sore effect on their societal standing.

Honour and Wealth

Gregory cites Mauss’ influence on anthropological interpretation of “competitive gift exchange systems” in his essay on ‘gift exchange …in contemporary Papua’ (Gregory, 1980) in which he explores the symbolic ‘destruction of wealth’ in ritual gift offerings to gods as well as other men, and the idea that wealth that is distributed generously will be revisited on them. He suggests that better than the giving of wealth to other men, the giving of it to gods enforces a faith in the power of the gift exchange and the power of the obligation to reciprocate the gift, even if it is not in a material sense. He looks to wealth gathered by the Church and by charitable organisations, and the faith from the benefactor that these gifts will be used in a manner befitting the sacrifice. In practice, he sees that monetary wealth in particular is used for many other uses by the beneficiary than that which it was intended.

It is interesting to note that this essay looking at a contemporary although to some extent tribal society (village societies in Papua New Guinea) that still carries rituals as a part of its symbolic nature, does no longer fully align with the ideologies surrounding generosity and greed that Mauss perceives in archaic societies, particularly in Melanesia and Polynesia, which are noted influences in how Gregory approaches his subject.

Mauss refers to both Polynesian and Melanesian archaic societies where he addresses these questions of “honour and credit” (Mauss, 2001 ed. p.42) and its importance in the ‘system’ the gift and the reciprocated gifts are generated through. As symbols of social standing, Mauss argues that that which is exchanged serves “to reflect somewhat directly the manner in which the subgroups…feel that they are everything to one another.” (Ibid, pp.42-3.) The notion of honour acquired or maintained through generous giving is the driving force between relations with other groups, just as it is in the contemporary society Gregory explores. Giving wealth is a honourable institution, but further to this what we can take from Gregory’s use of Mauss is that giving without a full sense of how the wealth will be used (here we may read: monetary wealth,) is more honourable still.

Critics of Mauss and Defenders of the ‘Free Gift’

A key contended theme of the text is the rejection of the concept of ‘free gifts’ – donations willingly given without necessity of reciprocation. Mary Douglas explores it immediately in the foreword of the 2001 edition. The rejection of free gifts is contended in Laidlaw’s essay “A Free Gift Makes No Friends” (2000), in which he cites the ‘neglect’ to explore free gifts as a product of Mauss’ theories and their influence on cultural anthropologists since. Laidlaw uses the free or ‘pure’ gift as the main emphasis on the subject of the Gift, rather than Mauss who focuses on the gift exchange and the concept of contracts. Largely focused on religious donations or sacrifices, Laidlaw argues that Mauss’ emphasis on the importance of reciprocation destroys the symbolic nature and pure intent of the donation. He argues that the theory of seeking recognition by giving cheapens the intent of such a gift.

In the course of Laidlaw’s exploration of the ‘free gift’, he refers to Derrida (1992), who sets out the ‘conditions’ of so-called ‘free gifts’ in order to pursue some form of examination. His first condition is that the free gift cannot be reciprocated at all. This immediately forms a rift with Mauss’ strong analysis of the obligation to reciprocate on moral terms. Laidlaw suggests that a reciprocated gift immediately establishes an “‘economic’ cycle…and make[s] is part of an interested exchange…” (Laidlaw 2000, referring to Derrida, 1992), and that to avoid this exchange one must not see the gift “as a gift,” (ibid) but to ignore its occurrence. This he feels is the only way we can prevent the advent of a ‘debt’ that must be paid off.

One must ask whether such a theory is possible in practice, and Laidlaw unfortunately fails to offer any fully non-reciprocal practical example of this idea in action. Even if the gift is not socially acknowledged or physically reciprocated, the gratitude that may be extended towards the giver, even in silence, may not be reliably measured, and is this gratitude in itself not a form of intellectual reciprocation? I shall therefore leave Laidlaw’s critique to the side at this juncture.

Perhaps a better critic of Mauss to explore here is Titmuss, whose 1997 book “The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy” focuses on modern blood donations. Titmuss argues that anonymous blood donations may be “the closest approximation in social reality to the abstract concept of a ‘free human gift.’” (Titmuss 1997, p.140) Although he shows awareness that blood donors have “some expectation and [need] assurance that a return gift may be …received at some future time,” i.e. if they require a blood transfusion in the future they hope that others will have donated, they have no guarantee of this.

Where blood donation passes between strangers, Titmuss argues: “in terms of the free gift of blood to unnamed strangers there is no formal contract …and no explicit guarantee of or wish for a reward or return gift.” (Ibid) In this theory, the gift ‘exchange’ has no place in the context that the gift is given.

I can agree with Titmuss’ criticism to a point. Anonymous donation is without explicit contractual exchange between the donor and recipient, however to underline his argument Titmuss closes that these donations are “acts of free will; of the exercise of choice; of conscience without shame.” (Titmuss 1997, p.140 l.36-7)¨*

Looking at the action with its psychological implications, I cannot agree that any choice with an element of conscience can subscribe to an ‘act of free will.’ Rather, there are free-obligation acts, where the recipient through anonymity is free of obligation to reciprocate the gift. Mauss rarely makes reference to anonymity in gift-exchange in “The Gift,” which may be an oversight and worth exploring further.

Further to this, I would suggest that the donor is tied to the giving of this ‘free’ gift through conscience; he fears that without his own participation in the donation scheme he may not receive blood himself if required. In this manner the donor is tied to this gift, even when it is the closest example of a ‘free’ gift; and this returns us to Mauss’ theories concerning morality as examined above. Mauss in his exploration of Classical Hindu Law in “The Gift” keenly illustrates the theory of belief in that any gifts given even ‘freely’ and in “charity and hospitality” are hoped to be revisited on the giver at some point: “In this world and the next, what is given away is acquired once more.” (Mauss, ed. 2001. p.73, quoting a Hindu text.)

Conclusion

“It is common knowledge that men present themselves publicly by the conspicuous presentation if gifts. Generous contributions to a charity have always been a source of prestige in the United States…especially…when such gestures are made by individuals rather than corporations…” says Schwartz (1967)

The social standing created through gift exchange is a key element of Mauss’ dialogue and as we have explored, the influence of these theories continue to exert their authority on anthropologists and sociologists today. However, few have attempted the feat achieved by Mauss of encompassing so many societies and their rituals into one area of social exchange.

The elements of this discourse discussed in this essay do, I feel, review the key areas inherent in studying concepts of ‘the gift.’ As Mauss himself concludes, this study encompasses “…science of customs [and]…moral conclusions,” where the gift serves as a tool to analyse the use of “wealth amassed and then redistributed,” and how these exchanges can be used to theorise the symbolism of gifts, behind their practical outcomes of “mutual respect and reciprocating generosity.” (Mauss, ed. 2001, pp.106-107.)

Words: 2,525

References

Derrida, J (1992) Force of law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority (M. Quaintance, Trans.) in D. Cornell, M. Rosenfeld, D.G. Carlson (Eds) USA (New York): Routledge.

Godelier, Maurice (1999) The Enigma of the Gift. USA: Polity Press and University of Chicago. First published as L’Énigme du Don (1996) France: Librarie Arthème Fayard.

Gregory, C. A. (1980) Gifts to Men and Gifts to God: Gift Exchange and Capital Accumulation in Contemporary Papua in ‘Man, New Series,’ Vol. 15, No. 4 (Dec., 1980), pp. 626-652 Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

Laidlaw, James (2000) A Free Gift Makes No Friends, in ‘The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute,’ Vol. 6, No. 4 (Dec., 2000), pp. 617- 634 Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

Mauss, Marcel (1925; 2001 ed.) The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge.

Michaels, A. and Pierce, P. (1997) Gift and Return Gift, Greeting and Return Greeting in India. On a Consequential Footnote by Marcel Mauss in ‘Numen,’ Vol. 44, No. 3 (Sep., 1997), pp. 242-269 Published by: BRILL

Schwartz, B. (1967) The Social Psychology of the Gift in ‘The American Journal of Sociology,’ Vol. 73, No. 1 (Jul., 1967), pp. 1-11 Published by: The University of Chicago Press

Strathern, Marilyn (1988) The Gender of the Gift. USA: University of California Press

Titmuss, Richard M. (1997) The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy. UK: LSE Books


 

¨ *Note: Later, in chapter 16 of “The Gift Relationship,” Titmuss acknowledges that when Mauss “was in his seventies, blood transfusion services were in their infancy.” (p.276) We can only speculate on how Mauss would have aligned this form of donation with his theories on gift exchange and obligatory reciprocity.

Please accept apologies for any lack of quotation marks as they did not come straight over from the Word document I wrote the essay in. I have tried to fill them in wherever needed, however I may have missed a couple. Please do not plagarise this essay if you feel the urge, your degree ain’t worth it especially for my scribblings.

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