Mauss, Gifting and Society

One of the most interesting concepts to study in societies or micro-societies (from my point of view, of course), is Gifting.

Anthropologists, ethnologists and philosophers have already discussed this issue at length. Gifting is an action, that of giving. It is distinguished from sale, which involves an agreement between buyer and seller, as well as the concept of money. The gift is also not a barter, the action of one who gives one property to obtain another. Finally, the gift also differs from the theft, since the theft is at the expense of the owner of the property.

So here we are with some of the characteristics of gifting. Gifting is free, selfless, and voluntary. At least that’s what it seems at first. Because in practice things are far from being so simple. It’s for this reason that so many authors are interested in this question, which is, again, far from being exploited in every way.

© Kelly Sikkema

Today, we will focus on Marcel Mauss’s opinion on this issue. This sociologist observed that in the societies he studied, giving was very important. He notes that some members of tribes, when they meet others, give them what seems to be gifts. These gifts are clearly distinct from barter, and seem to respond to a specific structure of society. Indeed, when an individual A received a gift from an individual B, then individual A inevitably ended up making a gift to individual B in turn. He’s talking about a phenomenon of “donation and counter-donation”.

Marcel Mauss even notes that, in some cases, individual A did everything possible to ensure that his gift to Individual B was of a greater value than the one he had received in the first place. In this case, we are talking here about agonistic donation, that is to say that the donation becomes competitive, and even, to some extent, aggressive.

Some cultures actually push this form of gifting even further by literally destroying what they “give”. This is the case, for example, of some First Nations in America, which held large celebrations, during which they offered large amounts of food, drink and entertainment to their audiences. At the end of this feast, sometimes, instead of offering a large quantity of material goods, the giver destroys all the goods thus gathered (often all or much of what he possesses). This practice is called Potlatch, although it’s not always as destructive.

The Gift is therefore not a peaceful and generous phenomenon (or at least not only). These implications are numerous in the society that adopts it, in whatever form. For Mauss, gifting is a “total social fact”, meaning it has an impact at all levels of society.

This small (very succinct) introduction to gifting, as Mauss sees it, is essential to understand how the phenomenon of gifting has a significant impact on the structure and functioning of the society that adopts it.

In the near future, we will be able to go into detail and observe the concept of the Gift in practice.

See you soon !

For those who want to know more about Mauss’s ideas: Marcel Mauss, The Gift : Forms and functions of exchange in Archaic Societies, 1925.

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