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Marcel Mauss


Disciplines > Sociology > Marcel Mauss

The Gift | Body techniques | See also


Marcel Mauss (1872 - 1950) was a French Sociologist and Anthropologist and nephew of Emile Durkheim.

The Gift

In 'The Gift', Mauss (1924) explores gift-exchanges in various cultures and highlights the reciprocal nature of gifts and the obligation of the receiver to repay the debt.  The object that is given carries the identity of the giver, and hence the recipient receives not only the gift but also the association of that object with the identity of the giver.

Mauss describes the Maori hau, which means the "spirit of the gift". The hau demands that the gift be returned to its owner. In Polynesia, failing to reciprocate means losing mana, the person's spiritual source of authority and wealth. Gift-giving is thus a critical mechanism for creating social bonds.

Mauss describes three obligations:

  • Giving: the first step in building social relationships.
  • Receiving: accepting the social bond.
  • Reciprocating: demonstrating social integrity.

Prosocial gifts

Critics of Mauss point to prosocial behavior where no immediate exchange is made. Derrida describes four criteria for a free gift:

  • There is no reciprocal giving back of a return gift
  • The recipient does not perceive the gift as a gift or him/herself as a recipient
  • The donor must not consider the gift as a gift
  • The gift does not appear as a gift

Body techniques

Mauss describes 'techniques of the body' as highly developed body actions that embody aspects of a given culture. Techniques may also be divided by such as gender and class (for example in the manner of walking or eating).

These include such as eating, washing, sitting, swimming, running, climbing, swimming, child-rearing, and so on.

The techniques are adapted to situations, such as aboriginal squatting where no seats are available. Techniques are thus a 'craft' (Latin: habilis) that is learned.

The teaching of these methods is what embeds the methods and the teaching is embedded within cultures and schools of teaching. A pupil who becomes a teacher will likely teach what they are taught.

Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu developed the ideas further in habitus, the non-discursive aspects of culture that bind people into groups, including unspoken habits and patterns of behavior as well as styles and skill in body techniques.

See also

Norbert Elias

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Elias, N. (1978). The History of Manners. The Civilizing Process: Volume I. New York: Pantheon Books

Elias, N. (1982). Power and Civility. The Civilizing Process: Volume II. New York: Pantheon Books

Mauss, Marcel. 1934. Les Techniques du corps, Journal de Psychologie 32(3-4). Reprinted in Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie, 1936, Paris: PUF

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