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Marcel Mauss and the gift

Marcel Mauss and the gift

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Available at: http://anthro.rschram.org/1002/2.2

Ongka's big moka

Last time, Ongka was in the midst of organizing his major moka prestation to Perewa. To do so he had to ensure that all of his followers would deliver the pigs they owed him before the date he had announced for his gift to Perewa. If he could not time their deliveries, then he would fail to make his prestation and lose his authority.

Ryma, another “big man” like Ongka, and his rival, is doing whatever he can to disrupt this plan so he can present a bigger gift to his partners, and be bigger than Ongka.

Then, unexpectedly, someone dies in a neighboring village. The relatives of the dead man suspect that Ongka's followers used sorcery to kill him. Ongka sends a pig to them to show that he is not responsible. Everything is thrown into chaos–no mokas can be held while the village is mourning.

We pick up the story after mokas have resumed, and Ongka can plan again for his prestation to Perewa.


The Moka is a system

Moka isn't just about pigs, it's about all kinds of things. The Kawelka say that it keeps the peace. It's a way of making a name for yourself. It holds the tribe together. It's the big social event. On a more general level, Moka is a system, a framework. All over the world people operate within some kind of framework, Moka is one of them. (Nairn 1976, 44:50)

Nairn, Charlie. 1976. Ongka’s Big Moka. Granada Television. http://www.der.org/films/ongkas-big-moka.html.

Classical Anthropology

  • Societies are wholes which are greater than the sum of their parts.
  • Societies have boundaries and structure which maintain order.
  • The main question for anthropology is why a society stays the same.

Durkheim and Mauss

Emile Durkheim is a founding figure of sociology and anthropology

  • He wanted to analyze society as an objective fact
  • Society is a collective consciousness, like the Borg, from Star Trek (yes).

Marcel Mauss was a nephew and student of Durkheim

  • Applied a Durkheimian analysis to economic activity
  • Reciprocity is an obligation underlying many if not all transactions

Western culture and social reality

Western culture

  • Western culture values individualism.
  • Children are taught to be individuals.
  • Society and its rules is something that one should be able to choose.

Social reality

  • Every person is, by definition, a member of a group. Most people have very complex networks of ties to many people and groups. It's just part of being a person.
  • No one can really be outside of society. There's no such thing as a wolf child, or a Robinson Crusoe. These are myths.


In the islands of PNG, fishermen exchange fish for garden food with gardeners. Fishermen always cook their food in fresh water, even though they live by the sea. Inland gardeners cook their food in sea water, even though they have fresh water nearby. “Intoxicated with great love of exchange, they exchange even the water of their respective dwelling places and carry it home for the boiling of their food” (Fortune 1932: 206).

Many people throughout the world exchange things they don't need for things they don't need. They even exchange identical things, like water.


Gifts create obligations

Mauss says: Because you have to.

Gifts come with obligations because it is part of the system of total services. Specifically, giving a gift involves a triple obligation:

  • The obligation to give
  • The obligation to receive
  • The obligation to reciprocate, or to give back to one who has given.

Gifts have spirit

For Mauss, the Maori word hau means the “spirit of the thing given.” When someone gives a gift, they give part of themselves. “The hau wishes to return to its birthplace” (Mauss 2000 [1925]: 12).

Total services

What, then, is society? Mauss says that the essence of society is a “system of total services” in which everything one does is for someone else, and other people do everything for you. It is a state of total interdependence.

Reciprocity is everywhere

Gift economies are not simply societies in which there's a lot of gifts. A gift economy is a society in which reciprocity is a “total social phenomenon.”

Even societies which have created the possibility of individualism, the the West, still have gifts and still have reciprocity.

Moka is a competitive system

The moka, and the potlatch, are systems of total services of an agonistic type.

Agonistic means that the sides in an exchange are competing to give more services to the other, and to raise the stakes of reciprocity.

Competing for prestige versus gaining profit?

What if...?

What if we lived in a world in which everything was a gift, and everything possessed a hau?

Spheres of exchange

Many societies organize objects into distinct, ranked spheres of exchange

  1. Women as wives
  2. Prestige items: brass rods, tugudu cloth, slaves
  3. Subsistence items: food, utensils, chickens, tools

Some things, like land, cannot be exchanged for anything, but are inherited.

Two points about spheres

  • In spite of predictions to the contrary, money does not collapse all spheres into one market. Often money exchanges are placed in their own sphere.
  • Western and “modern” societies think of themselves as being dominated by money, but if you think about it, these societies have spheres of exchange too, and worry about maintaining the boundaries between spheres.

What's next

The relationship between money and the gift is complicated and can be interpreted in many ways. we will need to come back to it more next week, and again and again.

In tutorial, you can debate these ideas. Which side are you on?


Bohannan, Paul. 1955. “Some Principles of Exchange and Investment among the Tiv.” American Anthropologist, New Series, 57 (1): 60–70.

Fortune, R. F. 1932. Sorcerers of Dobu: The Social Anthropology of the Dobu Islanders of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge.

Mauss, Marcel. 2000 [1925]. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

A guide to the unit

1002/2.2.txt · Last modified: 2017/08/08 16:35 by ryans