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Marcel Mauss and the gift

Marcel Mauss and the gift

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

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

Ongka's big moka

When we left off, Ongka of Kawelka was preparing a moka, a major gift of 600 pigs, cassowaries, and thousands of dollars in cash to his rival, a man named Perewa. We learned also that he did not only want to give this gift, he had to, because Perewa and his followers had given a moka to Ongka. When Ongka received it, it came with the obligation to return it some day. Now he has to call in favors from all of the people in his community who received a gift from Ongka in the past. Ongka has no formal office or position on which he can order them to help him. He can only persuade them to honor their obligations to him. So he really has to hustle. He needs everyone to donate their pigs to his big moka on time so that the big moka will be ready when Ongka has told Perewa to be there.

It might be easy to think that the moka system or the Kula ring are relics from a distant past. In fact they are happening now, and systems like this continue to function in many societies around the world. This practice of giving and receiving is a foundation of social life and social order in many communities. I would even say that it is part of all communities, even if the people in a community know they obey these rules.

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

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