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Assessing Mauss’s influence: An exercise in research skill

Designed by Ryan Schram and Holly High

Due: October 30 at 5:00 PM
Weight: 20%
Length: 800 words


Find a scholarly publication by an anthropologist on the topic of gifts, exchange, economic organization, or a related topic. Make a claim about the author’s relationship to Mauss’s theory of reciprocity, and support your claim by describing this author’s argument and explaining why this argument leads you to conclude that the author has a specific view of Mauss’s theory.


This assignment is an exercise in a basic skill of doing research and using scholarship. It asks you to find scholarly writing by an anthropologist, read it, and analyze its argument to identify the perspective from which the author writes.

In this day and age, when we have a question about anything, the first impulse is to “just Google™ it.” (We are very good customers of Google when we do.) “Just Google it” is where anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers come from. We have to learn to scrutinize and evaluate information. Likewise, at this stage in your education, you will increasingly be asked to find information and use it to develop your own understanding of a topic. The ideas in scholarly publications are not mere opinions. Then again, scholarly publications are not textbooks either. The ideas that scholars write are not settled knowledge, they are controversial and contentious claims which each come from a scholar’s particular perspective. Hence, we cannot read a scholarly publication as if it speaks to us in the voice of an expert, teacher, or authority. We have to learn to read between the lines to discover what perspective the author employs.

The shortcut

Scholarship is a conversation. Everything that a scholar produces is meant to contribute to a debate with other people who want to answer the same questions. So, there’s a shortcut you can take to find out more about what people think about a topic: Do a bibliography crawl. Check the list of references at the end of one of our class readings, like writings by Cliggett (2003) or Piot (1999). Whose work do they cite on the same topics?

Another, equally useful technique is to reverse the bibliography crawl by using a scholarly citation index (a database that includes all of the references in each publication it lists as well as the bibliographic information about each publication). Using a citation index has never been easier thanks to … Google Scholar 😖 Each listing of a publication in this index include a link to publications which cite that item. Searching for one of Bohannan’s articles (e.g. Bohannan 1955) will return an entry for that article and link to all the publications since then which have responded to Bohannan or built on his ideas about Tiv spheres of exchange. (For those interested in a retro research experience, one can also use the Social Science Citation Index, now subsumed within Clarivate Web of Science, to do a “cited reference search.”)

STEP up to reading scholarly writing critically

More often than not, anything that one finds in this way is likely to be written by another scholar who carries out research and engages in disciplined thought to discover new ideas. Yet, one always has to think about what one finds, what value the information has, and most importantly, where does the author stand. Inspired by teaching on digital information literacy, I would like to propose a heuristic you can use to evaluate and contextualize scholarly sources: the STEP method.

  • S: Source. Who published this information and why? What standards did they use to decide whether it should see the light of day. Is this information intended for fellow researchers engaged in debate, or for the general reading public seeking information or entertainment?
  • T: Thesis statement. Does it have a thesis statement? Does it, moreover, propose a new idea or make a claim that answers a question in a new way? What is the conclusion that the author has drawn from her research? What position are they taking? While scholars in different fields have different ways of asking questions, proposing answers, and writing about these claims, scholarship can only contribute to a debate if it says something new, whether that be a radical new theory of the world, or an original analysis of new data pertinent to a topic discussed by others. If it does not have a clear claim or thesis statement, then it could be a report, a news article, or creative nonfiction.
  • E: Evidence. What kind of information did this author collect, either by herself through her own research or based on work done by others? How does this author make use of this information to create support for her claim, that is, how does she analyze it and interpret it to show you that it is evidence that should lead you to accept her claim?
  • P: Perspective. No one simply looks at information without a point of view. Neutrality is impossible, and indeed, not desirable. To arrive at a conclusion, one must choose how to examine the information one collects. One must make assumptions about how things work in general. In much of scholarly work, this means taking one specific theory of the world among many as a starting point, and applying its abstract concepts as a lens through which one examines concrete, empirical information. Adopting one theory as a perspective can lead one to bolster or extend that theory by demonstrating how it leads to a compelling new idea about specific information. Also, importantly, adopting one theory to analyze and interpret facts means also choosing not to employ another perspective. One’s conclusions not only extend one’s chosen theoretical framework, but also argue for modifying or rejecting alternative theories.

By asking each of these questions, you can determine whether what you are reading is a scholarly contribution to a debate and where it sits in that debate. The precise boundaries of scholarship are not clear. There are a lot of intellectually provocative and profound ideas which are written for general audiences. There are—believe it or not—a lot of things which appear overtly to be works of scholarship because they appear in scholarly publications, but lack a T, E, and a P. To know the difference, we have to look carefully at how the author arrives at her ideas and how she presents them to us.

The analysis

In this assignment, do a bibliography crawl and find a scholarly publication by an anthropologist1) which presents someone’s research, analysis, and conclusion on the topic of gifts, exchange, economic organization, or a related topic. In your essay, use the STEP method to describe the scholarly writing, and additionally make an argument for this author’s relationship to the theory of reciprocity formulated by Marcel Mauss. Use your critical reading of this source to develop evidence that supports your interpretation of the author’s perspective.

Grading criteria

In general, this assignment and the exercise in peer criticism are meant to be practice, so you will not be graded on what you say about what you read, or how original your insights are, or how well developed your writing is. You should still do a good, thorough job. The required elements are:

  • Do you have an appropriate scholarly source (excluding works assigned for this class as readings)?
  • Do you cite it correctly, and do you provide the full and accurate reference to it at the end of the document (in your preferred reference style)?
  • Do you have a summary of the main points of this work (using the STEP method as a guide) in your own words?
  • Do you have a reasoned statement of the author’s relationship to the ideas of Marcel Mauss on the gift and reciprocity?

There are some things that you should not do, and if you do, you will lose points:

  • Don’t quote from, copy, or paraphrase word-for-word what the author says. Read what they have written, reflect on it, set it aside, and then work from memory or from your notes.

Types of publications by scholars: A quick guide

For a guide to the kinds of writing you will find when you look for scholarly sources, see the page Types of scholarly writing. For this assignment, you will probably want to limit yourself to articles in journals or chapters in edited volumes.

There are of course many wonderful monographs that develop and extend Mauss’s ideas (or challenge and critique them). Read ’em! But the authors of these wonderful books also wrote wonderful papers for journals, so you can read those too and get the same insights into their thinking.

Likewise, many budding scholars have written theses and dissertations on this topic. Many are excellent and launched the authors into productive research careers, but in most cases, you will want to look for other, later work by the same author because it usually is more mature and polished than a thesis or dissertation.

Formatting and software requirements

For a description of the required appearance and file format of your essay, see the page Formatting and software requirements for assignments.


Bohannan, Paul. 1955. “Some Principles of Exchange and Investment Among the Tiv.” American Anthropologist, New Series, 57 (1): 60–70. doi:10.1525/aa.1955.57.1.02a00080.

Cliggett, Lisa. 2003. “Gift Remitting and Alliance Building in Zambian Modernity: Old Answers to Modern Problems.” American Anthropologist 105 (3): 543–52. doi:10.1525/aa.2003.105.3.543.

Piot, Charles. 1999. “Exchange: Hierarchies of Value in an Economy of Desire.” In Remotely Global: Village Modernity in West Africa, 52–75. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bohannan’s work on spheres of exchange has been taken up by economics and political economy, and many scholars in these fields build on and respond to his ideas, but from the perspective of their fields. For this assignment, you should limit yourself to cultural anthropology. (Although, if you are interested, by all means read more on your own about how people in other social sciences have debated ideas in anthropology.)
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