First thoughts upon reading Mauss’ ‘The Gift’…

Preliminary and possibly premature thoughts on ‘The Gift’:

1) I can’t sit still in my chair when reading exchange theory (and theories of value) that draw a stark distinction between ‘interested exchange’ and ‘moral persons’ on the one hand and ‘disinterested exchange’ and ‘self interested individuals’ on the other. This distinction, which is evident throughout The Gift and reproduced by later writers such as James Carrier and tends to imply that the former are primarily moral issues, while the latter much less so.

The analytical emphasis on this distinction makes me uncomfortable because a) this distinction is often (implicitly or explicitly) seen to parallel the  distinction between the private/public sphere as if the latter were ‘natural’, and thus cross culturally applicable, categories, and further because; b) foregrounding this distinction draws attention away from the fact that all forms of social exchange (material and otherwise) are informed, influenced and shaped by cultural ideas about morality. (We need another Weber to revisit tacit cultural understandings that underlie the many strange and conflicting expectations about morality and value in what we gloss over as disinterested, ‘individualistic’ and/or or alienated forms of exchange in the public sphere).

This is particularly important re: my ethnography because Yolngu generally consider that Balanda (white/Anglo-Australian) morality suffers from a radical inconsistency between ‘normal’ everyday social contexts and contexts in which people consider that they are “playing the roles” (as Yolngu say) – i.e. assuming or enacting a public or professional persona or role that is understood to delimit their power or capacity to behave in certain ways. Most all Yolngu understand that this is simply part of Balanda ‘rom’ (law, manner of doing things), but consider it an unfortunate, avoidable and otherwise undesirable inconsistency.

The distinction between ‘interested exchange’ and ‘moral persons’, and ‘disinterested exchange’ and ‘self-interested individuals’ was later smoothed out by Sahlins who recognises reciprocity as ‘a whole class of exchange, a continuum of forms’, from the ‘pure gift’ to ‘negative reciprocity’ (self-interested seizure by coercion or force). The extreme poles in this continuum are also extreme poles of morality or sociability:

‘The extremes are notably positive and negative in a moral sense. The intervals between them are not merely so many gradations of material balance in exchange,    they are intervals of sociability. The distance between poles of reciprocity is, among other things, social distance’ (1974, p. 191).

This continuum of forms lends itself to a broader consideration of cultural norms vis-à-vis sociability and morality in all forms of interpersonal exchange (material or otherwise).

2) I’m curious as to why Mauss felt the need to drag the concept of ‘the social contract’ through such rich ethnographic data, which if anything illustrates the antithesis of Hobbes’ argument for centralized government and the underlying social contract (through which citizens surrender a degree of their personal power and authority to a centralized form of government in exchange for its protection and the ensuing social equilibrium or social order). Hobbes’ argument, of course, is based on an assumption that the ‘natural’ state of human relations is ‘the state or war of every man against every man’ (because we are by nature inclined toward competition, conflict and chaos so the story goes). What Mauss’ material suggests, in contrast, is that people are inclined toward cooperation and interdependence which, in turn, effects social equilibrium and social order.

I gather that Mauss considered the social contract (in its many and diverse forms) an analytical tool to make broad cross-cultural comparisons (and demonstrate the similarities of form and value between them). However, surely he would have done well to look to the literature on anarchist theory and practice which deals with the exact issue that Mauss was evidently seeking to address.

A.R Radcliffe Brown dropped this cross-disciplinary thread as well, even though (as the story goes) he was inspired to study anthropology by his noble trouble-making consociate Peter Kropotkin (a Russian Prince who renounced his title and became a zoologist, naturalist, geographer and anarchist political philosopher). In 1902 Kropotkin published a book on Mutual Aid and Evolution (parts of which were published earlier in essay form), which posed a serious challenge to prevailing social Darwinist claims about interpersonal competition and natural hierarchy – arguing that cooperation and mutual aid were the most important variables in evolution of species and their ability to survive. According to many sources it was this work of Kropotkin’s that inspired Radcliffe-Brown to switch his focus of study to anthropology (from psychology and economics if my memory serves me well?). The basic premise of Kropotkin’s thesis reflects one of the most common principles that anarchist thinkers put forward or defend – that humans have a natural proclivity toward cooperation, mutual aid and social order – that this is the ‘natural state’ of human relations. Isn’t this just what Mauss was getting at? I haven’t read a biography of Mauss but surely he must have been exposed to these ideas and recognized the parallels with his own work?

3) A related thought is that Mauss tends to over dramatise the margin of difference between social equilibrium and completely chaos and conflict. One gets the impression (in parts of The Gift) that refusing a cup of sugar will plunge a suburb into war. I find this aspect of his work a little less than consistent and clear. Perhaps Mauss didn’t completely disagree with Hobbes’ idea that human are by nature motivated by self interest, driven to competition and prone to conflict and chaos? Dhunga ngarra (I don’t know).

4) It seems a completely inappropriate thing to say about Mauss but I came away from reading The Gift thinking that his is really quite a materialist theory of exchange (and by ext. value). Sure he foregrounds the social aspect of inalienable ‘things’ (as parts of persons) but he does so in a way that seems to fetishize ‘things’ as if it is the material goods themselves that have or hold the attribute or qualities of persons (and value). It seems a lot more sense-ical to say that ‘things’ acquire value as an expression of the relationships within which they are exchanged, and the social networks through which they circulate. I’m sure this is what he was implying but his description of inalienable goods seems all very magical and mysterious, e.g.:

‘Whatever it is, food, possessions, women, children or ritual, it retains a magical and religious hold over the recipient. The thing given is not inert. It is alive and often personified, and strives to bring to its original clan and homeland some equivalent to take its place’ (p. 10).

5) My last preliminary thought is about the terminology. Mauss explains that he employs the terms ‘gift’ and ‘present’ because he could find no other suitable or more applicable terms and concepts to describe inalienable goods exchanged in the way that they are. I think his reservation about these terms was well founded if only because ‘gifts’ and ‘presents’ speak of voluntary, uni-directional acts of generosity or affection etc. when, in contrast, one of Mauss’ central claims is that ‘gift exchange’ is motivated by obligation, social responsibilities and many other less-than-voluntary factors or variables.

Now to revisit Nicolas Peterson’s seminal paper on demand-sharing:

Peterson, Nicolas 1993 ‘Demand Sharing: Reciprocity and the Pressure for Generosity among Foragers’ (in) American Anthroplogist, 95(4), pp. 860-874)


Filed under Posts of an unqualified kind

3 responses to “First thoughts upon reading Mauss’ ‘The Gift’…

  1. Dick Tracey

    ‘gifts’ and ‘presents’ speak of voluntary, uni-directional acts of generosity or affection etc. when, in contrast, one of Mauss’ central claims is that ‘gift exchange’ is motivated by obligation, social responsibilities and many other less-than-voluntary theactors or variables.

    Isn’t it simply that gifts are ideologically (in Oz for example) regarded as disinterested – Derrida wrote a pretty interesting book on this. I thought Mauss saw the hau of the object as motivating receprocity – ie an emic explanation

  2. On the sense of obligation imbued in the gift:

    “Thus, basically, as these gifts are not spontaneous so also they are not really disinterested. They are for the most part counter-prestations made not solely in order to pay for goods and services, but also to maintain a profitable alliance which it would be unwise to rejects ….’ (p. 71).

    ‘Hau’ was central to the Maori ethnographic example. And as Weiner (1985, ‘Inalienable wealth’ (in) American Anthropologist 12 (2)), illustrates, what exactly Hau is, is not terribly clear.

    Raymond Firth (1959), Sahlins (1972/4), and Weiner have very different interpretations of what hau is (and/or what Mauss’ interpretation of the hau was). Weiner concludes her paper on inalienable wealth and Hau arguing that,

    ‘The hau attached to objects embodies the relation of the person to a sacred world of spiritual force. The ethnography shows us that the hau must be given following birth and is lost at death, and that it must be replaced continually in people and things, thereby making people and things more than they are. As the agent of replacement, the hau is a force against loss, securing a group’s individual strengths and identities against the demands of others’ (pp. 224).

    I think her explanation is more solid than Firth’s or Sahlins’ but it is still more than a little unclear. It reminds me a lot of the Yolngu concept of ‘ma:rr’, which is a kind of strength and vitality derived from the collective body of the bapurru (patri-group), and more importantly, from madayin. Madayin can be generally referred to as ‘sacra’ (including songs/ceremony/country/ceremonial paraphernalia etc.), which are considered to be attributes or properties of the (individual and collective) self.

    I can’t stand Derrida. What is his take on gifts?

  3. p.s. I think it is interesting to compare the terms ‘gifts’ and ‘presents’ (which Mauss wasn’t completely comfortable with), with the other term which is central to his analysis of so-called ‘gift exchange’ – prestation(s). The latter term is something really very different to the former two.

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