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Marcel Mauss facts for kids

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Marcel Mauss (May 10, 1872- February 10, 1950) was a French anthropologist and sociologist. He was also the nephew of another famous anthropologist, Émile Durkheim. Mauss is known for his work on gifts and exchange, magic, and comparing cultures. Mauss’s most famous work is The Gift. The Gift is about the ways gifts and exchanges build relationships. Mauss is also known for influencing structural anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Quick facts for kids
Marcel Mauss
Born May 10, 1872
Épinal, Voges, France
Died February 10, 1950
Paris, France
Nationality French
Alma mater Université de Bordeaux, École Pratique des Hautes Études
Scientific career
Fields Anthropology, Sociology
Institutions École Pratique des Hautes Études, Université de Paris, Université de Paris
Influences Émile Durkheim
Influenced Claude Lévi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Dumont, Gayle Rubin, David Graeber, George Bataille, and others

Background and Education

Marcel Mauss was born in Épinal, France in 1872. His parents were Gerson Mauss and Rosine (Durkheim) Mauss. He was raised in a non-observant Jewish family.

In the early 1890s, Mauss went to the University of Bordeaux where he studied many subjects including religion and philosophy. Later he moved to Paris, France where he studied at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (an important French research school). In Paris, Mauss studied Sanskrit, Hebrew, history of religion, and other topics. Mauss eventually became a professor at École Pratique des Hautes Études. He taught about many different religions.

During World War I, Mauss served in the French army as an interpreter.

Mauss helped form the Institut d'ethnologie (Ethnology Institute) at the University of Paris in 1925 with Paul Rivet and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. He also was the chair of the sociology department at the Université de Paris from 1931-1939.

Influences

Tamati Ranapiri

Mauss’s theories about the role of gifts in Māori culture relied heavily on the information provided by Tamati Ranapiri. Ranapiri was a Māori scholar who exchanged letters with ethnographer Elsdon Best. Through these letters, Ranapiri explained how gifts were used to connect people in Māori society. According to Ranapiri, gifts created commitment without force. These commitments created by gifts made social relationships and bonds stronger.

Elsdon Best

Elsdon Best was an enthographer who studied the Māori people of New Zealand. Mauss used Best’s letters and primary data to write his work about Māori gift giving.

Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim was Marcel Mauss’s uncle as well as a professional influence. The two worked together on many projects. Durkheim and Mauss worked together to publish the book Primitive Classifications. This book was a response to Immanuel Kant’s categories of understanding. Durkheim and Mauss also worked together to publish articles in L’Année Sociologique. L’Année Sociologique was a sociology journal created by Durkheim.

Major Works and Theories

The Gift

The Gift was published in 1925. It was written partially in response to the Bolshevik Revolution. In this book, Mauss argued that every society has both markets and money of some kind as well as altruism. Mauss claims that gifts are a “total social fact” which have spiritual parts to them. The Gift also examines gift giving traditions of some indigenous peoples. Mauss writes about the Māori idea of “Hau." He also talks about Potlatch, which was first practiced by indigenous groups in North America. Mauss believed that gift giving can tell us a lot about social relationships. He also believed that gift giving was connected to power. Mauss claimed that there is no such thing as a free gift. He thought every gift was part of an ongoing system of giving and receiving.

Magic

Mauss teamed up with Hubert again in 1902 to publish A General Theory of Magic. In this book, Mauss and Hubert claimed that social events, rather than individual people, were magic. This is another cross-cultural comparison, like Mauss and Hubert's work on sacrifice. They claim that magic is a social experience. The book examines the relationships between magic and religion, science, and technology. Mauss and Hubert also trace the long-lasting impact of magic on our modern ideas, such as the idea of good and bad luck.

Critiques

In 2017, Georgina Stewart published a criticism The Gift, specifically on Mauss's understanding of Hau. Stewart claims that a misunderstanding of Māori beliefs about the cosmos and language differences caused Mauss to misunderstand the Māori concept of Hau. Alan Testart (1998) claimed that Mauss exaggerated the idea that all gifts need to pay repaid. Testart said that there were some truly free gifts, such as giving money to a homeless person as you walk by them. James Laidlaw also points out an example of free gifts in Jainism.

Impacts

Mauss is credited for being a major inspiration for Claude Lévi-Strauss. Claude Lévi-Strauss went on to develop the structuralist view of cultural anthropology. Mauss also inspired other structuralists such as Pierre Bourdieu. Mauss is also known for inspiring future work on topics such as exchange theory and economic anthropology. Mauss's cross-cultural comparisons were radical for his time, and he set the stage for the next generation of cultural anthropologists to use a similar comparative approach.

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