Book Review The Gift
Marcel Mauss’ book, The Gift, has received praise from asection of anthropologists, who call it one of the best writings onthe subject in the 19th century. The author delves intothe economies of some of the cultures that existed before the adventof capitalism, such as Melanesia, Polynesia, and the culturesnorthwest of the Pacific. Marcel Mauss called The Gift aperfect example of a total social phenomenon, which had legal, moral,economic, and religious dimensions. Mauss sees the exchanging ofgifts as related to the people exchanging them as much as to theitems themselves. Mauss sought to highlight the social and economicsystems that the current world has taken for granted.
The newer edition has an introduction by the renowned anthropologistMary Douglas. Mary’s overview sheds a considerable amount of lightMauss’ conclusions because they may seem unclear to some readers.Her introduction does an excellent job in explaining Mauss’thoughts.
Mauss argues that the concept of a free and pure gift given withoutany agenda or expectation is inappropriate. He suggests that peopleshould exchange them within a complex system of social relations,which regard gifts as obligatory and mutual. Mary’s foreword saysthat ignoring the tradition of compulsory gifts makes people’srecords incomprehensible to themselves and the primary transfer ofgoods comprised of cycles of mandatory exchanges. The author explainshow gifts complement the market where the latter is missing. Maryalso says that the gift functions like the market because the formersupplies the recipient with a personal incentive for collaboratingwith the giver. In several parts of his book, Mauss insists that itis rare for one to give a gift voluntarily and without expectation.He says that acts of kindness are mostly compulsory and inanticipation of rewards in future (Mauss 7).
After introducing his concept of gifts, the author looked at severalphenomena. One of them was “Potlach.” This term referred to apractice where people gave large-scale gifts competitively. Peoplepracticed this habit in several parts of the world, but The NorthAmericans were especially fond of it. He also showed the negativeeffects of Potlach, particularly on the poorer people forced tocompete in giving gifts. He said that the recipient would receive asmuch as he or she was able to consume, and the giver reduced to apoorer state after demonstrating their ability to give. Anotherdrawback of Potlach was the accusations of corruption and favoritismleveled on the receivers.
The author also talks about the idea of the “Hau,” which camefrom the Maori community. The word means that all things have aspirit that people must pass on. The spirit in the item ensures thatit remains active, even after leaving the giver because it hassomething from them. Through it, the giver holds on the recipient.Using the concept of the Hau, he emphasizes on reciprocity, since onemust give someone else part of his nature because accepting a gift isto receive a part of one’s essence. Lack of reciprocity would bedangerous and against morality, because the gifts received have aspiritual hold on the beneficiary. In the second chapter of his book,Marcel talks about the Trobriand people, who had a gift economycalled the “Kula.” This system permeated all aspects of themembers of the community. There was a constant give and take, markedby a continuous flow of presents in all directions within thecommunity (Mauss 28). The giving and reciprocation of gifts wereeither obligatory or out of self-interest.
In the final chapter, the author tries to link the old gift economyto the modern-day trends. Marcel suggests that the concept of asocial safety net given by reciprocated sharing of tax dollars wouldbe similar to the workings of the gift economy (Mauss 46). Hesuggests an adoption of ideas such as Potlach, as it would give honorto those who are generous. He noted that the cultures of the pastmade generosity a show of might. This visibility made thedistribution of gifts more vulnerable to public judgment than theresults of a market exchange that may be less showy. Mauss says thatthis open show of kindness would influence the society positively dueto the highlighting of good people who would inspire others to copytheir example.
Critics feel that he failed in his attempt to persuade the modernworld to adopt the ways of the ancient economies. They said that theancient and current economies work in different ways and cannot shareconcepts. Critics also feel that the wealthiest individuals willalways have their way because of the good relations they would enjoywith the administrative officers after giving them the biggest gifts.They also faulted the author’s lack of consistency in translation,which makes sections of the book harder to understand. Other criticsof Marcel, who called themselves the defenders of free gifts,disagree with his idea that a gift has to have expectations connectedto it. In her writing, Laidlaw uses the free gift to emphasize on thesubject of the gift, whereas Mauss majors on the processes involvedin the exchange of gifts (Osten 43).
Mauss, Marcel. The Gift. 3rd ed., London, Taylor and FrancisE-Library, 2002,.
Osteen, Mark. The question of the gift: essays acrossdisciplines. Vol. 2. Routledge, 2013.
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