The Gift (book)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Gift is a short book by Marcel Mauss best known for being one of the earliest and most important studies of "potlatch" (reciprocity and gift exchange).

Mauss's original piece was entitled Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l'échange dans les sociétés archaïques ("An essay on the gift: the form and reason of exchange in archaic societies") and was originally published in the L'Année Sociologique in 1923-1924. The essay was later republished in book form in English in two translations. The first, by Ian Cunnison, appeared in 1954. The second, by W.D. Halls, appeared in 1990.



Mauss's essay focuses on the way that the exchange of objects between groups builds relationships between them. He argued that giving an object creates an inherent obligation on the receiver to reciprocate the gift. The resulting series of exchanges between groups thus provided one of the earliest forms of social solidarity used by humans.

The essay drew on a wide range of ethnographic examples. Mauss drew on Bronisław Malinowski's study of kula exchange, the institution of the potlatch, and Polynesian ethnography to demonstrate how widespread practices of gift giving were in non-European societies. In later sections of the book he examined Indian history and suggested that traces of gift exchange could be found in more 'developed' societies as well. In the conclusion of the book he suggested that industrialized, secular societies such as his own could benefit from recognizing this dynamic of gift giving.


The Gift has been very influential in anthropology, where there is a large field of study devoted to reciprocity and exchange. It has also influenced philosophers, artists and political activists, including Georges Bataille and Jacques Derrida.

Many today see Mauss's work as a guide to how giving can promote a better way of living. It should be noted, however, that the gift-giving and exchange practices Mauss described were often self-interested, and in a number of cases highly competitive and agonistic.

Secondary literature

See also

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