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Marcel Mauss

Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) was a French sociologist best known for his role in elaborating on and securing the legacy of his uncle, Emile Durkheim and the Annee Sociologique. His most famous work is The Gift, on reciprocity and gift economies among "uncivilized peoples".


Mauss was born in Epinal to a Jewish family, and studied philosophy at Bordeaux, where Durkheim was teaching at the time and agregated in 1893. Instead of taking the usual route of teaching at a lycee, however, Mauss moved to Paris and took up the study of comparative religion and particularly Sanskrit. His first publication in 1896 marked the beginning of a prolific career that would produce several landmarks in the sociological literature.

Like many members of Annee Sociologique Mauss was attracted to socialism, particularly that espoused by Jean Jaures. He was particularly active in the events of the Dreyfus affair and towards the end of the century he helped edit such left-wing papers le Populaire , l'Humanite and le Mouvement Socialiste , the last in collaboration with Georges Sorel.

Mauss took up a chair in the 'history of religion and uncivilized peoples' at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in 1901. It was at this time that he began drawing more and more on ethnography, and his work began increasingly to look like what we would today call anthropology.

The years of World War I were absolutely devastating for Mauss. Many of his friends and colleagues died in the war, and Durkheim passed away shortly before its end. The postwar years were also difficult politically for Mauss. Durkheim had made changes to school curriculums across France, and after his death a backlash against his students began. Like many other followers of Durkheim, Mauss took refuge in administration, securing Durkheim's legacy by founding institutions such as l'Institut Franšais de Sociologie (1924) and l'Institut d'Ethnologie in 1926. In 1931 he took up the chair of Sociology at the College de France. He actively fought against anti-semitism and racial politics both before and after WWII. He died in 1950.


While Mauss is known for several of his own works - most notably his masterpiece Essai sur le Don ('the Gift') - much of his best work was done in colloboration with members of the Annee Sociologique, whether it be Durkheim himself (Primitive Classification), Henri Hubert (Outline of a General Theory of Magic and Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice), Paul Fauconnet (Sociology) or others.

Like many prominent French academics, Mauss did not train a great number of students. Nonetheless, many anthropologists claim to have followed in his footsteps, most notablly Claude LÚvi-Strauss. The essay on The Gift is the origin for anthropological studies of reciprocity. His analysis of the Potlatch has been used by many interested in gift economies and Open Source software, although this latter use sometimes differs from Mauss's original formulation.

Mauss popularized total social fact (fait social total) in The Gift, a term coined by his student Maurice Leenhardt after Durkheim's social fact.

Last updated: 08-29-2005 09:01:08
Last updated: 08-29-2005 22:30:01