Seeking to uncover what material things, cultural practices and social relations signify to people through extensive research of exchange practices in ‘archaic societies’, Marcel Mauss stood in the centre of the great ethnographic wave that took off in the early thirties of the 20th century.
Although his work was in many ways a calculated attack on the then contemporary political theory of utilitarianism his ethnographic work on the North-American potlatch opened a space for comparative analysis of not only the pre-capitalist economics, but gave birth to the idea that the classification of phenomena in every society is a rational expression of the collective consciousness and that grand institutions of reciprocal gift exchange have significant explanatory value in revealing this.
Malinowski’s classic study of the kula will be assessed along with the potlatch in order to reveal how exchange has proven to be a useful analytical tool of holistic and comparative anthropological research. One of the first novelties that Marcel Mauss introduces is the break-off from radical evolutionist interpretations of society, all the while not dismissing arguments that are in favour of the theory of development of modern societies from those that are primitive.
As Mauss stated in the famous text, ‘Primitive Classification’, written with Durkheim (1963), there is rationality in primitive thought thus leading him to believe that analysis of the organization of reality in archaic societies sheds a light on the role of the collective consciousness in the shaping of society (Durkheim, Mauss 1963, p. 81-88). This collective consciousness is abundant in meaning, and as a result it introduces sense and purpose into the social which can then be read in the thoughts and actions of the individual.
During his study of the Eskimo way of life and the rhythmic variations in the level of socialization that are a variable of season change and social regulation, Mauss came upon the idea of the existence of certain compensatory mechanisms in society, an idea that he further developed in his famous work ‘The Gift. While examining gift-giving ceremonies among tribal societies, Mauss noticed that utilitarian, economic exchange was secondary to and a consequence that followed compulsory gift-giving and receiving which bound individuals, families, clans and even whole tribes according to a principal that takes the shape of potlatch.
This festivity represents a ceremonial competition between clans and their leaders and includes gift-giving and the destruction of food, blankets or copper objects according to a set of rules, of which three have the greatest power – to give as the necessary basic first step necessary for the establishment of social bonds, to receive in order to maintain the existing social relations, and to then return the equivalent or greater value and by doing so demonstrate one’s prosperity (Mauss 1954, p.10-11, 37-41).
Such rules regulate this unusual battle in which the winner is the one who demonstrates a greater ability of giving and destroying – one’s status is raised not so much by accumulation, but by the distribution of resources according to the designated rules of rank and status (Walens 1982, p. 179). On the other hand, to lose indicates not only the loss of one’s face, but also the loss of one’s name and the totem ancestors that celebrate the clan.
In addition, the distribution and destruction of gifts and goods is complemented by a range of ritual ceremonies and performances, all of which demonstrate and reproduce the existing social hierarchy and in the last instance, allow for the safeguarding of the world order and the universe as a whole (Walens 1982, p. 182).
Taking into account both the potlatch of North-American Indianans from the North-East coast of the USA, as well as the Trobriand Kula in Polynesia, Mauss shows that gift exchange was significant in particular because gifts were never separate from those who made or received them (Mauss 1954, p.9) due to the fact that the ‘gift contains some part of the spiritual essence of the donor’ (Parry 1986, p. 456) – the Maori hau – signifying a total unity of the spiritual and material (Parry 1986, p. 456-47).
By engaging the honor of both participants, the seemingly simple act of gift exchange created relations and alliances which were binding and everlasting, compelling partners to always return an equally or more valuable gift for the one they received, and in such a way retain their status within society.