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The Gift

By butdey Jul 01, 2013 334 Words
This is not an easy book, but it is a classic (first pub. 1923- 1925) and an insightful book for any serious student of sociology or anthropology. Mauss provides a view of human evolution, based on empirical research comparing exchange worldwide. Implicit in this analysis is a theory of change (Mary Douglas’ foreword, p. xiii): “changes in the organization of production radically transform the system of categories and beliefs.” Understanding archaic societies helps us understand our own. Though the book is dated (it was first published in 1925), it is surprisingly relevant and timely as it deals with the interplay of economics and politics and the tensions between individualism and social solidarity: all of vital interest. Finally, as a study of exchange in “archaic societies,” it provides a window into the functioning of pre-state societies like the Cahuilla (Mukat’s People) (cf. lecture 4/7/11) Though Soc 65/Anthro89 focuses Native Americans, a larger context is the contrast between pre-modern and modern worldviews (see Tonnie’s Geminschaft and Gesllschaft). Like Tonnies and Sahlins, Mauss does not see humans in archaic times as having the same utilitarian motives as we do (that is, that we are economic ‘animals’ and will always behave to maximize our own profit), but for pre-modern peoples, exchanges were made that had much less to do with the materialistic or utilitarian value of “things.” (See formalism vs substantialism debate.) For most of history prior to industrialism and capitalism, humans have created working cultures along the “pre-modern” model, and today some still do. This is a “world we have lost” as we move relentlessly toward “unfettered individualism” and the “commodification of everything.” (Wallerstein in “Commodification” essay) Arguably, a major contribution of this book is how politically-decentralized (aka “segmented”) “archaic” societies maintained social solidarity without government bureaucracies, police, and armies. Secondly, he disabuses of the simplistic notion that “archaic” or so-called “primitive” societies were simple. Terms to know: potlatch, conspicuous consumption, conspicuous destruction, prestation, reckless consumption, social insurance

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