Essai sur le Don [The Gift] by Marcel Mauss, a French researcher who was active from the end of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century, is a classic treatise on gift-giving as understood in cultural anthropology and a must-read that is the source of various concepts and points of discussion. The term “gift-giving” is typically associated with concepts related to inheritance such as the “gift tax” or “gifts inter vivos.” However, if “gift-giving” is understood as “giving” in the broad sense and in the context of relationships that also involve “receiving” and “reciprocating,” it becomes evident that “gift-giving” forms the foundation of human communication. In this sense, Mauss’ Essai sur le Don has influenced research in a wide range of disciplines beyond cultural anthropology including history; sociology; the history of philosophy, ethics, and social ideology; political science; and political ideology. Furthermore, the book has substantially influenced volunteer activities and social movements where “giving” takes on an earnest and pragmatic meaning as well as theoretical analyses of such social movements.
From among the various points discussed in Mauss’ Essai sur le Don, this book re-interprets “gift-giving” and “exchange” according to Mauss’ argument and elucidates the singular aspect in which “gift-giving” and “exchange” differ decisively. Thereupon, the book draws attention to the fact that, besides the items subject to “gift-giving” or “exchange,” Mauss focuses on the existence of assets that are not given or exchanged as “services” but, rather, are retained permanently within families and kinship groups. It is these items that are not given or exchanged and that must not be given or exchanged as “services” that constitute sacra—i.e., sacred items. It is through the permanent retention within families and kinship groups that these items become symbols of a group’s integrity over time (i.e., identity).
The book empirically depicts social practices of “gift-giving” discussed above in rural villages in Madagascar where the author has conducted fieldwork since the late 1980s. The central social phenomenon highlighted in this depiction involves efforts by small groups of relatives to achieve independence within a social structure comprising extremely wide kinship networks. For the groups of relatives seeking independence, the deceased remains of fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and/or grandmothers constitute sacra. Similarly, graves that are newly constructed to house these remains also become sacra. The book attempts to elucidate the relationship between Mauss’ “gift-giving,” “exchange,” and “sacra” by investigating the social practices of a local population that has been increasing in frequency since around 1990.
(Written by MORIYAMA Takumi, Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences / 2022)