The “force in the thing”: Mauss’ nonauthoritarian sociality in The Gift

Stephanie Frank


In this essay, I argue that Mauss’ pivotal Essai sur le don has been misunderstood since Claude Lévi-Strauss’ famous introduction to it. Mauss’ paradigms for understanding gift exchange derive from Roman law, rather than deriving from the Maori notion of hau (the “spirit of the giver in the gift”). From various Roman legal institutions, Mauss derives the ideas that obligation can be enacted through mere ritual, that certain things are part of the family, and (most importantly) that people are constantly “selling” and “redeeming” themselves through exchange. I show that Mauss retrojected to a precapitalist past an alternative sociality that lacks a vertical dimension: it is constituted by a network of horizontal relations brought about by ritual exchange.


history of anthropology; The Gift; Marcel Mauss; Paul Huvelin, Roman law; Année Sociologique, exchange, gifts

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.017