Marcel Mauss

The French sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) is best known as an ethnologist and historian of religion.

Marcel Mauss was born in Épinal on May 10, 1872, to a pious Jewish family against whose traditions he rebelled as a young man. He attended the University of Bordeaux, where he studied philosophy; one of his professors was his uncle, the sociologist Émile Durkheim. Although Mauss did not receive a degree, he placed high in the national Agrégation competition in 1895. He then studied history, philology, and religion at the University of Paris and, in 1897-1898, took a study tour including Oxford, where he met Edward Tylor, who was considered to be the founder of anthropology.

Mauss taught Hindu and Buddhist philosophy at the University of Paris from 1900 to 1902, when he succeeded to a chair in the history of religion of primitive peoples. He taught there until 1930 and then at the Collège de France until 1939. He also taught ethnography from 1927 to 1939 at the Institute of Ethnography, which he helped to found in 1927. These lectures were compiled in the Manual of Ethnography (1947). Although Mauss was not himself a fieldworker, he trained French anthropologists who were, and he stressed ethnography more than other Durkheimians.

Mauss is best known for his contributions to L'Année sociologique, the journal founded by Durkheim and his students, appearing in 12 volumes between 1898 and 1913. The journal was intended primarily as an outlet for specialized researches. Mauss edited the sections on religion and classification of the science of sociology. He took seriously Durkheim's dictum that science progressed through collective effort and neglected his own researches. In 1908, as a result, Durkheim decided to publish the journal only every third year.

Most of Mauss's early published work was in collaboration with other scholars and was published in L'Année. With Henry Hubert, he wrote The Nature and Function of Sacrifice (1899), Prolegomena to a General Theory of Magic (1904; a work which influenced Durkheim's classic Elementary Forms of the Religious Life in 1912), and Introduction to Religious Phenomena (1908). With Durkheim, he wrote Primitive Classification (1903) and collaborated on numerous articles and reviews. Mauss never knowingly violated Durkheim's sociological teachings, although the division of labor between them had left examples (both classical and ethnographic) to Mauss and theory to Durkheim.

When Durkheim died in 1917, Mauss became director of L'Année. His own work became more ethnographic after World War I as he tried to maintain the old scope of L'Année. His The Gift (1925) built on Bronislaw Malinowski's ethnographic studies of exchange and social structure in Melanesia. Mauss defined exchange patterns cross-culturally, using Roman, Hindu, and Germanic as well as primitive examples to demonstrate that exchange was a "total social fact" in which economic and social motives were inseparable.

Mauss wrote extensively for the Journal of Normal and Pathological Psychology and served as president of the Society of Psychology from 1923 to 1926. He believed that data about primitive cultures were necessary to the science of psychology, and he wanted to facilitate exchange of information between it and sociology. He died on Feb. 10, 1950.


Further Reading on Marcel Mauss

There has been no biographical treatment of Mauss. Some background on his life and work is in Rodney Needham's "Introduction" in Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification (1903; trans. 1963); Robert H. Lowie, The History of Ethnological Theory (1937); Claude Lévi-Strauss's "French Sociology" in George Gurvitch and Wilbert E. Moore, eds., Twentieth Century Sociology (1945); Kurt H. Wolff, ed., Emile Durkheim, 1858-1917 (1960); and Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968).