Our society, any society, seems to be structured by, and caught up in, a dynamics of reciprocity. This seems such a self-evident fact, that it might come as a surprise that it is a relatively new idea, notably launched by the French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) in his Essay sur le don (Essay on the Gift) from 1925.
“What force is there in the thing which one gives which forces the receiver to return it?” That was Mauss’s central question. Mauss was fascinated by the force of reciprocity, its obligatory nature. Giving and receiving appear to happen voluntarily, but often sanctions and requirements play an essential role.
Mauss was a follower of sociologist Emile Durkheim. After Durkheims death in 1917 Mauss succeeded him as director of the influential French journal Année Sociologique. Except for his Essay sur le don most of his contributions to sociology were developed in close cooperation with other scholars. Mauss was especially hailed as a teacher. Under his leadership French sociology moved out of the classroom and library and into the field, as we read in Seth Leacock’s thoughts on Mauss. Collection of data came to take precedence over theorizing. The emphasis shifted towards field work. Because of his startling knowledge of languages and cultures, “Mauss sait tout”, became a much used saying those days.
Essai sur le don, forme et raison de l’échange dans les societes archaïques is a study of economic behavior. The basic idea is that exchange is the cement of society. Exchange presupposes reciprocity. The exchange of goods takes place under the guise of giving and returning gifts. Pure economic rationalism is the exception instead of the rule. The exchange isn’t limited to material goods. Also politeness, feasts, services, dances, etc. are exchanged.
So we ask now: what about art? Does art calm down this force of reciprocity? Or does art steer it up?
Seth Leacock : The Ethnological Theory of Marcel Mauss originally published in American Anthropologist, 56:58-71, 1954, University of California
Raymond Corbey : Homo reciprocans. Hoe uitwisseling de samenleving constitueert in: De Academische Boekengids 53, november 2005, pp. 9-10.