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Original Essays | September 18, 2014

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The Enigma of the Gift


The Enigma of the Gift Cover


Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

When we think of giving gifts, we think of exchanging objects that carry with them economic or symbolic value. But is every valuable thing a potentially exchangeable item, whose value can be transferred? In The Enigma of the Gift, the distinguished French anthropologist Maurice Godelier reassesses the significance of gifts in social life by focusing on sacred objects, which are never exchanged despite the value they possess.

Beginning with an analysis of the seminal work of Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strass, and drawing on his own fieldwork in Melanesia, Godelier argues that traditional theories are flawed because they consider only exchangeable gifts. By explaining gift-giving in terms of sacred objects and the authoritative conferral of power associated with them, Godelier challenges both recent and traditional theories of gift-giving, provocatively refreshing a traditional debate.

Elegantly translated by Nora Scott, The Enigma of the Gift is at once a major theoretical contribution and an essential guide to the history of the theory of the gift.

Book News Annotation:

A translation of the work published in French in 1996 (Librarie Artheme Fayard). French anthropologist Godelier (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris) reassesses the notion of the significance of gifts in social life and in the constitution of the social bond. Traditionally, theory of gift- giving has revolved around the exchange of objects whose value can be transferred. Instead, Godelier focuses on the realm of sacred objects, which possess value but are never exchanged, and on the conferral of power associated with them. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (


Includes bibliographical references (p. [211]-221) and index.

About the Author

Maurice Godelier is directeur d'Études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, head of the Centre de recherche et de documentation sur l'OcÉanie, and past scientific director of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). His book Grands Hommes (1982) won the Prix de l'AcadÉmie Française.

Table of Contents


Introduction - Concerning Things that are Given, Things that are Sold and Things that must not be Given or Sold, but Kept

1. The Legacy of Mauss

A masterwork in chiaroscuro

The simple reason behind a reputation: a powerful globe vision of gift-exchange as a concatenation of three obligations

Gift-giving, a double-edged relationship

The enigma of the gift and Mauss' solution

Mauss mystified by indigenous theories: Lévi-Strauss' critique

Re-examining Lévi-Strauss' critique of Marcel Mauss

Lévi-Strauss' solution to the enigma: "floating signifiers"

Language's big bang and the symbolic origin of society

Lévi-Strauss' postulate: the primacy of the symbolic over the imaginary

Forgetting the fourth obligation (men's gifts to the gods and to their representatives)

A forgotten Mauss

Concerning things that can be given and things that must be kept (Annette Weiner and the paradox of the gift)

Concerning the twin foundations of society

A critique of Mauss which completes his theory and takes other approaches as well

A brief analysis of an example of non-agonistic gift and counter-gift

No sooner given than returned (is there such a thing as an absurd gift?)

Is the hau really the key to the mystery? (or how Mauss read the lesson of the sage Tamati Ranaipiri, from the Ngati-Raukawa tribe, as collected by the ethnologist Elsdon Best in 1909)

Potlatch: the gift-exchange that fascinated Mauss

The kula (a Melanesian example of potlatch according to Mauss)


Things do not move about without reason or of their own accord

2. Substitute Objects for Humans and for the Gods

Sacred objects, precious objects and currency objects among the Baruya of New Guinea

Concerning the things one keeps among the Baruya

Sacred objects as gifts from the Sun, the Moon or the spirits to the Baruya's mythic ancestors

Are sacred objects symbols?

What is concealed inside a sacred object

The men's theft of the flutes

On the sublime

Concerning things that the Baruya produce to give or exchange

Baruya shell necklaces and "valuable" objects

Gifts between friends

Recapitulation of the things that are given, those that are kept and those that are exchanged among the Baruya

Hypothesis on the emergence and development of potlatch societies

What is the place of potlatch societies in history?

What is a valuable?

On the metamorphosis of an object of trade into a gift object or a sacred object

3. The Sacred

What is the sacred?

Concerning sacred objects as the presence-absence of man and society

Concerning repressed things which enable humans to live in society

Concerning the unequal gifts that, from the outset, gods, spirits, and humans have given each other

Concerning the critical function of the social sciences

4. The Dis-enchanted Gift

Concerning the necessary anchor points for fixing the identities of societies and individuals in time

Concerning that which stands beyond the market in a market society

The return of the gift and the displacement of the enigma




Product Details

Scott, Nora
Scott, Nora
Godelier, Maurice
University of Chicago Press
Chicago :
Customs & Traditions
Mauss, Marcel
Economic anthropology
Ceremonial exchange.
Sociology - General
Edition Description:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
Professional and scholarly
9 x 6 in

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History and Social Science » Anthropology » General
History and Social Science » Sociology » General

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