International Encyclopaedia
of the Histories of Anthropology

Born into a family of rabbis and manufacturers, Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) was a sociologist and anthropologist whose unclassifiable protean thinking influenced all the French social sciences. With a background in philosophy, Mauss became the main collaborator of his maternal uncle Émile Durkheim, and made major contributions to the path-breaking journal L’Année sociologique. Under the guidance of his masters at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, such as Indianist scholar Sylvain Lévi, Mauss mastered the religions of Antiquity – whether from India, Greece and Rome, or from “barbarian”, pagan Europe – which he compared to the ethnography of contemporary “primitive” peoples in ways that both dialogued with and questioned evolutionist anthropology. He wrote several articles on various aspects of religious life with his ‘intellectual twin’ Henri Hubert. His thesis on prayer, though, remained unfinished. From 1901, Mauss held (and modernized) the chair “History of Religions of Uncivilised Peoples” at the École Pratique de Hautes Études. When the Institut d’Ethnologie was founded in 1925, Mauss was one of its leading figures, not least as a teacher. Five years later, he was elected to the Collège de France to a chair in sociology after two failed candidacies. Along with Paul Rivet and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Mauss was one of the founding fathers of French ethnology in the 1920s and 1940s. Even though he did not see himself as an ethnologue but as a sociologue – faithful to Durkheim, and to the spirit of the scholarly and friendly circle gathered around L’Année Sociologique – Mauss left a lasting mark on French ethnologie – or anthropology. Although he did not conduct fieldwork himself, he went down in history as the founding father of French ethnography, which was partly due to his Manuel d’ethnographie (1947) edited by his student Denise Paulme. Masterful as professor, he played a decisive role in the intellectual training of the first generation of French professional ethnologists/anthropologists, inspiring them through his incomparable erudition and ethnological sensitivity, more than through systematizing a school of thought. The author of a consistent though scattered body of work, Mauss applied his curiosity and analytical skills to a wide range of issues: law, sacrifice, magic, sacred, classifications, death, symbolism, collective psychology, the notions of self and person, bodily techniques (we owe him the notion of habitus), social morphology and life. He remains the man behind the ‘Essai sur le don’ (The Gift, 1925), fiercely debated over the decades, in which he formulated the famous concept of “total social fact” and popularized the emic notion of “hau”. A supporter of Dreyfus, Mauss was a socialist, a friend of Jean Jaurès, and one of the founders of the newspaper L’Humanité. Close to the cooperative movement, he was also an internationalist and a member of the Union rationaliste. Weakened for many years, Mauss died in 1950.

Keywords: Religious Sociology | Sociology | History of religions | Psychology | Evolutionism | Diffusionism | Ethnography | Hau | Political commitment | Socialism | First half of the 20th century | Anthropology of religion | Pre-Christian religions | Gift | Symbolism | Classifications | Durkheimian School | Émile Durkheim | Claude Lévi-Strauss | Henri Hubert | Paul Rivet | Lucien Lévy-Bruhl | Maurice Leenhardt | Léon Marilier | Arnold Van Gennep | L’Année sociologique | Collège de France | Musée d’ethnographie du Trocadéro | Robert Hertz

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