The Enigma of the Gift

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Polity Press, 1999 - Baruya (Papua New Guinea people) - 256 pages
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A reassessment of the function and importance of gifts in social life and in the constitution of social relations, based on the work of Marcel Mauss. In 1921 Mauss advanced a theory of the gift which drew sharp criticisms from Levi-Strauss, among others. Like earlier thinkers, the author analyses things one gives and things one sells. He begins, however, with those things that can be neither given nor sold, but which must be kept, chief among which are sacred objects. After a fresh analysis of the potlatch and the kula, which lay at the heart of Mauss's theory, he shows that the engimas which stymied Mauss are resolved once one sees that objects can be at the same time given and kept: what is given is the alienable right of usage, what is kept is the inalienable ownership. He then explains why this rule applies to valuables that are given, but not to sacred objects, which must be kept.

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