The double bond Durkheim-Mauss : The hidden rule of the gift

The author ties Durkheim and Mauss by a double bond, not bind. It’s a simple and clear bond, not a bind because there’s no dilemma in the communication between them. The uncle Durkheim has never written about the gift but his nephew Mauss has done instead. We think of Mauss immediately when we talk about the gift and vice versa, we never do the same when we talk about Durkheim. We think of him when we talk about the division of social labour and vice versa. In the following pages, attempting to delve deep into an analysis of the mechanism of division of social labour as gift, the author hopes that, at the end, the reader thinks of Durkheim when he talks about the gift.

A long extract for an introduction

“Si l’on a souvent fait consister dans le seul échange les relations sociales auxquelles donne naissance la division du travail, c’est pour avoir méconnu ce que l’échange implique et ce qui en résulte. Il suppose que deux êtres dépendent mutuellement l’un de l’autre, parce qu’ils sont l’un et l’autre incomplets, et il ne fait que traduire au-dehors cette mutuelle dépendance. Il n’est donc que l’expression superficielle d’un état interne et plus profond. Précisément parce que cet état est constant, il suscite tout un mécanisme d’images qui fonctionne avec une continuité que n’a pas l’échange. L’image de celui qui nous complète devient en nous-même inséparable de la nôtre, non seulement parce qu’elle y est fréquemment associée, mais surtout parce qu’elle en est le complément naturel : elle devient donc partie intégrante et permanente de notre conscience, à tel point que nous ne pouvons plus nous en passer et que nous recherchons tout ce qui en peut accroître l’énergie. C’est pourquoi nous aimons la société de celui qu’elle représente, parce que la présence de l’objet qu’elle exprime, en la faisant passer à l’état de perception actuelle, lui donne plus de relief. Au contraire, nous souffrons de toutes les circonstances qui, comme l’éloignement ou la mort, peuvent avoir pour effet d’en empêcher le retour ou d’en diminuer la vivacité” Durkheim (1962, p,59 my italics)

An undoubtedly long quote, which I will now analyse through a series of considerations and questions to bring new life to the free interpretation I wish to offer of a still very innovative Durkheim.

The concept through which I have chosen to interpret this quote is taken from Mauss : the gift as “une forme nécessaire de l’échange – c’est-à-dire, de la division du travail social elle-même” (Mauss 1950) [1]. The division of social labour as gift, therefore. If the division of social labour is something deeper than and relative to the mental development of the individual consciousness, this is true also of the gift : the exchange of the gift as a process leading to the formation of both the conscience and society.

It is the image of the other that is part of the representation of the society it belongs to and that we love – we don’t love the other as such, but the other as object given by society [2]. The division of labour is not only a mechanism of exchange, but is, first and foremost, a mental process through which our own conscience is formed. This is why the division of labour is a mechanism that can’t come to a halt ; our conscience would suffer from it. Images, or representations. Initially these are pertinent to the individual, but they become collective ones later because we love not ourselves, but the society that the image of the other represents, where the other has become an object in this exchange. The division of labour is the mechanism through which society emerges, gaining a physical reality even though it is an intangible reality.

That’s why I tie Durkheim and Mauss by a double bond, not bind. It’s a simple and clear bond, not a bind because there’s no dilemma in the communication between them. The uncle Durkheim has never written about the gift but his nephew Mauss has done instead. We think of Mauss immediately when we talk about the gift and vice versa, we never do the same when we talk about Durkheim. We think of him when we talk about the division of social labour and vice versa.

In the following pages, attempting to delve deep into an analysis of such a mechanism, I hope that, at the end, the reader thinks of Durkheim when he talks about the gift.

Society’s underlying structure based on the gift (Mauss on Durkheim)

The lessons that can be taken from Durkheim’s analysis of Robertson Smith’s studies on the sacrifice are many. This analysis is the essence of the entire first chapter dedicated to the study of the positive cult, and it allows Durkheim to formulate his own theory on sacrifice – the religious theory on society.

Durkheim believes that Smith’s great merit is to have brought to light the fundamental ingredient of sacrifice, an ingredient that, up until Smith, science had not been able to define : it is a communion of sustenance, not “a sort of tribute or homage, either obligatory or optional, analogous to that which subjects owe to their princes” (1973, 336) [3].

Durkheim is particularly enthusiastic of this ‘discovery’, as it confirms his and Mauss’ intuitions on the origin of classification : sacrifice didn’t serve the purpose of creating an artificial bond of kinship between mankind and his deities, but to “to maintain and renew the natural kinship which primitively united them […] the artifice was born only to imitate nature” (id., 340).

The other analysis Durkheim puts forward is the intertwining of Intichiuma (the Arunta’s rites of passage) with the concept of sacrifice – as Smith defines it. This hybrid reading has the benefit, for Durkheim, not only of defining Intichiuma as a sacrifice in itself, but also, on the reverse, to better understand the very nature of sacrifice as an institution, by revisiting Smith’s theory, as Durkheim himself says. The lesson Durkheim takes from this is the following : sacrifice is not only a process of socialisation, but it is also “a gift and an act of renouncement.”. It is a gift, because sacrifice “always presupposes that the worshipper gives some of his substance or his goods to his gods” (id., 343). However, Durkheim doesn’t specify the reason of this obligation, or rather what lies behind this obligation. We will look at that later on. I believe a clue to this can be found in Durkheim’s observation : “it is clear that the act of offering naturally arouses in the mind the idea of a moral subject, whom this offering is destined to please” (id., 343). Another lesson that I can take from this is the following, intertwining in my own right the two reported quotes : the believer offers part of himself to receive something in return.

Here is where we reach the breaking point from Smith’s theory. While Smith purports that the cult of sacrifice was created for the benefit of mankind, Durkheim thinks that, by virtue of an unwritten rule, deities also need the ritual of sacrifice. This is because, just as the faithful re-create themselves as people, deities also reinvent themselves continuously. What is actually being offered, “the things which the worshipper really gives his gods are not the foods which he places upon the altars, nor the blood which he lets flow from his veins  : it is his thought” (id., 346, my italics).

What the faithful bestows on his god, which Durkheim had previously defined as “some of his substance”, now is precisely defined : it is his mind – something purely of the mind. It isn’t blood or something more strictly biological or organic. It is a way of saying that the mind is the most intimate, the most fundamental part of an individual ; as if to say that it is the part of him which, if given as a gift, would represent the biggest sacrifice possible to mankind [4].

This is why, in the final pages of the first chapter dedicated to the positive cult, Durkheim summarises “the very mechanism of the sacrificial system” (id., 347) with a rule : the do ut des rule. However, this rule is not – and Durkheim is mindful of clarifying this –by any means “a late invention of utilitarian theorists” (id.) : as if to say, the rule should not be interpreted according to a utilitarian, rationalistic mindset. This rule – interestingly Durkheim never uses the word ‘exchange’ in these pages even though discussing do-ut-des because, for him – is not about exchange but about circulation . It is fundamental for sacred entities because “though superior to men, can live only in the human consciousness.” (id., 347) : that is to say, it is fundamental for sacred entities because it allows them to be sacred.

I therefore finally come to the point that I deem to be central to all of Durkheim’s work : society’s very origin from the structure of sacrifice and of do-ut-des. Alternatively, that of the ritual, also a circular process (id., 347). The ritual is not the process of giving-and-taking-for-giving-and-taking (do-ut-des) but of exchanging : giving-and-taking-for-giving.

However, Durkheim establishes a criterion : “it should be possible to interpret the ritual in lay and social terms” because “the sacred principle is nothing more nor less than society transfigured and personified” (id., 347). The society, so, is the mediator thanks to which the circle do-ut-des is just only for giving – as stated below.

What does this mean ? It means that “social life, just like the ritual, moves in a circle” (id.). Who gives what to whom ? Here is what Durkheim says : “the individual gets from society the best part of himself, all that gives him a distinct character and – a special place among other beings, his intellectual and moral culture […] on the other hand, society exists and lives only – in and through individuals” (id., 347). We bestow on society our belief that it exists ! We give ‘credit’ to society, just as it gives credit, it its turn, to us, by attributing us goodness [5].

Society and individuals, god and the faithful – mutually, reciprocally – complete each other :

“We now see the real reason why the gods cannot do without their worshippers any more than these can do without their gods ; it is because society, of which the gods are only a symbolic expression, cannot do without individnafe any more than these can do without society” (id., 347)

But mutual complementarity does not occur by eliminating differences : by fulfilling both individuals and society, individuals and society are not discovering to be one and the same, as if they have become autonomous and self-sufficient. That is not what the process is for. It is to maintain, nurture and renovate the reciprocal asymmetry so fundamental to individuals and to society.

As Durkheim says : “Of course it is not the material oblations which bring about this regeneration – by their own virtues ; it is the mental states which these actions, thoughvain in themselves, accompany or reawaken” (id., 346). As if to say : exchanged objects don’t have any value in themselves. The ritual, therefore, is established as a public ceremony through which it is not goods (objects) that are given (and received), but symbols.

Society, as a transcendental reality, is possible only thanks to this mental process, thanks to individuals’ ability to create symbols. But this is not enough. So that this is not a purely abstract exercise, or as Durkheim puts it, so that “anything more than the product of a chronic delirium” (id., 348), so that it has objective value, an objective reality, that asymmetrical reciprocity that individuals give to society is necessary. Transcendence lies in the very relation between the individual and society, in the sacrificial and gift-bearing ritual between the individual and society.

It is a symbolic exchange, the true meaning of do-ut-des that runs between society and individuals. The symbolic exchange takes place in a ritualised pattern, in other words in an institutionalised manner – otherwise it would be or it would be confused with a contagious, chronic delirium, pure and simple. It is a symbolic exchange that lays the foundations for the reciprocal recognition between society and individuals, a recognition based on the understanding of a reciprocal asymmetry.

I now would like to reproduce an extract which I deem to be essential to better understand this concept :

“Howsoever little importance the religion ceremonies may have, they put the group into action ; the groups assemble to celebrate them. So their first effect is to bring individuals together, to multiply the relations between them and to make them more intimate with one another. By this very fact, the contents of their consciousnesses is changed. On ordinary days, it is utilitarian and individual avocations which take the greater part of the attention. Every one attends to his own personal business ; for most men, this primarily consists in satisfying the exigencies of material life, and the principal incentive to economic activity has always been private interest […].We remain in relations with others ; the habits, ideas and tendencies which education has impressed upon us and which ordinarily preside over our relations with others, continue to make their action felt. But they are constantly combated and held in check by the antagonistic tendencies aroused and supported by the necessities of the daily struggle. They resist more or less successfully, according to their intrinsic energy : but this energy is not renewed. They live upon their past, and consequently they would be used up in the course of time, if nothing returned to them a little of the force that they lose through these incessant conflicts and frictions. When the Australians, scattered in little groups, spend their time in hunting and fishing, they lose sight of what concerns their clan or tribe : their only thought is to catch as much game as possible. On feast days, on the contrary, these preoccupations are necessarily eclipsed ; being essentially profane, they are excluded from these sacred periods. At this time, their thoughts are centred upon their common beliefs, their common traditions, the memory of their great ancestors, the collective ideal of which they are the incarnation ; in a word, upon social things. Even the material interests which these great religious ceremonies are designed to satisfy concern the public order and are therefore social […]. So men do not deceive themselves when they feel at this time that there is something outside of them which is born again, that there are forces which are reanimated and a life which reawakens. This renewal is in no way imaginary […].The individual soul is regenerated too, by being dipped again in the source from which its life comes ; consequently it feels itself stronger, more fully master of itself, less dependent upon physical necessities” (id., 348-9)

Ends not linked to the individual (those of the clan, of the tribe, etc.) can also be egotistical. They are when they are limited to the group’s physical needs and sustenance, but they become altruistic when individuals feel to be animated by those very ends that, at certain time, transcend their group.

They are unuseful objects, at the end of the day, that individuals offer to the gods but, at the same time, they are essential objects and, above all, irreplaceable : their meaning is the gift itself.

Again, Durkheim writes : “Society is able to revivify the sentiment it has of itself only by assembling. But it cannot be assembled all the time. […] It is to these necessary alternations that the regular alternations of sacred and profane times correspond” (id. 349)

If Watts Miller (2009) managed to brilliantly articulate the creative aspect of the society’s rhythmic life, what is pressing for me to shed light on, on the other hand, is how the succession of profane time and sacred time is given a rhythm by entrance into a collective mental state of positive debt – to borrow a term from Godbout and Caillé’s sociology of the gift. Godbout and Caillé talk about a positive, reciprocal gift to define that situation in which both subjects think they are receiving more than they are giving to the other. In the relation between individuals and society, as Durkheim outlines it in the circular concept of do-ut-des, time for the sacred is when individuals are obliged to give because they have received from society. It is during time for the sacred that individuals celebrate their tie to society, an unbreakable tie and a mutually formative one, giving thanks for all they have obtained in the past and expressing, in a free and voluntary way, their sense of attachment to society.

Brief observations on Hubert and Mauss’ Sacrifice (Durkheim on Mauss)

Rather curiously, I notice that Durkheim’s mentions of the essay on sacrifice written by his grandson with Hubert are completely marginal and, above all, are used to refer to specific examples of sacrificial practice [6]. However this is not the only connection. There is also the one that unites Durkheim to Mauss and that goes beyond simple citations that the former makes of the latter. It’s possible to establish some common concepts by reading the essay on sacrifice as well as the other, perhaps better known by Mauss, on the gift. Durkheim, for his part, had already understood, perhaps unconsciously, that it is the gift to be the motor behind the sacrifice. In part, this is also the route taken by Strenski (1998).

It is through the sacrifice that it is possible “établir une communication entre le monde sacré et le monde profane par l’intermédiaire d’une victime, c’est-à-dire d’une chose détruite au cours de la cérémonie” (Hubert and Mauss 1898).

Through the sacrifice, individuals give themselves to the gods : sacrifice is the shape that the gift takes when individuals offer it to the gods. Through the gift still, individuals and the gods communicate. It is not words, but gifts that allow them to communicate. That sacrifice may include a utilitarian element that may be true, and the critical reading proposed by Caillè on Mauss is entirely in that vein (Caillè 1998, ch.5). However, my view is that such a reading exacerbates its ‘contractual’ nature undermining the true sense that both Mauss and Durkheim wanted to bestow on it. Caillè interprets Mauss’ entire essay in a utilitarian-economic light because he reduces utilitarianism to mere economic utility.

The hint for this is given in this statement : “si le sacrifiant donne quelque chose de soi, il ne se donne pas ; il se réserve prudemment. C’est que, s’il donne, c’est en partie pour recevoir” (Hubert and Mauss 1898). Durkheim himself, as aforementioned, states, quite calmly, that the mechanism of sacrifice is that of the do-ut-des but, immediately following that, he explains it has very little to do with utilitarian theory.

Mauss himself, with Hubert, admits some sort of contract within sacrifice, because :

“ Le sacrifice se présente donc sous un double aspect. C’est un acte utile et c’est une obligation. Le désintéressement s’y mêle à l’intérêt. Voilà pourquoi il a été si souvent conçu sous la forme d’un contrat. Au fond, il n’y a peut-être pas de sacrifice qui n’ait quelque chose de contractuel “ (id.)

For there to be sacrifice – this is the basic condition Hubert and Mauss pose – it is necessary that what constitutes the gift is destroyed, passed on and lost. It is a gift destined not to come back if not under a different shape, as it will be eaten, destroyed, consumed. But economic exchange – by definition that which take place through an exchange of money – performs very differently. It is as if Caillè has forgotten this. This is an exchange through which accumulation is generated, and above all, based on the exchange of equivalent objects. This is no race ‘in generosity’ – Simmel docet !

There is however an example of an utterly pure gift, entirely altruistic, “C’est le sacrifice du dieu ; car le dieu qui se sacrifie se donne sans retour” (id.). Without calling into question the theological nature of this statement, what is being clarified is that the only, true gift is the divine one, that the only being able to give a perfect and total gift is the religious being par excellence, the god. Curiously, Durkheim does not mention this. It is as if he were blind even to the possibility of a gift that is purely free and freely pure.

Hubert and Mauss conclude their essay by saying that for the sacrifice to have a reason to happen, two conditions are required. The first : there should be things external to he who makes the sacrifice and which induce him to ‘come out of himself’, and it is to these very things that he owes what he sacrifices. Even if both authors had previously stated that the person performing the sacrifice does not offer himself but something he owns, perhaps involuntarily, they nevertheless assert that he must give something of himself. The thing that is given, the object of the sacrifice, is something that that is renounced through the sacrifice. It is something that is renounced in order to obtain something in return – this is the second condition.

This structure of ‘inside’ versus ‘outside’, of immanence and transcendence is “au plus haut degré, distinctif des choses sociales” (id.), which are “selon le point de vue auquel on se place, dans et hors l’individu”. It is within this dynamic relation that Huber and Mauss identify the social function of the sacrifice, because “le sacrifice se rapporte à des choses sociales” (id., 90).

What is the social function of sacrifice ? It is to set the foundations for society, building and re-building the original link of mutual belonging. This function becomes reality through the sacrifice of one’s self – “renoncement personnel des individus ou des groupes à leurs propriétés alimente” (id.). The dynamic relation that Hubert and Mauss outline as existing between individuals and society is entirely similar to that of Durkheim :

“Le renoncement personnel des individus ou des groupes à leurs propriétés alimente les forces sociales. Non, sans doute, que la société ait besoin des choses qui sont la matière du sacrifice ; tout se passe ici dans le monde des idées, et c’est d’énergies mentales et morales qu’il est question. Mais l’acte d’abnégation qui est impliqué dans tout sacrifice, en rappelant fréquemment aux consciences particulières la présence des forces collectives, entretient précisément leur existence idéale […]. D’autre part, les individus trouvent à ce même acte leur avantage. Ils se confèrent, à eux et aux choses qui leur tiennent de près, la force sociale tout entière. Ils revêtent d’une autorité sociale leurs vœux, leurs serments, leurs mariages […]. En même temps, ils trouvent dans le sacrifice le moyen de rétablir les équilibres troublés : par l’expiation, ils se rachètent de la malédiction sociale, conséquence de la faute, et rentrent dans la communauté “ (id.)

As does Durkheim, Hubert and Mauss also are entirely clear about the fact that gifts offered to the gods are entirely useless. It is useless because what is being performed through them is not the simple and pure utilitarian exchange, but the regeneration of a link, of a tie. The act of sacrifice prefigures the act of reciprocating by the gods : it’s a hopeful and faithful act.

Do-ut-des, the logic of the contract, the logic of exchange between individuals and the gods does not reduce reciprocity to a simple circle that lasts only for the brief moments of the exchange. Far from it : the sacrifice is the ceremony through which the exchanged gifts don’t cancel each other out – the gods do not return the offering made by mankind, nor does mankind pay its debt to the gods – but they seal the relation between them.

Just as in Essai sur le don, also is Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice, Mauss with Hubert tries to demonstrate that sacrifice is a public act of renunciation : sacrifice is so only for mankind, with an act of giving, it renounces what it owns publicly. Through this public act, the individual re-affirms his relation to society, strengthens his prestige, his honour.

But what does it mean to say that sacrifice has become “périodique”, that it marks the “rythme de la vie humaine et celui de la nature” (id.) ? It means that, periodically, mankind needs to admit to its shortcomings, its need for forgiveness. The possible reading of Mauss and Hubert’s idea of the sacrifice is different from Durkheim’s. For Mauss and Hubert, society periodically needs mankind to communicate its own mortality, its own limitations, its need to renounce something to obtain forgiveness, to “rétablir les équilibres troublés” (id., 91). It is not about gifts that are exchanged daily between individuals, but of an exchange which assumes a very specific ceremonial form.

To interpret Mauss’ and Hubert’s utilitarianism – they do not deny it at all – as an exchange of equivalents is not correct, because it does not allow to see the true effect : the establishment of a symbolic order intended as an interweaving of alliances.

This point, however, is expressed more clearly by Durkheim.

Back to Durkheim (Durkheim on Durkheim)

Self-abnegation as inherent to each sacrificial act is fundamental for Durkheim. This is the meaning of charity (Durkheim 1950). Charity will have to found a new social order, a new social differentiation – I’ll hazard an interpretation of the underlying message of his Leçons. The full coming into being of charity will coincide with the perfect and complete coming into being of the division of labour, but it will only be this, in other words thanks to charity, that the division of labour will coincide with a regime founded on the gift !

As Chanial (2011, 87) rightly notes, “la plus grande liberté, le signe de la civilisation la plus avancée, c’est le refus de l’équivalence et du calcul”. In other words, all that is not economic utilitarianism or an exchange of equivalents is not modernity.

The fair and equal contract is an improvable contractual form. It is completed by charity. The equal contract is just – it is a child of modernity. But, as we’ve said, it is incomplete.

Economic exchange and the various forms of contract are analysed from the point of view of charity. The same social process of the creation of price is judged in these terms. I’ll explain. Durkheim writes : “we are becoming increasingly used to the idea that the true price of things exchanged should be fixed previous to the contract and be in no way governed by it” (Durkheim 1957, 210).

Durkheim’s hope is the following :

“I will not go so far as to say that the day will eve come when this justice will be absolute, when values will be exactly equated as between services exchanged. It might be said, and with reason, that it is not possible to carry it to the extreme limit. Are there not services which are beyond any adequate remuneration ? Moreover, only a rough attempt can be made to make things square absolutely. But certainly, the balance of value that exist to-day still does not satisfy our present ideas of justice, and the more we advance the more we shall try to get near to the correct ratio. No one can set any limits to this development” (id., 212-3, my italics)

On a practical level, Durkheim admits there will always be just exchanges, but not ones founded on charity, that there will always be exchanges in which those who give something of theirs won’t receive something equivalent in return at all, but something considerably less valuable and won’t be able to do otherwise, because they won’t have contractual power. There will be just and equivalent exchanges, but it not a guarantee that these will also based on charity. It is not just “the individual giving more than he receives or rendering services that are not rewarded at their true value” (id., 219).

It is just – from a justice point of view – that there be differences in retribution, in other words, in payments : to have something in return on the basis of what one has given, of how much one has given and of the quality of what one has given. But “where human sympathy is concerned, even these inequalities can not be justified” (id., 21). In the light of the reading I have put forward of Hubert and Mauss’ theory, charity commences with the act of self-abnegation, of human renouncement through the act of sacrifice. However, it is not a case of giving up ‘goods’ one might own, but of an earning one might gain, of a wealth one might earn, but one that would be unjust. Liberal society works on the assumption of the exact opposite : to earn the most possible, what is ‘wrong’ with that ? On the contrary, Durkheim’s wish is that individuals may sometimes and increasingly more often limit themselves and limit their economic growth, that they may spontaneously give up their just earnings that are nevertheless bad. Just, according to the logic of Justice, bad, according to the logic of the gift. Paradoxically, by following Durkheim’s theory, the logic of a just and equitable contract but not founded on charity could lead to, gradually, to a kind of uncivil society, to a sovereign kingdom “the axiological neutrality of the Market and the Law” [7], of the categorical imperative of limitless Growth, which coincides with the loss of social interconnectedness.

It is through the sacrificial act, with the self-abnegation of the Self – the egotistical Self – in favour of the Other, that the dilemma of homo duplex can be resolved. Homo duplex [8] is the ontological condition of the human mind. Mankind can always choose to follow and to satisfy personal ends or impersonal ones – during the aforementioned profane times – but these are, in there turn, also egotistical [9].

That ontological condition of the human mind finds its solution – by turning the argument on its head – in the circumstances of the gift. I use the term ‘circumstances’ in the plural to indicate the different forms that social interconnectedness – and with it, society at large – may take.

Linked to the sphere of the power of the State, domination and violence (I’m thinking of the Germany of the 1915 article) or credit of trust in the shape of recognition of rights (I’m thinking of the purpose of the State in modern society) or in the shape of the gods’ power, the sacredness of commitments and of chosen attachments (I am thinking here of solemn contracts or to the rituals that still end this way) [10] ; tied to the understanding of just equivalence, contractual and utilitarian market exchanges and to the ritual exchanges which can also lead to “national life […] dominated by a collective life of an international nature” [11] ; tied to the understanding of charity.

It is, therefore, within the structure of what Durkheim defined the circle of do-ut-des, that who gives and who receives acquire meaning through the object being given.

The gift as a vessel of symbolism and the problem of the ‘lacuna’

What does the gift remind us of ?

Going back to the citation made at the beginning of this article, the division of labour [12], in its final meaning, is a symbol of the individual’s incompleteness, of the reciprocal existence of debt/credit, of the insufficiency of ourselves, of the desire to form alliances.

Paraphrasing Derrida (1991), for Durkheim as well is the purely and totally free, cost-free gift is impossible because it has to be impossible.

Undoubtedly, the gift is a great educational tool – just think of the pages of The moral education. But if we can assume as a manifestation of the gift even the feeling of love that ties two people, such as romantic love or friendship [13], we can well understand that the gift must have a social foundation.

The purely altruistic, gratuitous, sudden gift is of no interest to Durkheim. He is interested in the social practices surrounding the gift. His concern is that the exchange may be immoral or anti-social. And it is when it is left exclusively to the sphere of individual will. But when is it immoral or anti-social ? When it attempts to undo that tie of mutual insufficiency. When, in other words, that alternating of reciprocal dissymmetry (debtor/creditor), which is what marks the longevity of the relationship, is cancelled out.

Undoubtedly, there are exchanges that have as their basis equivalence – economic and utilitarian ones – but even these must come from a basic concept of gift, as I attempted to explain in relation to self-abnegation. But if the reciprocity embodied in the exchange is reduced to a mere equivalence, to a symmetrical identification, the link at the source of human ties is suspended : they no longer feel mutually debtors/creditors.

Here we come to symbolism. What does Durkheim mean by being a symbolic vessel ? To create representations, to create that (social) reality in which and through which mankind can communicate. It is only through symbolic vessels that mankind can communicate with each other :

“Voilà longtemps que Durkheim et nous, enseignons qu’on ne peut communier et communiquer entre hommes que par symboles, par signes communs, permanents, extérieurs aux états mentaux individuels qui sont tout simplement successifs, par signes de groupes d’états pris ensuite pour des réalités” (Mauss 1924, my italics)

Symbols, common signs, language [14]. Work. This is what we communicate with.

Symbolism : symbolon – that which is put together. Which brings together. A sort of alliance. Symbolism is an alliance : the durkheimian division of labour is an exchange of gifts, it is not a mere contract. It is a symbol of the mutual complementarity of individuals. All of this, however, follows the rule of (social) differentiation, without which you’re no one – or nothing. This is why we communicate (Lemert 2006).

How does the gift unfold ?

“D’où il suit que présenter quelque chose à quelqu’un c’est présenter quelque chose de soi. […] ; accepter quelque chose de quelqu’un, c’est accepter quelque chose de son essence spirituelle, de son âme ; la conservation de cette chose serait dangereuse et mortelle et cela non pas simplement parce qu’elle serait illicite, mais aussi parce que cette chose qui vient de la personne, non seulement moralement, mais physiquement et spirituellement, cette essence, cette nourriture , ces biens, meubles ou immeubles, ces femmes ou ces descendants, ces rites ou ces communions, donnent prise magique et religieuse sur vous. Enfin, cette chose donnée n’est pas chose inerte” (Mauss 1923)

I would add to Mauss’ list of given things ‘work’, because this is how we can clearly understand what Durkheim meant. To give one’s work for a just payment in return : to accept another’s service giving them in return the right value. The last Lessons of sociology dedicated to the ethics of contracts aim to teach us precisely that. However the true problem of the gift, as Mauss reiterates, is the time of restitution : if this time is missing, peace will be missed.

Symbolism is a gift – as I have tried to argue above – but it is also a source of norms. In what way ?

“[…] en tout ceci, il y a une série de droits et de devoirs de consommer et de rendre, correspondant à des droits et des devoirs de présenter et de recevoir. Mais ce mélange étroit de droits et de devoirs symétriques et contraires cesse de paraître contradictoire si l’on conçoit qu’il y a, avant tout, mélange de liens spirituels entre les choses qui sont à quelque degré de l’âme et les individus et les groupes qui se traitent à quelque degré comme des choses” (id., my italics)

If the capacity to create symbols, at the origin, is a manifestation of affections, as well as the capacity to create symbolic differences and to classify collective representations are at their origin based on affections to then gradually become more ‘rational’ in the sense that it gives increasingly more space to people’s projected thoughts and beliefs (Durkheim and Mauss, 1902, 78), then the logic of the gift is to be found in the mental processes that are the product of social acts.

For Mauss, it is through the exchange of gifts that people become objects and are in fact social objects, to use a durkheimian term. It is about what, or rather who we communicate.

Durkheim is not a constructivist because for him social things in themselves are not created if not through people offering themselves as gifts. People become social objects in no other way than through the circular pattern of the gift and its time, of the gift as a part of themselves. Things – going back to the article he wrote with Mauss – are social only within the system of collective representations – the highest level of consciousness of individual consciences (society itself) – because it is them which associate the symbol with the thing being symbolised (Durkheim 1955, 78, 57 and following).

That mutual dissymmetry acquires righteousness in the sense that it becomes an alliance instead of an injustice in the sense of ‘war’ only at the right time for the gift. Why the right time for the gift ? To this question can be answered in many different ways. In an attempt to define the gift as a mental process that forms a person’s identity, I shall attempt a more ‘psychological’ route.

Because there is a lacuna – here is the answer. Because an individual’s free will exists :

« Le rôle de la conscience n’est pas de diriger le comportement d’un être qui n’aurait pas besoin de la connaissance : il est de constituer un être qui n’existerait pas sans elle […]. La conscience n’est donc pas une fonction qui a pour rôle de diriger les mouvements du corps : elle est l’organisme se connaissant, et, par cela seul que l’organisme se connaît, on peut dire que quelque chose de nouveau se produit. Pour que la conscience se produise, il faut qu’il y ait des trous, des lacunes dans l’action, et c’est par ces lacunes que l’être prend conscience de lui-même : un être qui se connaît est celui qui arrête le mouvement et qui le reproduit ensuite. La conscience, loin d’avoir seulement pour rôle de diriger les mouvements des êtres, a pour rôle de produire des êtres » (Durkheim 1955, 94).

In other words, this is the problem that conscience poses to the gift : when to return the gift ? The gift is free and disinterested – Mauss’ words. When is it returned ? Certainly, in those contexts that Mauss analysed there is a strong, structural cogency on reciprocation : it is known when it will take place. However, there is an unknown : it might not take place. On a more general, ontological level, a gift requires a counter-gift, otherwise there can be no peace. The alliance crumbles. The risk lies in the wrong moment, in the lacuna. Within one’s conscience, when does the individual decide or choose to that the right moment to reciprocate has arrived ? That intermingling of mutual and opposite rights and duties does not become contradictory but remains within the confines of a positive alliance only if the right time is chosen ; it is maintained and does not lose the (symbolic) meaning of what it obviously is not : unjust rights and duties.

Once again, symbolism is a gift. Collective representations are the realm of reality within society, completely separate from individual ones, which are the realm of reality within the mind (Maublanc 2011). Collective representations are the logic of culture (Lemert 2006 15) : as an alliance, as a gift, they do not emerge unless the time for reciprocation is not the right, awaited one.

To paraphrase Mauss, for a long time Durkheim and I have professed that communication happens only through the exchange of symbols, of signs, the giving and reciprocating of symbols and signs, and if they are not exchanged at the appropriate time, the cohesion breaks down.

“A day will come when our societies will know…” charity (a personal reading of Durkheim)

I want to conclude with a short reference to the political dimension that can emerge from the gift : a tendency to form associations or movements. It is blindly obvious that, for Durkheim, solidarity would be put into practice by secondary social groups [15]. The conclusive remark of his Leçons de sociologie is that charity – what we know today as solidarity – won’t remain to the discretion of the good heart of some, but that it will be a social fact [16]. Charity, by becoming the new matrix of the social, can not anymore be dependent on individual manifestations, anonymous and impersonal. It needs to take on new forms – and Durkheim suggests some forms that can render this sentiment a societal one.

The first form Durkheim puts forward is in relation to work, as if to say that work and charity are inextricably linked. Such a link relates not only to ‘payment’ for services performed to the benefit of the community as contracted work – therefore the overcoming of a righteous and fair contract – but also to the very performance of those services that, when possible, should be done socially.

Durkheim also asks himself if there exists a connection of mutual completion between social groups [17]as there is between individuals, immediately after having defined that connection as founding principle of both social relationships and individual psychological reality :

“ Il est très légitime de supposer que les faits que nous venons d’observer se reproduisent ici, mais avec plus d’ampleur ; que ces grandes sociétés politiques ne peuvent, elles aussi, se maintenir en équilibre que grâce à la spécialisation des tâches” (Durkheim 1893)

As far as the social performance of services, I will use the example of education.

As education is such a quintessentially social service, the State has to take an interest in it. If on the one hand, “tout ce qui est éducation doit être, en quelque mesure, soumis à son action” (Durkheim 1922), on the other “Ce n’est pas à dire pour cela qu’il doive nécessairement monopoliser l’enseignement” (id.)

Elsewhere, he also writes that :

“Les corporations de l’avenir auront une complexité d’attributions encore plus grande. […] Autour de leurs fonctions proprement professionnelles viendront s’en grouper d’autres qui reviennent actuellement aux communes ou à des sociétés privées. Telles sont les fonctions d’assistance […]. Bien des œuvres éducatives (enseignements techniques, enseignements d’adultes, etc.) semblent également devoir trouver dans la corporation leur milieu naturel. Il en est de même d’une certaine vie esthétique […]. En fait, on voit dès à présent des syndicats qui sont en même temps des sociétés de secours mutuels, d’autres qui fondent des maisons communes où l’on organise des cours, des concerts, des représentations dramatiques. L’activité corporative peut donc s’exercer sous les formes les plus varies” (Durkheim 1893, my italics)

Alongside the State and so-called public schools, there can also be other types of school.

Why should the State allow freedom to individuals’ initiative in school ? Because, Durkheim answers,

“on peut croire que les progrès scolaires sont plus faciles et plus prompts là où une certaine marge est laissée aux initiatives individuelles ; car l’individu est plus volontiers novateur que l’État” (Durkheim 1922). But the State has to maintain the role of inspector, of regulator and, why not, even facilitator of these schools : to favour communities, to favour society. Durkheim writes : “mais de ce que l’État doive, dans l’intérêt public, laisser s’ouvrir d’autres écoles que celles dont il a plus directement la responsabilité, il ne suit pas qu’il doive rester étranger à ce qui s’y passé” (id., my italics)

The State has to ensure and guarantee that schools, be they private or public ones, reach standard minimum levels of attainment and competency of teachers : “il n’est même pas admissible que la fonction d’éducateur puisse être remplie par quelqu’un qui ne présente pas des garanties spéciales dont l’État seul peut être juge” (id.)

Although private or non-public, these schools – Durkheim specifies this unreservedly – cannot give, with full freedom, an antisocial education. What does ‘antisocial education’ mean for Durkheim ? Our analysis can now take different routes. The one I wish to put forward is the following : Antisocial education is an amoral education, in other words an education that is contrary to those three elements that make up morality. More than only the ‘instructive’ or ‘cognitive’ dimension Durkheim’s heart lies close to the moral and social ones, close to the educational effort that school makes [18]. Durkheim’s ‘concern’ is not whether or not a non-public school gives qualifications, a superior or an inferior level of education to the one offered by public schools, but rather whether every school, every kind of school, offers an antisocial education, or in other words a close-minded, self-interested and lawless one. Undoubtedly, the decade-old question of non-public schools, on whether or not they are integrated and whether or not they can segregate and compartmentalise their pupils, is one that is contemporary to us, not to Durkheim.

He does however anticipate the issue of (private) educational freedom, where in the term ‘private’ – I am quite certain not be mistaken in this – Durkheim does not include what we today define ‘teaching enterprises’ [19] (Ribolzi 2009). Not-public schools, which Durkheim appears to want to outline, are not ‘for-profit’ ones, but ‘not-for-profit’ ones. Furthermore, I am inclined to conclude that, perhaps, it is above all in not-public schools that, those borne out of the free, community-driven spirit of individuals, that moral education has a most strong ally : they are a ‘concrete example’ of a group spirit and generations of adults (those who have founded the school, the teachers who accepted to work there, etc) are more motivated to perform on the younger generations (the students attending the school) a kind of moral education [20].

The relation between the State and society runs through the societal : the alliance of different groups working together for the common good. If we take up Durkheim’s teachings on the State and democracy, we can well understand that the key through which Durkheim reads the pact between State and citizens is given by the presence of charity, by how it evolves and it gradually expands through society at large, its individuals and its groups.

“A day will come when our societies will know again those hours of creative effervescence, in the course of which new ideas arise and new formulae are found which serve for a while as a guide to humanity” (Durkheim 1973, 427-8) : the old deities are dead but they have still not been replaced by new ones capable to inspire mankind.

It will be charity – Durkheim’s hope and faith – that will instigate and nurture new collective phenomena [21].

Luca Guizzardi

University of Bologna (Italy)

Via Albertazzi 50, 40137 Bologna

Luca Guizzardi (1975), is a sociologist at University of Bologna. His main research areas are sociological theory and social ontology, transformation of family relationships and parenting, youth. Among his last publications, a monography on the parsonsian socioloy of kinship and ‘Would you like to present me with a piece of your wardrobe ?’ The fortuitous reasons for cohabiting, International Review of Sociology ; Revue Internationale de Sociologie (2011). He has four publications on Durkheimian Studeis, the last is “Echange, don, réciprocité. L’acte de donner chez Simmel et Durkheim,” (2012).


// Article publié le 15 février 2014 Pour citer cet article : Luca Guizzardi, « The double bond Durkheim-Mauss : The hidden rule of the gift », Revue du MAUSS permanente, 15 février 2014 [en ligne].

[1Further reflections on the sociology of the gift in Durkheim are by Guizzardi (2009) and Guizzardi and Martignani (2012). My feeling is that ‘re-interpreting’ durkheimian sociology through this symbolic-conceptual lens is a yet unbeaten path but a truly useful and an especially necessary one to free durkheimian thinking from the cramped and unfair ‘cage’ of functionalism.

[2“Les choses étaient censées faire partie intégrante de la société et c’est leur place dans la société qui déterminait leur place dans la nature” (Durkheim and Mauss 1903).

[3For example, that mutual sustenance among individuals which is the original foundation of kinship has its roots in the ritual of communal food sharing. The mutual sustenance between members of a same clan, through which each individual becomes a fully fledged person : “Every member of a totemic clan contains a mystic substance within him which is the pre-eminent part of his being, for his soul is made out of it” (Durkheim 1973, 337).

[4Again, the mechanism of images already seen in the introduction presents itself. Paoletti (1998) also reflects on this mechanism, within the wider framework of collective representations, however referring to the production of symbols in Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse.

[5In relation to the original, etymological meaning of the terms ‘credit’ and ‘credence’, Benveniste wrote : “on ne peut donc que poser une conjecture : kred serait une sorte de ‘gage’, ‘d’enjeu’ ; quelque chose de matériel mais qui engage aussi le sentiment personnel, une notion investie d’une force magique appartenant à tout homme et qu’on place à en un être supérieur. Il n’y a pas d’espoir de mieux définir ce terme, mais nous pouvons au moins restituer le contexte où est née cette relation qui s’établit d’abord entre les hommes et les dieux, pour se réaliser ensuite entre les hommes” (Benveniste 1969, 179)

[6Camille Tarot (1999, ch.28) managed with great ability to shed light on the link that connects Smith, on the one hand, and Durkheim/Mauss on the other. It is thanks to Smith’s interpretation that Durkheim “a trouvé le moyen de traiter sociologiquement de la religion […]. Il est littéralement imprégné de ce livre” (id., 544).

[7I hereby take inspiration from Pulcini’s (2001) and Michea’s (2011) work.

[8I refer the reader to Paoletti (2012) for an original interpretation of this human condition and the possibility of human interconnectedness.

[9Another example of this relativism of ends is given in marital society.

[10For example, Durkheim’s Leçons.

[11I am thinking here of Durkheim’s great international gods (Durkheim 1973, 426) and I refer the reader to the intelligent analysis put forward by Inglis and Robertson (2008) and by Inglis (2011).

[12Not only is the division of social labour a gift – as Mauss (1950) says – but it is also the division of ritual labour (Caillé 1998).

[13I am referring here to the delicate and moving obituary Durkheim wrote for his friend Victor Hommay (1975) and to the harsh critique made towards free unions (1896).

[14However, symbolic capacity, for Durkheim, is the capacity of classify, to distinguish things, because classifying is not a logical process, it is not a product of individual activity : “tant donc qu’on ne sort pas de l’histoire, le fait de l’association présente le même caractère que les autres et, par conséquent, s’explique de la même manière. D’autre part, comme toutes les sociétés sont nées d’autres sociétés sans solution de continuité, on peut être assuré que, dans tout le cours de l’évolution sociale, il n’y a pas eu un moment où les individus aient eu vraiment à délibérer pour savoir s’ils entreraient ou non dans la vie collective, et dans celle-ci plutôt que dans celle-là. Pour que la question pût se poser, il faudrait donc remonter jusqu’aux origines premières de toute société” (Durkheim 1901, 104).

[15The three scenarios for the future of solidarity envisaged by Watts Miller (2008) – the social capital, intermediary groups or the sacred – instead of being alternatives can become aspects of one same social relation. This argument is well and very originally articulated by Donati, who puts forward the notion of a religiously based public sphere, but not in the sense of a societal religion, but of a religiously inspired lay society (Donati 2008 and 2010).

[16It would be interesting to analyse charity as a social fact in the sense of a sociological symbol – this is Paoletti’s interpretation (1998, 90) of Durkheim’s first rule of the sociological method. Charity, as a new institution, has to be able to place an external coercion onto individuals, in other words it needs to be a way of doing, acting and feeling which is independent from individuals.

[17Also for Cotterrell social groups – within Durkheim’s legal theory – are connected to each other through a mutual dependency which is such that nobody can usurp any moral supremacy or go against the dignity of other groups or the individuals belonging to other groups (Cotterrell 1999, 79 and following ; 221 and following).

[18The definition of education given by Durkheim is this : “l’éducation est l’action exercée par les générations adultes sur celles qui ne sont pas encore mûres pour la vie sociale. Elle a pour objet de susciter et de développer chez l’enfant un certain nombre d’états physiques, intellectuels et moraux que réclament de lui et la société politique dans son ensemble et le milieu spécial auquel il est particulièrement destiné” (Durkheim 1922).

[19To use an anglophone term, Educational Management Organisation.

[20See also Durkheim (1992).

[21I wonder that, maybe, it’s for this reason that if Durkheim – following Maublanc (2007, 14, my italics) – “souhaitât une réorganisation sociale (qui ne pouvait être la restauration d’un ordre ancien) et voulût même contribuer à la réaliser, c’est donc un fait incontournable ; mais d’une part il croyait très sincèrement que cette réorganisation pouvait se faire pacifiquement”.


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