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Evaluate the Significance of Mauss’s theory of the person and self for contemporary anthropology

The well-known sociologist Marcel Mauss was regarded as a first-generation researcher of sociology in France. The role of Marcel in deterring the theory of personality and determination of self is regarded as one of the most crucial ideas in the history of the earth since it supports the existence and shaping of many societies. This theory has been proven valid over time by many researchers who support it with substantial evidence from many scientific disciplines like psychology, philosophy, and medicine.

The theorist was also acknowledged as a disciple of his uncle Emile Durkheim who laid the very foundation of sociology and the related paradigms. Marcel Mauss, however, didn’t confine his work to the principles of sociology but went ahead and related it to many other concepts of anthropology and ethnography. He looked into the historical development of forces of each society, notably known as “the gift,” by rigorous ethnological investigation. His work has further been a source of inspiration for modern-day works of many sociologists who now try to understand the intertwined concepts of sociology and how societies are shaped. Many researchers have now dedicated their entire research to the notions of self and the category of each person introduced by him.

The theme of self and each person’s anthropology was laid down by the theorist (1938) in which he briefly explained the underlying concept of the development of the “person” or “self” concerning a multi-coloured, multifaceted and developed conception all over history. The theorist was known as one of the very first few people who acknowledged the existence of the self and brought about its alleged roles and the idea of the person to the centre of everyone’s attention. Just like his uncle Durkheim, Mauss viewed the ostensible primitive societies and their historical religious categories as a guide to indulging in the evolvement of contemporary European philosophies.  (Van Meijl, A.H.M., 2008)

He reinforced his theory by giving many instances from Australian civilisations as well as from the societies shaped by the Native Americans, particularly the tribes of Zuñi, Kwakiutl, and Winnebago. He saw the form of existence of names vital to the setting up of the theme of personhood. Such a concept laid down the basis of the complex social concepts that aided the development of societies over time. (Valeri, V., 2013) He asserted that “Names as such were not necessarily the hallmark of the individual, but rather of a persona, a fixed role or position within a society.”

Hence, he believed that each tribe or any other group was entitled to having a predetermined stock of names and titles determining their identity. His views that such titles and names not only asserted a belonging to a particular class of the society or membership in a group but also represented an explicit position in that category or social class; hence, based on each person’s conduct, the titles or names may be changed all throughout their lives. (ethnographic instance of how societies evolved as per Mauss’s theory)

The theorist saw these names as some form of masks, which, when worn, helped each define himself and represent his self and character, which was yet again his additional contribution to the linked ideas of personhood. The dramatic image of masking was inherent to each of the arguments made by Mauss. In relative “primitive” societies like the early societies of Australia and Native America, etc., Personhood echoed each person’s standing within society. Hence they had fixed names and titles for each person. (Hart, K., 2007) (ethnographic instance of how societies evolved as per Mauss’s theory)

This very theme is a fluid analytical one, which is vital to the understanding of self and formulation of societies as it provides miscellaneous and contested connotations. The theory of anthropology of Mauss helped the researchers foresee who is considered to be a person, what the associated roles of being a person are, and how this deviated from having selfhood or the existence of a person. The sociologists have in turn, tried to illuminate and explicate these themes over time, yet, such concepts are still cast off interchangeably. (Cohen, A., 2002)

It is also impertinent to note here that the notion of selfhood is not just a theoretical quandary, but the concept entitles legitimate and ethical consequences comprising rights and responsibilities. Mauss’s work henceforth highlighted how each name or title signified how each persona was entitled to a certain set of duties and rights. He believed that personhood was the form of existing as a social, personified, and perceptive presence which in every society was so much more. Hence, Anthropologists, over time, have been inclined to study the variable in different societies (through cross-cultural ethnographies for the most part) to understand the dynamic concepts of personhood, unveiling that personhood can never be defined as a universally constant subject but is reasonably negotiated unremittingly in each era and place and time and also evolves as feedback to fluctuating circumstances and social interactions. (Cohen, A., 2002) The very concept has led to the foundation of research in other interrelated disciplines, like philosophy, medicine, and psychology. (ethnographic instance of how societies evolved as per Mauss’s theory)

The work of personhood by Mauss hence laid the groundwork for various sociocultural anthropological viewpoints. Cultural anthropologists nowadays underline their work from the subfields based on the very concepts introduced by the theorist. The concept helped them understand how a term of personhood or self might seem insignificant alone but how it communicates to numerous civilisations and cultures in diverse times, how it causes dynamic shifts and how it is subjective to power relations unveils the previously hidden social paradigms. As a result of his theories, psychologists now are able to fully explore and attempt to understand the associations between the mind and the body self, along with the relations between personhood and humanness. (Harris, G.G., 1989)

Mauss didn’t confine his theory to just a theoretical phase but gave examples of ancient and primitive societies like North America (Pueblo in the south-west US, Kwakwaka’wakw on Vancouver Island) and Australian beginnings, which are deeply entrenched in defining personage, or character in the social order outlining the concepts of self and identity. It needs to be noted how he thought, the parsonage is comparative and always linked to the one being addressed, that is elder brother. The very instance of contradictory concepts of self across multiple cultures is while “I” refers to the ideas of identity in India and China, it remains vague and unaddressed as compared to the Latin society. (Hart, K., 2007)

Similarly, the mask of identity for each person or individual on behalf of self turns out to be protuberant in Roman civilisation. Such a fact happens mainly in history, as the concept of shifting of persona is accomplished as identity gains recognition for all the freemen of the Roman Empire. However, the Slaves were still deprived of the right to gain identity (which explains how the society progressed psychologically). First names, family names, and nicknames for each person were given the characterisations, authorisations, and legitimacies that all of us still endear to the present day in many societies. (ethnographic instance of how societies evolved as per Mauss’s theory)

In the same manner, the Greek society (predominantly in the Stoics), the individual was given a sense of morality to inherit oneself. Religion also attributed a crucial factor in defining the character of each (which still establishes many societies today). For instance, the converts and preachers of Catholicism and Christianity were regarded with higher identities as the religion added a metaphysical encumbrance to their persona. The early ages attaining the deliberations over the nature of the Trinity are a testimony of it, declaring each person as coherent, individual, and inseparable. However, Modernism psychologizes each, attributing them with a sense of inner cognisance and awareness from the Cartesian cogito. (ethnographic instance of how societies evolved as per Mauss’s theory)

The existence of self and personality has, over time, been identified by many scholars like Buddha and Socrates as well. Socrates’ statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living for man”, as rational human beings, explains how he believed persona was to be acknowledged for each person. Socrates was a true believer and preacher of truth. He was against all the forms of political establishments that followed the approach of ethical therapy and wanted everyone to recognize their true self. Because of his critical thinking, the people around him started to rise against the political foundations. He was then held responsible by many as unrest in the community and cause of dissension and corruption in the morals of his followers in the name of truth. The people tried to reprimand him, but he said he was to be executed by them if they wanted to stop him. It caused a huge upheaval where his friends tried to recant and save him, but he compromised his ethics by saying it was better to die in the search for truth than to live in fear. By this theory, he gave a notion to carefully study or analyse deeply to configure more to authenticity and truth of our persona than what appeared to us, which was indeed a testimony to how his society was evolving as more and more people came to acknowledge the concepts of personhood after him. (Carrithers, M., Collins, S. and Lukes, S. eds., 1985.)

As one reviews the realist concepts of psychology, he comes to see the significance of the appeal of this sort of anthropological contribution by Mauss in the field where so much about the persona was unexplained and unexplored. The theories formulated by Mauss displayed the ancestral expansion and progress of each concept of personality regarding social, political and philosophical perceptions. They helped unravel the assemblies and relations of elements deeply embedded in a dynamic but material and much-needed concepts behind the organisation of anthropological civilisations and social order along with their physical milieu. (Gamst, F.C., 1991)

Given that all the social research vouchs for Marcel Mauss’s theory, the most important question to be considered here is to ask for the associated implications of this approach for the clarification of existing social phenomena. To cater to this, the researchers Mauss and Fauconnet suggest dividing all sociological enlightenments into one of three classifications proposed by them. (Valeri, V., 2013)

The very first of the proposition asserts how one communal depiction can be associated with an additional but communal illustration. For instance, the punitive standard and related laws of each society may be centred on private vengeance. Secondly, a communal exemplification can also be assimilated with some content from the social structure in view; for instance, Mauss gives the example of the formulation of urban areas due to the implication of a cause of urban law. (Hart, K., 2007) And lastly, the characteristics of different societies can be linked to the mutual illustrations which shape them up; for instance, various mythical stories led the Hebrews to feel a strong urge to migrate from one place to another. (ethnographic instance of how societies evolved as per Mauss’s theory) However, each of these classifications has to revolve around the identification of the persona and self of each. Instead of this assertion, author Valerio Valeri states on Mauss’s concepts.

“In anthropology, it is a relationship between different subjects that is established, rather than a relationship between subject and object. In this sense, the result is characteristically philosophical; it is communication, dialogue, knowledge of a neutral ground where an encounter is possible, and thus the only possible form of comprehension.”

The theorist Mauss further analogised and weighed this moderately immobile outset of personhood in non-European civilisations like those in Asia and Africa with a uniquely vigorous image of the ever-changing impression of each persona in the western part of Europe. Western Europe at that time viewed the concept through their ethnocentric lens of Greek philosophy, Roman law, Christian theology, and ultimately the Enlightenment. (Gamst, F.C., 1991)

As a result of the rigorous outlook on the naïve conception of the concepts of personality and self, the conclusion resulted in a unique evolution of anthropology of self-concerning individual cognisance, individual perception and mindfulness as compared to the quintessence and personification of a previously fixated set of social associations. (Fogelson, R.D., 1982)

Such concepts (even though validated in some societies) have also been a source of discontent among many researchers. Many of them have rejected the themes of personality and the fact that it plays any role in shaping civilisations over time by refusing to acknowledge any teleological dichotomy in the middle of European social order as being fundamentally diverse and non-European societies as stationary. But, even when this statement of Mauss is ignored, his perseverance to declare that the commencements of each of us as individuals are ethnically and archaeologically formed can continually be altercated or transformed on condition of the groundwork for further successive anthropological research on the themes introduced by him. (Fogelson, R.D., 1982)

To summarise, the theorist enlightens the need to distinguish among “individual,” “self,” and “person” as biologistic, psychologistic, and sociologistic modes of conceptualising human beings. The concepts preached by him differentiate the individual as a member of humankind, the self as the locus of experience, and the person as an agent in society and reach far across the notion held by the implicit term “Persona.” The author follows out various descriptive and analytical implications and asserts his theories with different ethnographic examples to illustrate and clarify points relevant to different social settings and makes use of comparativist work.

All in all, the research reveals that personality shapes a vast amount of social behaviour of each person in a social setting and all behaviours assimilated together from different civilisations in different time frames as shown all across history. The effect of persona itself becomes paramount, which is pondered over by Mauss’s theory of the person and self for contemporary anthropology. In other words, Mauss’s argument somehow holds valid as “ancestry with reform and amendment.”


Carrithers, M., Collins, S. and Lukes, S. eds., 1985. The category of the person: Anthropology, philosophy, history. Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, A., 2002. Self-consciousness: An alternative anthropology of identity. Routledge.

Fogelson, R.D., 1982. Person, self, and identity: Some anthropological retrospects, circumspect, and prospects. In Psychosocial theories of the self (pp. 67-109). Springer, Boston, MA.

Gamst, F.C., 1991. Foundations of social theory. Anthropology of Work Review, 12(3), pp.19-25.

Harris, G.G., 1989. Concepts of individual, self, and person in description and analysis. American Anthropologist, 91(3), pp.599-612.

Hart, K., 2007. Marcel Mauss: In pursuit of the whole. A review essay. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 49(2), pp.473-485.

Valeri, V., 2013. Marcel Mauss and the new anthropology. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 3(1), pp.262-286.

Van Meijl, A.H.M., 2008. Culture and identity in anthropology: Reflections on ‘unity’ and ‘uncertainty’ in the Dialogical Self.



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