Marcel Mauss ‘The Gift’ – Critical Review


Catherine Lucas: January 2012

Marcel Mauss: The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies

A Critical Review


This essay will critically explore Mauss’ theories and findings relating to gift reciprocation, honour, and the concept of ‘free’ or ‘pure’ gifts without agenda. In the process of doing so I will incorporate the usage of these concepts by a variety of theorists writing on contemporary themes of gift use and exchange in modern societies. Although Mauss’ most acclaimed work in the influence of following anthropologists and sociologists, “The Gift” has encountered many criticisms where certain hypothesises appear to conflict with contemporary practices. Although focused on archaic societies, I will endeavour to show throughout the essay in a balanced manner, how we can use Mauss’ ideas in an enduring way when looking at certain aspects of economical and gift exchange systems in contemporary anthropology.

In order to begin to…

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Focus Eye

“Civitas abscondi supra montem posita” – “a city set on a hill cannot be hidden”. Most Christian fellows, I think, may be very familiar with the above words of Jesus found in Mt 5:14b. These words, for me, aptly describes University of Ghana both geographically and metaphorically. When I first gained (or perhaps offered) admission to University 🎓 of Ghana, I knew I was going to one of the best, if not the best tertiary institution in the country,. Pretty much the same I think, hold for most of us too. And they were genuine feelings; we both were right. But there is a little more to it. We both were never told the institutions here are not functional. We both were not told we would be left like sheep without a shepherd. We both were not told our lives even as students would not matter. And we both were…

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“Civitas abscondi supra montem posita” – “a city set on a hill cannot be hidden”. Most Christian fellows, I think, may be very familiar with the above words of Jesus found in Mt 5:14b. These words, for me, aptly describes University of Ghana both geographically and metaphorically. When I first gained (or was perhaps offered) admission to University 🎓 of Ghana, I knew I was going to one of the best, if not the best tertiary institution in the country. Pretty much the same I think, holds true for most of us too. And they were genuine feelings; we both were right. But there is a little more to it. We both were never told the institutions here are not functional. We both were not told we would be left like sheep without a shepherd. We both were not told our lives even as students would not matter. And we both were not told we are not yet responsible for our own destinies. In the end, you became disappointed. And I am too. But where I came from, my life matters, my future matters, and I am responsible for my own destiny. If you believe in same, we came from the same world.

A day never passes by without some of us thinking of what makes of us – our future and our destiny on a land that gives us very little room to unleash our potentials. Among the many puzzling questions we verily and daily seek answers to are: What becomes of us when we (students) are looked on as just a passing memory, waiting for time to wash us away for new ones to fill up? What becomes of us when we are looked on as some market goods to keep the university 🎓 business going? What becomes of us when we are not allowed to be responsible, at least for our own lives?

We learn from history however, that the great men who laid the foundation of this great nation of ours and the sagacious veterans who put their lives on the ground for our future to be secured were more forward – looking. Of course, “historia vitae magistra” – “history is the mistress of life”. These men symbolically set the foundation of what was to become a “primiera universitas” of Ghana on a hill, and named it “Legon” which means “the hill”. In their dreams and vision, university of Ghana would become an intellectual hub for progressively rediscovering the future of this great nation of ours. This finds expression even in the motto of the university : “integri procedamus?” or more grammatically correct “integris procedamus” which literally translates into “we proceed with integrity”. A little over 67 years now, the city set on the hill is still hidden and the dreams of our founding fathers are yet to be realised.

I share the thought of president Obama when he remarked in his speech to the AU in his just ended African visit, that the African youth is full of potentials and only needs a chance – yes, a chance. In a country that everything is conversely arranged, it is almost normal that our future takes a twist to the same path. My heart feel saddened that I have to belong to such a generation. I don’t know of you but again, I feel duty bound that I shall never for once succumb to the appalling silence of the masses. I feel even more duty bound to make things right not only for myself but for my country. Unless we (you and I) share this unflinching faith, unless you also believe in the “impossible”, posterity may not forgive us. “Nulla tenaci invia est via” – “for the tenacious, no road is impassable”. Remember the words of Apollo in his record breaking journey to the moon? “Ad Astra, per aspera” – to the stars, the hard way (Apollo). We must be willing to go through the narrow and the hard way.

But it will all begin from the city set on the hill – Legon. Believe in change. “…Choice, not chance will determine your destiny” (Aristotle).


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Increasingly, we, as Ghanians are becoming too much captious and fastidious of government, virtually forgetting our own individual responsibilities. And perhaps, we should not blame ourselves, because our “freedom fighters” apparently made independence seem like an end to work itself. Notwithstanding this grave mistake made during and after independence, Ghana has stood the try and test of time. We began with a fragile democracy in alacrity, which later culminated into dictatorial rule and subsequently to successive military interventions.

These major landmarks in the history of our country presented us with its own challenges and lessons. For some, as justifiable as the coup was, to “houseclean” the rots in the country, they did so not only in the face of extremism, but also ended up soiling the very hands they were using for the mass cleaning campaign! We suffered human rights abuses and our human dignity was surrendered to ridicule and public scorn. Yet, we had to endure all these hard times because we wanted to unite against a common enemy: CORRUPTION. And as if to play on the emotions of Ghanaians, all our coup-makers justified their coups with the economic hardship at the time, in the face of willful and naked corruption. And for us Ghanaians, they were the new Christ – a redeemer – because they had vouched to wipe the country off corruption and restore the fate of Israel into “holiness”. Thanks to history (pause). The battle of corruption is yet to be won. Like a blind army commander, they only succeeded in plunging Ghanaian crusade into an abyss of poverty and hopelessness.

At the cross road, we got tired and wearied. We wailed and howled in anguish for help. Fate smiled at us again; Democracy was reborn. Ghanaians got another chance to gather the pieces together, like the prodigal son, to start a new life; a new beginning in an unflinching hope, that our fortunes will soon turn around…our taps will flow with beer and our fountains, honey and milk. A new government was constituted with the same old people (or should I say changed-old-people?). Soon, we were in the moving train of democracy and the wheels of justice began grinding again. To the Promised Land, we set off. With all thanks to God, for the first time in the history of our country, we have experienced the longest relative peace (the absence of war) in strict endurance and uninterruptible government, even though we have been and continue to be saddled with some pockets of tribal conflicts.

Admittedly, things have still not changed too much for the better. We still continue to flounder in poverty and experience the beautiful ways of corruption (and indeed, the beautiful ones are not yet born), illiteracy remains virtually unchanged, hawking and kayaye are still on the increase on our streets, streetism and irresponsible parenting remains unchecked, and general living standard is still on the decline. But in a sober reflection, would we still see these problems of twenty-first century Ghana as solely the problem of inefficient leadership? And maybe, as a country, that has been our major challenge. We are quick to point accusing fingers at our leaders without the slightest recourse to admit that we have also in many ways not been good “followers”. It’s always been the problem of government but never the failure of citizens. We advertently evade tax, “burn” electricity, dishonor our financial obligations owed to the state(in the form of bills etc) and remain on-lookers in the face of naked corruption at our various work places and still have the courage to blame government. And as a country, until we come to this reality of individual responsibility, the Promised Land will continue to remain distant from us. Perhaps, erstwhile President Flt Lt J. J. Rawlings was not far from the truth: “We have never paused to quantify the huge cost of such levels of indiscipline and indiscretion and until we revive our consciousness and sense of individual responsibility and start policing each other, we will continue to build a tight economic and political noose around our neck”.

The problem of mother Ghana is a problem of social change. “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” (Sir George Bernard Shaw, 1856). We need to put on the armor of attitudinal change and live up to the responsibility for which we enjoy our rights. Government can never do it all, not even in the so-called developed economies. As a country in a gradual transition, we cannot leave the burden of development on the shoulders of few individuals, while we remain on the fence and hope that things will be better. No! America remains one of the most powerful economies in the world not only because of the arduous leadership of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln or the sagacity of President Obama. America is what it is today because of the collective effort of the individual Americans; that spirit of individual and collective responsibility.

Friends and comrades, Ghana will develop not because she bore the finest African of the 20th century; Ghana will develop not because of the leadership of President John Dramani Mahama; and Ghana will develop not because of the leadership of any president. The better Ghana you and I envisage will only come to reality when we have duly rendered our services to the state. Ghana will only develop when we have honoured our tax obligation – Ghana will develop because of our individual consciousness and responsibility towards the state.

Nation-building hinges on the individual responsibility of the people from whom the nation derives its power and wealth. As such, as Ghanaians, we must always endeavour to do something for our nation and not just sit and ask for what the nation can do for us. This statement made by President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address to the people of America should even hold more significance to us. Yes, we suffer from erratic power and water supply. But have we considered the number of times we have wasted electricity and water; the many illegal connections in our homes and the countless occasions we have skipped the payment of our bills? Yes, we are hungry but have we in awhile reflected on that moment when we looked on for an individual to milk the state cow and siphon the state’s coffers with impunity?

Friends and comrades, we must wake up to the call of dutifulness, diligence and selfless service to the course of our dear nation. Let’s free ourselves from the uncoloured business of partisan politicking (which is even sadly filled with animosity, inflammations, derogations and unsavory language) and unite along the common line of Ghanaian to spearhead the course of our dear nation for ourselves and posterity. And we can only do so, if we rekindle and ignite our consciousness and sense of individual responsibility.


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For many people who do not know University of Ghana, it is just a hub of educational pursuit and academic excellence. But for us students, it is the heart of endless exploitation at the core. If you want to understand this better, try a meal at the NIGHT MARKET.
Maybe confusing BLACK MARKET with NIGHT MARKET at your early days on campus was by no means a mere coincidence. But the truth is that, whether NIGHT or BLACK, there is an element of DARKNESS involved. And where darkness evolve, wickedness abound! This explains the deep-rooted extortion and exploitation which has engulfed the market system on campus. And perhaps, we must even consider renaming the night market because the name undoubtedly has had an adverse impact on the activities in the market. This among many others are issues, we, more often than not, dismiss with pettiness but always rain untold consequences on us.

For too long a time now, our market women have capitalized on the non-existent formal structural market mechanisms and students’ own helplessness to justify their exploitation. Otherwise, we would not buy just an emaciated tomato for good GHC1 or a wearied skinny finger of banana at 50p. How much do they buy these commodities at the local markets? The inconceivable bills charged on commodities here on campus are not only outrageous but disrespect to our local currency. Anyway, even the “graphic n times” seller complains of unhealthy cedi-dollar relationship. But whether it is the groundnut or the corn she imports, we are yet to find out, oblivious of the fact that this unnecessary price hikes contribute immensely to our national economic woes.

Again, price inconsistencies in our markets is very difficult problem to reconcile with, and a serious market issue to grapple with. Otherwise where in the world would the same commodities bear different prices at the same market? This is not only possible here on campus, but also a seemingly “normal” phenomenon. Whereas a plate of rice can only survive the consumer for a maximum of 15minutes and maybe 20sec, a ball of Accra kenkey will send you hungry momentarily. For “Fante kenkey”, the peels are worth more than the food.

Friends and comrades, on and on we can go with the “foodsody” on campus, without exhausting the litany of issues. But the question is: is it really an issue of vendors? No, far from that, it is an issue of students and an issue of authorities; university managements and SRC alike.
These are real issues affecting students but unfortunately, authorities have either turned a deaf ear or blind eye to it. And for us students, we simply cannot help it. Hear the Vice Chancellor at the just ended congregation: “The welfare and well-being of our students is at the heart of all that we do as a University, and several interventions have been introduced to ensure that our students reap the maximum benefit from the time that they spend here as students”. Really? Is it the toll booth?

The university management is very quick to recognize the tax obligation owed them by these individuals engaged in one economic activity or the other, but wittingly or unwittingly, refuse to monitor their dealings. Are not students the subjects of this unhealthy economic fortune of the University? And if so, don’t students equally deserve the right to have a share in price mechanisms in the market? University managements cannot and should not collect taxes and leave students at the mercy of sellers. No! They should also be obliged to monitor operations at these markets and where necessary, effect price legislations to protect the interests of students as well. Otherwise, they should give way to a tax-free market for us to have our peace. Students have suffered enough in the hands of these monopolists! Or somebody should remind our market women that, we are not gold-miners for God sake! And if they care to know, not all Legon students are born with silver spoon in our mouths.

I am sure the Vice Chancellor is still reconsidering his school feeding program. Many of us do not know how he intends to feed a university with a population of over 40,000, but is it not more expedient to make existing market structures more efficient to adequately cater for the food needs of students? Unless this so-called meal initiative is meant to add to the existing financial woes of students, we are not interested.

Does the SRC also see this naked exploitation as a mere economic or market phenomenon? Then, I am sorry, because, this is a first class issue of students’ welfare. Please protect the interests and welfare of students, for this is why you exist! Are we not told “mens sena in corpus sano (a sound mind rests in a sound body)”? And if students would always have to suffer in the face of this hardcore exploitation, where lay our sound minds? It’s high time we paid attention to some of these issues because they are neither petty nor funny.

We believe that if the SRC takes up the challenge to liaise with university management to better regulate economic activities on campus, it will not only go a long way to reduce students’ exploitation and extortion but also to a larger extent, create a congenial and tranquil environment needed “to ensure that our students reap the maximum benefit from the time that they spend here as students”.


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On April 22, 1962, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah made a very profound statement to a CPP study group. Hear him:
“ Fellow friends and comrades, Africa needs a new type of man, a dedicated man, modest, honest and devoted man; a man who submerges self in the service of his nation and mankind; a man who abhors greed and deter vanity; a new type of man whose meekness is his strength and whose integrity is his greatness. Africa’s new man must be a man indeed”.
Friends and comrades, I tell you today: Legon needs a new man; a new type of man. Legon’s new man must be a man indeed.

Year after year, we go through an annual ritual of electing new students’ leaders to be the standard-bearers of students’ plights, grievances and sentiments – a leader to shoulder the burden of students. Yes, burden indeed we have, because history has shown us that our leaders are the very burden we carry. We elect persons who are so much consumed with self-conceitedness; seeking their own myopic and parochial interests.

They come clad in the cloaks of the avenging angel ready to draw sword into the throat of the vice chancellor to make university education virtually free. Then comes –teasers teasing students all around campus, and flyers flying over every nook and cranny: “Selfless advocacy”, “It’s all about you” “Vim dey”, “Yes, We can”….these among many others are the usual solemn platitudes and clichés they employ to woo their prospective victims (students). At least, for the continuing students, the intentions become so clear and obvious. However, for the fresher, he brushes his eyes over the teaser in perplexity at the heat of rigorous unfinished registration process, yet with keen interest. When they (the freshers) have settled, their lecture rooms become a recapitulation of ancient Aripagus – a place of uncalled philosophies and sometimes misinformation. And for the vulnerable fresher, any of such familiar faces is a TA. But that will be by way of a familiarity tour. As may be determined by proximity and number, the teaser would either want to “chop” JCR money or that of SRC.

Indeed, VIM DEY because Selfless advocates CAN now chew chicken ties and ride in flashy cars. After all, IT’S ALL ABOUT US. Their litany of promises and policies soon draw in on impossibilities. Now at their comfort zone, they carefully accumulate our dimes to pounds and soon turn untouchables. This has been the synopsis of leadership we have witnessed and experienced year after year. This black-leadership attitude has sublimed students into a seemingly unrecoverable apathy. The rituality of such experiences has made students grow even more apathetic towards issues bordering on students’ leadership. For some, they are simply not interested in politics, period! But believe it or not, “anyone who says he is not interested in politics is like a drowning man who insists he is not interested in water” (Mahatma Gandhi). The startling truth is that whether we are interested in politics or not, we are always “the suffering grass”. Our apathy will end up not only breeding and nurturing corrupt leaders for our dear nation but also intensify perpetration of corrupt practices in perpetuity. Friends and comrades, the earlier we wake-up to the occasion to nip corruption in the bud, the better.

As to whether or not the reader recognizes the intensity of corruption and the degree of financial malfeasance which has plagued students’ leadership today is not the aim of this piece. No! General failure in students’ leadership however, remains paramount to this discussion and a critical issue of major concern. To this extent, our preoccupation is rather to ignite students’ interest in issues bordering on them and to revive students’ consciousness generally. And maybe Eric Arthur Blair, aka, George Orwell (the author of the famous dystopian and political allegorical novella ‘Animal Farm’, 1945) was not far from the truth: “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men”. “Our politics”, the thoughtful Umair Haque opines “has produced many winners but not enough leaders”, Friends and comrades, this has been the trend and generation of leadership we experience even in our country today. Year in, year out, we are coaxed to vote against our will, begrudgingly we do but only end up electing winners than leaders. The paradoxes of this can though be measured only in performance; the truth is that our leaders have failed us big time!

Friends and comrades, we have borne the patience of braggarts and their smooth talk. “I don’t tolerate liars. When somebody lies to me, that’s really like just unbearable” (John Lydon). Enough is enough! We now call for a new man; a new type of man. A man who will walk his talk, a man who asks the right questions and stay through to the end even when hounded by critics for his insistence; a man who will be “ our ambassador without kente, a foreign minister without frills, the plenipotentiary without pleasantries and a brand ambassador without budget ”. Legon’s new man must inspire us become better versions of ourselves. Legon’s new man must walk his talk. Legon’s new man must hit the ground running. Legon’s new man must be consumed with selflessness. Legon’s new man must abhor greed in all intents and purposes.
Friends and comrades, we need leaders who can stop the chameleon GPAs from changing grades; a leader who can close the chapter on the indifferent GPA which is quick to condemn our failure yet turtle-moves to appreciate our effort; a leader who will see to the end of the ‘unintended holidays’ of incessant power outages; a leader who will settle peace with the erratic water supply which make our bathhouses smell foul and our bodies, choky; a leader who will improve the forgetful MIS WEB which deletes a dropped course today and restores it as Resit the next day….we need, we need! These are what we need and not passive bus stops or purposeless, yet dud SRC week celebrations for which we cannot even account.

The issue of GPA is an untold story of a graduate who but for the indifference of the GPA could have gone home with a better class. GPA is not “jollof rice” but deny it or not, no employer will easily handpick a Pass graduate over a First class graduate. And those who dismiss this claim with a wave of hand that Legon students are lazy are not only cruel and vile but also by far insensitive. Legon students sleep and dine in the 24 hour reading room just to understand what the confused lecturer cannot explain himself and you still call them lazy?

Established in 1948, the university has always lived under the mercies of Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG), bringing into question how visionary and proactive the think-tanks seated around the decision-making table of the University Council have been. To think of how short-sighted the university has been to envisage something like a ‘constant variable’ lends itself to further questions. And since yesteryears, we have been silenced with the excuse of an unending feasibility study on plants installation. We are fed up! Let there be light! As normal and usual blackouts have been made to seem, the worse can always happen. We recall with deep sympathy the incident of the student who was attacked at the school of nursing during one of these blackouts. We say, “Get well soon”. We also recall with deep regrets an incident of a student who could have met her untimely death simply because she could not cook as a result of the intermittent power supply. She had to contend with the ever teeming crowd at the Night Market competing for food. Unable to further endure the hunger, she passed out. In this very scenario, the worse could have happened. But thank God she only passed ‘out’ and not ‘on’. Over and over again, lectures have been called off because of power outages. We have enjoyed enough of these “unintended holidays” of blackouts. How??? Is it that we cannot afford alternative power supply in our lecture theatres too? What a pity!

As if this is not enough, water, a basic element of life has also assumed an economic model of a luxury. It is sad to record that some halls would have to do without water flowing for days. For how long will our bathhouses stink and our bodies smell foul and choky? For how long will our water closets get filled up with the abuse of shit-on-shit (SOS), and carry the foul stench to our already unventilated rooms. Making University of Ghana a world-class institution neither begins with the institution of a Collegiate System nor making the roads asphalt! No, far from that! Provision of such basic necessities as water, shelter and a better lighting system is rudimentary. Let’s get our priorities right!

It is not as if authority is unaware of these happenings. No! They know as much as we do. We only need a man; a new type of a man who can stand against all odds and ends, in selfless dedication to the common good and interest of the people to ensure that the right things are done and the sacrifices of parents for their children are duly reciprocated. We need leaders who will submerge their self-interest in the service of this community; leaders who will resent and abhor greed and vanity; a new type of man whose meekness is his strength and whose integrity, his greatness.
Friends and comrades, Legon’s new man must be a man indeed!

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