26 Feb 2005All dayCRASSH


Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) is both a central figure in the history of social anthropology and a focus of continuing interest. Current interest centres mainly on his later work, on the gift, and secondarily, the body and the person. Work on the gift – in a phrase – plays around the problem of the limits of notions of calculation and equivalence as a basis of social intelligibility or explanation, expressed in economic, political or theological terms. This issue also plays back in some of the current anthropological reworking of the topic of the gift. A recurrent question in all these materials is how much is Mauss responsible for the ideas and developments attributed to him.

Mauss's earlier work, on such topics as sacrifice, magic, classification and time, was part of an attempt to found the basis for the sociological study of religion. This work is less referred to in critical or contemporary writings, though still cited approvingly in historical approaches. Its potential interest might be put in this way. The study of religion is at present both unsatisfactory and underdeveloped; it lacks any theoretically sophisticated basis. This failure is striking in the present context, post 9/11 etc., where there is a need for a sound basis for, for example, interfaith discussions, and yet such a basis is quite lacking. Given the productive nature of Mauss's later works, it is worth exploring whether his earlier work has a similar potential to contribute to such a basis.
The workshop:

This is the context of our proposal, which is more focussed in scope. There has been a small but growing industry in Mauss's intellectual history. This includes the recent English translation (2003) of Mauss's unfinished thesis On Prayer. A few examples of this were printed in 1909, but it was unavailable until included in his Oeuvres (ed. Karady) in 1968, and has been little studied. We would like to put together a day workshop to study this text (which is around 100 pages long).

Its interest is that it lies between the two bodies of work identified above; it deals in a complex topic in the study of religion which is rarely studied, and it approaches the problem principally through considerations of method. That is its narrow focus. It is indeed Mauss's longest text on method, and as such provides considerable insight into what we might call the generative power of the later texts, and may therefore help us think productively about the study of religion. That is its wider focus.

We aim to draw together a small group of theologians and social scientists (around a dozen) who are interested in Mauss and his ideas, who would be prepared to read the text in advance (we would hope to provide copies), and to meet for a day to discuss their readings. We would also look for, say, 2,000 words of response, to be circulated prior to meeting, so as to help give a structure on the day to the topics discussed. 


Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk