Like many members of Année Sociologique Mauss was attracted to socialism, particularly that espoused by Jean Jaurès. He was particularly active in the events of the Dreyfus affair and towards the end of the century he helped edit such left-wing papers as le Populaire, l'Humanité and le Mouvement Socialiste, the last in collaboration with Georges Sorel.
Mauss took up a chair in the 'history of religion and uncivilized peoples' at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in 1901. It was at this time that he began drawing more and more on ethnography, and his work began increasingly to look like what we would today call anthropology.
The years of World War I were absolutely devastating for Mauss. Many of his friends and colleagues died in the war, and Durkheim died shortly before its end. The postwar years were also difficult politically for Mauss. Durkheim had made changes to school curricula across France, and after his death a backlash against his students began. Like many other followers of Durkheim, Mauss took refuge in administration, securing Durkheim's legacy by founding institutions such as l'Institut Français de Sociologie (1924) and l'Institut d'Ethnologie in 1926. In 1931 he took up the chair of Sociology at the Collège de France. He actively fought against anti-semitism and racial politics both before and after World War II. He died in 1950.
An important notion in Mauss' conceptualisation of gift exchange is what Gregory (1982, 1997) refers to as "inalienability". In a commodity economy there is a strong distinction between objects and persons through the notion of private property. Objects are sold, meaning that the ownership rights are fully transferred to the new owner. The object has thereby become "alienated" from its original owner. In a gift economy, however, the objects that are given are inalienated from the givers; they are "loaned rather than sold and ceded". It is the fact that the identity of the giver is invariably bound up with the object given that causes the gift to have a power which compels the recipient to reciprocate. Because gifts are inalienable they must be returned; the act of giving creates a gift-debt that has to be repaid. Gift exchange therefore leads to a mutual interdependence between giver and receiver. According to Mauss, the "free" gift that is not returned is a contradiction because it cannot create social ties. Following the Durkheimian quest for understanding social cohesion through the concept of solidarity, Mauss's argument is that solidarity is achieved through the social bonds created by gift exchange.
Another example of a non-reciprocal "free" gift is provided by James Laidlaw (2000). He describes the social context of Indian Jain renouncers, a group of itinerant celibate renouncers living an ascetic life of spiritual purification and salvation. The principle of non-violence influences the diet of Jain renouncers and compels them to avoid preparing food as this could potentially involve violence against microscopic organisms. Since Jain renouncers do not work, they rely on food donations from lay families within the Jain community. However, the former must not appear to be having any wants or desires, and only very hesitantly and apologetically receive the food prepared by the latter. Laidlaw describes how the renouncers produce litanies of refusal when receiving the food and never show thankfulness or appreciation for it. In order not to appear as beggars, they visit families at random, attempting not to create relationships with a family by returning there regularly. What is given is not considered a gift by either donors or receivers, and since appearing as having any wants would spoil the Jain renouncer's spiritual purity there absolutely must not be anything given in return. Consequently, what Jain renouncers receive is supposed to be a spontaneous free gift without any strings attached, and the elaborate culturally constructed process surrounding this procedure is meant to ensure that this is what happens.
In his argumentation, Laidlaw employs Derrida's four criteria for a "free gift":
Laidlaw argues that food donations received by Jain renouncers fulfil all four criteria. They are a non-reciprocated free gift, although they aren't a very altruistic one since such donations are the "paradigmatic religious good deed" (punya), and the local lay families are very eager to make them regularly.
Laidlaw's example poses a further challenge to Mauss's definition of the gift. The gift itself is alienated from the original owner in two ways: first, it is given without any expectation to receive it or an equivalent object in return; second, what is given is not of permanence. Cooking something for another person may or may not create obligations, but since the object given is necessarily consumed in the process it becomes questionable whether there remains an "indissoluble bond of a thing with its original owner" (Gregory, 1982:18). Similarly, money given to beggars in a context where giver and receiver are aliens (as in Testart's example) appears to be fully alienated from the former, particularly since money - in contrast to other objects - often (albeit not always) has no inherent personal qualities.
"Free" gifts therefore challenge all three aspects of the Maussian notion of the gift: it can be questioned whether
Like many prominent French academics, Mauss did not train a great number of students. Nonetheless, many anthropologists claim to have followed in his footsteps, most notably Claude Lévi-Strauss. The essay on The Gift is the origin for anthropological studies of reciprocity. His analysis of the Potlatch has inspired Georges Bataille (The Accursed Share); then the situationists (the name of the first situationist journal was "Potlatch"); and has been used by many interested in gift economies and Open Source software, although this latter use sometimes differs from Mauss's original formulation. See also Hyde's revolutionary critique of Mauss in "Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property".