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1 From the publication of Essai sur le don (The Gift) and an important collection of texts in the 1920s and 1930s, Marcel Mauss attempted to highlight the major role played by what he calls “division according to sex” in polysegmentary societies. [1] To date, this aspect of his thought does not seem to have had the attention it deserves, given the incontestable importance that Mauss himself attached to it. In 1931, just after he had become a professor at the Collège de France, he did not hesitate to declare solemnly in front of his colleagues from the Institute of Sociology: “Division according to sex is a fundamental division of great importance in all societies to a degree that we may not suspect. Our sociology is much weaker than it should be when addressing this point. All that we can say to our students, particularly to those who might do field work, is that we have only been doing the sociology of men, and not that of women or of both sexes.” [2]

2 This article aims to understand the import of this phrase and to place it in context. My claim is that it not only represents a major rupture with evolutionist theories regarding the place of women in archaic societies, but more profoundly, radically questions the Durkheimian notion of the “sexual division of labor,” opening up a truly original approach to sexual division in all societies. In order to argue this claim, I propose first to give a brief review of Durkheim’s theories of the division of the sexes (I) before analyzing the Maussian rupture in detail (II). Finally, I will attempt to examine the notion of “division according to sex” by situating it in a consideration of Mauss’s social “totality” (III).

3 My object in doing this is not so much to illuminate a historical point in sociology as to extend recent studies that have attempted to understand the originality of a powerfully innovative work. I also to strive to share the conviction with readers that the Maussian sociology of symbolism and institution, along with “division according to sex,” offers social sciences a valuable tool that can be fruitfully extended and reworked today. [3]

I.?Durkheim, Evolutionism, and the Sexual Division of Labor

4 Issues concerning the sexes did not appear in the social sciences only with the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s. It was a great concern of nineteenth-century anthropology. As E. E. Evans, the famous author of The Nuer, stated genially at a lecture he gave in 1955, relations between the sexes was “one of the favorite preoccupations” of what he called the Victorian anthropologists: “In fact religion was the only rival for the interest of these unbelieving puritans.” [4] However, this quip aside, Evans-Pritchard knew well that the reason that the first anthropologists were so passionate about the question of the sexes lay in their whole theoretical approach. Speculative evolutionism dominated the anthropological enterprise, and there is no doubt that when the challenge is to understand the totality of human development, relations between the sexes must be a prime concern. A fuller understanding of this debate completely overturns the usual perspectives. While there is a loose tendency today to think that before the feminist challenges of 1960–1970, a “naturalist” ideology inscribed the division of the sexes within a stable order of things and the sanctity of nature, we discover an absolutely opposite concept within the evolutionary perspective, which gives meaning to that difference and tries to justify it.

5 In fact, contrary to the image formed retrospectively, the concept that dominated the first forms of anthropology was not based on a view of nature as unsurpassable nor of sexual difference as immutable. Quite the opposite, evolutionary theories presented the exquisite difference between the sexes as a triumph of humanity, one of the surest signs of a long road that had led from the animality of the savage to the urbanity of civilized man. Evans-Pritchard, as recalled in the introduction to his lecture, makes a scathing criticism of the crudity of the first anthropological schemas:


Evidently, since man descended from an ape-like ancestor, at some point, his sexual life must also have been ape-like and the task of anthropologists was to show what place the cave monkey held in relation to Victorian salons. We could speculate on the early stages of this development, but the general line was clear, as the end points were determined: the monkey and the Victorian “lady.” There were Atkinson’s hordes, Bachofen’s hetairism, McLennan’s infanticidal stock groups, Morgan and Sir John Lubbock’s primitive promiscuity and syndiasmic groups, etc. [5]

7 It is easy to agree that Evans-Pritchard’s presentation of evolutionism is both summary and polemic. He is trying above all to highlight an aspect of the problem that is particularly close to his heart, the alliance, in fact, that anthropology, in its early stages, made between a priori speculation and internal issues in Western culture. Like philosophical theory, evolutionism projected a purely speculative schema onto social reality, which positioned civilized societies and the rational spirit as the end stage of a process in which “primitive” societies reflected an earlier, prelogical state, that is, the developed mind in its infancy.

8 This schema also had its cultural and political uses. For bourgeois conservatives, convinced of the superiority of the refined elite and horrified by the vulgar masses, these societies were the perfect foil: a quasi-bestial state to which we were always threatened to return. For progressives who—like Engels—used it “with their eyes fixed on the changes they wanted to bring about in their own institutions,” they were the image of man’s original oppression, which, from their silent place in the distant past, reflected the sense of history leading to a bright future. [6] With much more ease, as they worked secondhand on the writings of travelers and missionaries, Victorian anthropologists made selections from various facts in such a way as to discredit what they were contesting.

9 In any case, what disgusts Evans-Pritchard is the shameless instrumentalization of “primitive” societies and in particular the women in these societies. Judged on the basis of unquestioned values, they were invariably described as the very image of the subhuman:


Theorists of the Victorian era, including Herbert Spencer, admitted generally that in primitive societies women were goods to be bought and sold, treated like a slaves or even animals, worthy of neither sympathy nor respect. It was thought that relationships between the sexes barely surpassed those of beasts, and that marriage, as we understand it, did not exist. Too often these highly subjective judgments rested on very fragmented narratives and models that were scarcely more arbitrary than our own feelings. [7]

11 In 1955, Evans-Pritchard contrasts this type of projection with the fieldwork done by later ethnographers who took great pains, as he did, to observe societies in a methodical manner, and did not begin from a position of disdain:


The most authoritative studies of primitive peoples, in recent years, have tended to focus on the influence of women, their ability to defend themselves, on the esteem in which they are held, and the importance of their role in social life. [8]

13 Evans-Pritchard hastens to add, however, that this is not a question of developing an opposing bias. The real question for a scientific mind, is above all to move away from prejudicial assumptions, what we would now call ethnocentrism, and to try to understand these societies within their own specific sphere, at the heart of a common humanity:


The most pertinent question is no longer the superiority or inferiority of women in primitive societies, relative to our own society. If we inquire into the varied differences in the female condition, it is reasonable to expect that we would find things of interest in primitive societies and in our own. [9]

15 However, this comparison, which he outlines over several points, is much more complex than one might think, and for an important reason. Evans-Pritchard’s whole approach (inherited from the holistic approach of the French school of sociology) stresses that it is impossible to understand relationships between the sexes in a culture if they are isolated from the global context which gives them meaning. It is necessary, he states, to “compare many other aspects of these cultures and societies themselves.” [10]

16 In this way, the author of The Nuer outlines what is essential for him. For him, the philosophy of speculative evolutionism is not only an erroneous theory, but also a counterpoise to his own construction of the ethnographic enterprise, namely, the empirical and comparative method that is at the centre of social anthropology. This is a difficult comparison to make and it can only proceed from a prior recognition of the way in which other societies live and give meaning to their social relationships.

17 This allows us to begin to better understand Mauss’s phrase cited in the introduction. If he is able to say, in 1931, that sociologists had only done “the sociology of men,” it was not only because they only studied women to a small extent, though that is perfectly true. It is primarily because they had not understood the importance of division according to sex in polysegmentary societies. Everything from the legacy of evolutionism pushed them to perceive the development of societies as something that led from simple to complex, disorganized to organized, and to approach division according to sex as a triumph of civilization over original promiscuity. They had not weighed the importance of division according to sex in these societies because they never imagined that there could be a way of formalizing sex distinction other than the way it was practiced in their own culture. They thought “lesser” when they needed to think “differently.” But in order to think differently, they, in their turn, needed to learn from the societies that they observed, to unsettle their deepest certainties and to make a leap of imagination from their own social design to think differently about human universality. It took Mauss a long time to make this leap and it took the constant nourishment of a learned and passionate encounter with ethnographic works to bring it about. To gauge the importance of this, we need to revisit the early work of the French school of sociology and to recall briefly Durkheim’s theorization of sex issues.

Durkheim and the Small Brain of Parisians

18 Durkheim’s position on evolutionism is extremely complex and it is not the aim of this article to analyze it here. [11] We will only review the part that has a direct bearing on our subject: the question of sexual division. We know that he takes up the concept of the primitive horde, developed by Morgan in Ancient Societies, and propounds the disorganized or “amorphous” character of clans as constituting the first forms of human society. In this sense he evokes, in the celebrated article on “The Conjugal Family”, the “primitive communism” that reigns among humans when, in the clan body, they do not make a relative distinction between their goods, functions or statuses:


Originally, this extends to all kinship relationships; all kin live together and share their possessions in common. But as soon as these amorphous masses begin to dissolve, as soon as secondary zones appear, “communism” recedes and is re-concentrated in the primary or central zones. When the patriarchal family emerges from the clan, “communism” ceases to be the basis of clan life; when the agnatic family disengages from the patriarchal family, “communism” ceases to be the basis of the agnatic family. In the end, it is concentrated just within the small circle of the nuclear family.” [12]

20 It is easy now to criticize this schema of evolution, because everyone knows that it is wrong. Conversely, we have become less aware of how original this hypothesis was when it was first proposed. It broke with the modern Western concept that saw the small nuclear family as the first and therefore the “most natural” of all societies. Consider Rousseau’s Social Contract, Portalis’s Discours préliminaire au projet de Code civil…. In terms of this myth of origins, Morgan’s concept of the primitive horde presents a more or less plausible alternative to a vision of the passage of prehominid to hominid to human beings. In addition, from a humanist perspective, this concept traced a point between “us” and “them,” namely savages who did not (or did not always) live in nuclear families. Finally and most importantly, this approach is of intellectual interest, outside of the evolutionary schema. It completely inverted the perspective for understanding the transformation of societies. Instead of thinking of their process of formation as an agglomeration of preexisting atoms (one individual, then another, then another…) and their size as the consequence of the progressive joining of small, dispersed groups, it postulated the opposite, that is, processes of internal differentiation. This change completely overturned the perspective on social relationships. If one stays with the perspective of a diachronic evolutionism, all human history appears to be, in effect, a series of differentiations, a passage from simple to complex, disorganized to organized. But if one adopts a synchronic viewpoint, it becomes possible to compare, not so much successive states of “human society,” but types of society according to their specific modes of organization. The strength and the limit of Durkheim’s work lies in the tension between these two approaches. [13]

21 With respect to the question that occupies us here, however, that of sexual difference, Durkheim never seems to have broken with the evolutionary schema. Taking as a reference point Durkheimian thought as expressed in the single work The Division of Labor in Society, we know that he contrasts two models of societies that he presents as succeeding one another. There are those that function via sameness and via “mechanical solidarity,” and those function via differentiation, by “organic solidarity.” [14] The first model is the original and gives rise to the second, which it pre-empts. But from the beginning of the book, Durkheim makes the sexual division of labor and the advent of conjugal society, with marriage as its institutional translation, the paradigm of the relationship between the division of labor and the emergence of a new form of society.

22 He explains that, contrary to received wisdom, men and women desire and form relationships with one another not because they are naturally different but because the sexual division of labor has made them each of them specialized in complementary roles. This is a division that, through basing division on greater and greater generalizations of qualities, supports their desire for union and leads to the emergence of conjugal solidarity. In fact, sexual division is “more or less flexible: it can rest on organic and secondary sexual differences or in contrast it can extend to all organic and social functions.” [15] In this respect, the complementarity of the sexes as we perceive it is not a constant, Durkheim suggests, but is rather a product of the particular history of the sexual division of labor: “The more we look to the past, the more it reduces little by little.” [16] To outline the path taken, Durkheim traces the overarching traits of evolution that lead us from the earliest times of prehistory to today.

23 “Primitive homogeneity” reigned at the origin of the human species, marked by a quasi lack of distinction between masculine and feminine. In this first epoch, sexual division was reduced to it simplest expression (probably copulation, birth, and breast feeding). Aside from this organic level, men and women went about their own business, without any distinction between them, and there was thus no specific solidarity between them: “It is highly probable, although it cannot be completely proven, that there was an epoch in family history when there was no marriage. Sexual relationships were entered into and broken off without couples being bound by any legal obligations.” [17]

24 Then a second phase appeared, less conjectural, because in this case it emerged from known societies. For a long time “feminine roles were not distinguished neatly from masculine roles […] the two sexes led more or less the same type of existence.” [18] Durkheim gives examples, citing “savage peoples” where women “take part in political life” and take an active part in warfare. This leads him to note in passing that “gentleness, one of the attributes that we now think of as being distinctive to women, does not seem to have been part of their makeup originally.” [19]

25 In these societies “marriage was a very basic state.” The maternal family, a model that is “relatively recent” is nothing but “the indistinct seed of marriage.” Although it defines a wife’s responsibilities with regard to children, and the husband’s responsibilities towards his partner’s parents, in contrast, the couple’s mutual obligations “are very loose.” In these maternal societies, conjugal solidarity is very weak, even when sex roles are differentiated.

26 Finally, “insofar as we advance towards modern times,” the sexual division of labor increases. Women retire from warfare and public affairs; their life is concentrated within the family and also becomes more specialized. The major effect of this evolution, for Durkheim, is the emergence and then the concentration of a specific solidarity between the sexes: this is the birth of “conjugal society,” established by marriage. The end result is well known. “Today, among cultured peoples, women lead a completely different existence to men,” and these different forms of existence shape their respective psyches. [20] It appears, stresses Durkheim, as if the sexual division of labor has dissociated the two major functions of psychic life: “One of the sexes has taken over emotional functions and the other intellectual functions.” [21]

27 Thus, Durkheim presents the contrast between these two types of relationships between the sexes as being the exemplum of the evolution of entire societies. As they have two ways of relating to each other, sameness and division, there are two sorts of societies: those that function by “like attracts like” (the woman still has a quasi-resemblance to the man) and by “mechanical solidarity,” and other societies that have seen the emergence of a division of labor and an organic “solidarity” between differentiated members.

28 There is an irrefutable record attesting to the truth of this hypothesis concerning the progressive division of the sexes, and that is the morphology of the body. In the period of primitive homogeneity and the rule of sameness, skeletons were almost identical. He writes, “Women of those past times were not the weak creatures they have become with the progress of morality. Prehistorical bones show that the difference between women and men was much smaller than it is today.” [22]

29 However, the most remarkable sign of the progress of civilization is the progressive differentiation in brain size dependent on the sexual division of labor and the specialization of functions. The man’s brain, devoted to the exercise of the intellect, has not ceased to grow, while the woman’s brain has shrunk a little, in relation to the degree to which she has adapted to take on emotional functions, “so that from the point of view of brain mass and, in consequence, intelligence, women tend to become differentiated more and more from men.” [23] Conscious here of scientific mathematics, Durkheim cites at length a work on anthropometry: “The difference that exists, for example, between the skulls of contemporary Parisian men and Parisian women is almost double that observed between the skulls of the men and women of ancient Egypt.” [24]

30 And Paris, seen through the scientific spectacles of anthropometry, confirmed this advanced point about human evolution: “Although the average skull of the Parisian male ranges among the largest known skulls, the average Parisian woman’s skull was one of the smallest observed, much smaller than the skulls of the Chinese and barely larger than those of women from New Caledonia.” [25]

II.?The Maussian Rupture: From the Specialization of Tasks to the Rule of Division

31 We can now try to fully assess Mauss’s phrase, situating it in terms of his own intellectual journey. While conserving the idea that social life is formed by differentiation and not agglomeration, it implies a major rupture with the evolutionist conception of original amorphism and brings in a new way of viewing polysegmentary societies, in that division according to sex, rather than being absent, is even more marked than in our own societies. While maintaining a comparative approach, it involved cultivating the ability to take in the facts recorded by the ethnographic study (even though incomplete) and then to conceive that this division might be other than it is in our society, without Western culture’s central focus on the couple and marriage. In involved, finally, developing another approach to symbolization, of going beyond the opposition of mechanical cohesion “from without” and mental cohesion “from within,” and thinking differently about the role of the institution in all societies. Based on these three approaches, the question of the sexes presents then a major challenge while also being exceptionally insightful.

From an Original Error to a Reversal

32 In 1931, Mauss was no longer a disciple of Durkheim, even if he made a point of honor of never mentioning it. He was heir to a theoretical approach, but he broke away from it in ways that we are only gauging the importance of now. He recalled, in the same lecture, that he found it difficult to call into question the theory of an original lack of differentiation of societies:


We all started with a more or less romantic idea of the original root of society: the total amorphism of the horde, then the clan; the communism that arose from those. It has taken several decades, perhaps, to rid ourselves, to a large degree, of these ideas. [26]

34 Why was it so difficult? In a text published in 1927, Mauss laid everything out with a subtlety and reverence that he always expressed regarding his predecessors and teachers:


It was an error of genius on Morgan’s part to have believed the finding concerning the horde of blood relations. It is a claim made by Durkheim and, from our point of view, a necessary assumption, to suppose that all societies originated from amorphous societies. [27]

36 These contradictory expressions, error of genius and necessary assumption, do not simply reveal scrupulous faithfulness to the original. They also indicate the difficulty of retaining what was so brilliant, namely, the idea that the “totality” that forms society is the product of differentiation and not agglomeration, and at the same time breaking with the unitary evolutionary schema as well with the general idea of social differentiation itself. For this, it needs to be said that archaic societies are not based on sameness or on the undifferentiated masses of mechanical solidarity. That is the overarching lesson of ethnographic research, which opposes facts to speculation. It leads Mauss to overturn his perspective on clans, and it forms the central concern of the 1931 lecture, as well as his writing and lectures in that period. [28] Polysegmentary societies are themselves based on division, or to put it another way, they are organized and not “amorphous.” Mauss writes, “What needs to be seen is what is organized in social segments, and how the internal organization of these segments, along with the general organization of these segments among themselves, constitute the general life of that society.” [29]

37 Within this general form of organization, sexualized division, far from being absent, is one of the foremost forms of division. [30] Mauss goes further, and indicates that not only do these societies divide the sexes, but they also divide them in a more pertinent and marked fashion than we do. This time the rupture with Durkheim is total:


There is an extremely pronounced division between the sexes: technical division of labor, economic division of goods, social division within the society, division between men and women (Nigritia, Micronesia), secret societies, ranks of women (NW American, Pueblos), of authority, of social cohesion. [31]

39 Once this division which sociological thought, haunted by evolutionism, could not apprehend, becomes plain to see as revealed by ethnographic research, we can understand why Mauss regretted not pushing for a decisive investigation. The “sociology of men” is not simply a way of leaving half of humanity to one side; it is the sign of something absolutely fundamental to social relationships themselves, which is not as yet understood fully. Mauss expected these advances in sociology as a whole to come from observation and fieldwork.

Freeing Sociology from its own Sociocentrism

40 However, if Mauss regrets that “our sociology is much weaker than it should be,” he himself sets an initial course. Understanding the importance of division according to sex in polysegmentary societies involves freeing it from a representation of division too closely allied to our own state-led societies and our conceptions of the family. Division needs to be thought about differently. How does he present division in this lecture and more widely in his later texts?

41 To divide is to bind: this is the apparent paradox that Durkheim made the center of The Division of Labor in Society. Citing Aristotle in the epigraph, Durkheim brought his own reflections under the aegis of Politics: “A city is not made up of similar people. It is something other than a simple summachia (military alliance).” [32] But his concept of division was not particularly Aristotelian. While, for Aristotle, what distinguishes and binds members of the same city is the principle of reciprocity, particularly between those who have a shared vision, Durkheim was looking for this division independently of all volition, from all intentionality. He found it in a natural order of causality, that of the division of labor in society. This was the sense in which he talked about the late emergence of “conjugal society” with its sexualized specialization of tasks, a conjugal society whose visible trace was the appearance and then the consolidation of marriage, as soon as societies fixed forms of exchange (once they had stabilized) that came out of a process whose nature eluded them, because they were imposed by the very movement of evolution.

42 Conversely, the absence or weakness of marriage (compared to the Western model) became the indirect but “scientific” proof of the nonexistence of a division according to sex in societies with similar members. However, this vision conflated two things: the institution of the division/relation of the sexes in general and one of its potential but effectively distinct forms, the conjugal bond. One can see how these forms of sociocentrism (Western marriage as a criterion for all marriage, other forms of alliance being seen as “lesser”), reductionism (marriage as the only institution joining differentiated sexes), and dualism (on the one hand the division of labor, on the other the institution that “symbolizes” and reinforces it) all go together.

43 In 1931, Mauss is not content just to see “more” where Durkheim had seen “less”: the leap that he makes consists first in enlarging the whole perspective, in not allowing himself to be guided by just one criterion. He is able to see the division/bond between the sexes in greater detail when he ceases to link it to a single institution. It can be noted, in effect, that division according to sex does not privilege any one institution. [33] Far from having a center, it is multiple and global: it crosses kinship bonds, clan affiliation, social rank, forms of educational, initiation rituals, religious practices, secret societies, chiefdoms, forms of ownership…. Finally, for him, the division of tasks does not occupy a special place that forms the foundation of everything else. It is one modality among other forms of distinction between the sexes. This forms the transition from a conjugal vision to a societal vision of the division/bond between the sexes.

44 Whereas, for Durkheim, the sexes were at the same time both individual (a man/a woman united in marriage) and abstract (“man,” “woman” in general, each endowed with their own psychological predispositions that were both different and complementary, linked to the global division of labor), Mauss does not employ either the single or the general form of individuality. He employs the plural form of concrete life: women, men. This plural in turn refers to different types of established relationships, which are not to be confused. He stresses that these relationships are multiple and intertwined: each man, each woman is simultaneously involved in multiple statuses and in multiple forms of reciprocity, which may overlap but not converge entirely. [34] Being designated a woman is not the same thing as being designated a daughter, a sister, mother, mother-in-law, or a member of a secret society, or a novice, or the holder of a certain role in a funeral rite. The multiplicity of the possible applications of division according to sex, even within the general assembly of social relationships (which I understand to be the meaning of “to a degree that we may not suspect”) is the source of a particular form of social cohesion in polysegmentary societies, which is different from our own societies, and it is in this sense that it plays a fundamental role.

45 It is a given that the “division according to sex” that Mauss talks about to highlight its importance in polysegmentary societies, is not simply understood or noted as being the same as that envisioned by Durkheim when referring to conjugal solidarity and the division of labor. It is other than that. However, in order to perceive this difference, Mauss needed to break deeply and decisively with the Durkheimian approach to social life in general. We have said earlier that he did not accord a special status to the division of labor according to sex, even in the general sense of “duties.” It was this that he saw from a fresh perspective. When speaking of the “sexual division of labor,” Durkheim understood it to be a division that applies to the sexes. For his part, Mauss employs an entirely different expression: “division according to sex.” Neither the word “sex” nor “division” retains the same meaning. We will now go on to outline how Mauss moved on, borrowing from Wittgenstein’s terminology, from the order of causes to the order of reasons.

III.?From Causes to Reasons: The Notion of “Division According to Sex”

46 In his great but now little-known work Fragment d’un plan de sociologie générale descriptive (1934), Mauss indicates what he understands by “society”: “A society is a group of people sufficiently permanent and large enough to cluster enough sub-groups and living generations—in the main—on a given territory […] around a (generally) independent and always determined constitution.” [35]

47 The essential word here is constitution, taken in its widest sense. A society, in Mauss’s particular sense, is not a “whole” simply because it shares the same territory (which is not always the case), nor because its member are “objectively” mutually dependent, one on another, in respect of vital needs. It is a “whole” because it sees itself as such and because it wants to be so. To put it another way:


A society defines itself (…) by its name, its boundaries, its rights, which it gives to itself and its land (…) by its will to be, by its internal cohesion, by drawing a limit between those named “us” and those called “them,” strangers, barbarians, helots and foreigners even though they might call themselves “men,” patriarchs, eupatrides (…). The idea of totality is expressed first of all in this name, which we come to speak about, which society gives itself (not which is given to it—that is more or less inexact) and by the very acute sense of community that it forms. The idea of common descent as a form of myth. [36]

49 We find this in Aristotle, the distinction that he makes in Politics between community (koinonia), of which the city is an example, and a simple tactical alliance, a military alliance (summachia) for example. Even though those who are bound by summachia do not form a community, because their alliance is only conjectural and limited to a particular end but specifically in the respect to which they are “similar,” the “totality” of a city as a form of community is first constructed by the perception it has of itself, that is, as a common form of life “in pursuit of a specific goal.” This view of itself, which is always partly inherited, is situated in time via the institutions of shared life, in the form of exchanges, of multiple bonds that are both reciprocal and hierarchical. Mauss, inspired by this political definition of the city, nevertheless adds something innovative by enlarging the analytical perspective to include the whole of social life, beyond the diversity of societies. What sets this perspective apart from that of the Ancients, is the way in which it considers a humanist universalism to be constitutive of the sociological enterprise. Even though in Athens barbarians are “the other,” Mauss evidently thinks in universal and distanciated terms: all societies consider others as “the other,” at risk of being furnished with all the stigmata of subhumanity. Needless to say, in 1934, he could also say this with a hint of irony.

50 In order to clearly understand the “division according to sex” in Mauss, it is important to seen how this conception of “totality” extends and surpasses the analysis in The Division of Labor in Society. When Durkheim made the division of labor the source of “organic” social solidarity, he analyzed it according to natural science methods, because he defined the division of labor as a natural process, that is, one that is subordinate to causality in the physical world. He was defining the cause of the division: “the volume” and the increasing “density” of societies, [37] producing “a struggle for a more fulfilling life,” [38] producing in its turn a “specialization,” [39] a “need for cooperation” [40] and a “greater independence of individuals in relation to the group.” [41] The law was presented as that which translates the new forms of social exchange and the modes of psychic life arising these processes and contributing to their stabilization. From this perspective, as Camille Tarot stresses, there was a tension between two visions of societies, observed “from the outside,” from the side of causes and functions, and “from the inside,” from the side of mental states and collective consciousness. [42] The institution was framed as both a “product” and an “agent” of social life. Marriage, then, was product and agent of the division/solidarity of both sexes in distinct and complementary roles.

51 The question of the sexes allows us to understand the leap that Mauss makes. He is not looking to outline what divided and connected men and women in an order of causality by observing their activities “from the outside” like a physicist observes a mechanism or a biologist regards cell division. While he perceives the strength of sex-specific division in polysegmentary societies, this does not mean that he understands it to be a “natural” division, in the sense that it could be explained by causal processes independent of the meaning conferred on it.

52 For him, the word “division” designated, above all, an operation or series of operations. In this operation of division, produced by institutions in ways that were perpetuated and changed over history, sex is one of its modalities. Division according to sex is not at all the same as dividing the sexes. In the second case, social life would simply be gifted to two biological groups, men and women, preexisting independently of one another, with different attributions. At base, this postulate of two biological groups was present in Durkheim’s writing, insofar as the mechanism for the division of labor was applied to the males and females of the species. Even if he had the subtlety to clarify that this process was intended to differentiate men and women according to “qualities,” and that the organic male-female difference alone was not sufficient, the fact remains that the whole process rested on this. This was the “minimal” form of the division of labor, ordained by biology. No doubt, it is this that confers on reproductive sexuality, transformed by the desire for “complementarity,” established by marriage, its central, unique role in sexualized solidarity.

53 In contrast, “division according to sex,” like all division, supposes dividing something not previously divided. It differentiates a “totality,” humans, while making sex a criterion of differentiation. Division according to sex supposes therefore a journey via an abstraction (“we humans”)—an entity that cannot be observed, which is at once and inextricably the presupposition and product of division.

54 Understood in this way, division according to sex is a symbolic operation of distinction/relation that supposes that one understands the social “totality” itself differently. For Mauss, who inscribes division according to sex within a text on social cohesion, it refers primarily to “that which gives authority” within a given society. As a result, the exchanges that take place within such a society are inscribed within an intelligible framework, where each person can understand what others do and want to do, what to expect of themselves and of others, as well as anticipate the consequences of their actions. [43] For Mauss, anticipation, or to cite more exactly, expectation, and not constraint as in Durkheim, is the key characteristic that constructs social life. [44] Able to say “I expect” is to participate in a society, that is, to will and to act, and to not be a stranger in it. Why then is cohesion understood as linked partly to division? It is no longer, as with Durkheim, because of the interdependence of social functions, but because it is the way in which exchange and reciprocity are instituted within a life that seeks to be communal.

55 To focus our analysis further, this social division, which both separates and connects, is not a division between the sexes (society divides them in order to organize their exchanges), but a division according to sex. This means that sex is not first and foremost the object of division, but its means. It is society that is divided into tribes, then tribes into clans, clans into fraternities or families; or kinship that is divided into parents, children, cousins, spouses, etc.; or again, society divided into nobles or commoners, religious and lay members, etc. [45]

56 We need to address a very important point here. In Mauss’s analysis, does he not distinguish division according to sex from division according to age and division according to generation? In his texts from the 1930s Mauss presents these three main forms of the division/organization of social life as crossing the social group—that is, they organize the other divisions. They are the agents of the general division/cohesion of society as an established “totality.” [46]

57 The specificity of this role in archaic societies, which operates this division “to a degree that we may not suspect,” is precisely the role that the criterion of sex plays in all the forms that social division/cohesion takes. It seems to be everything and everywhere. Almost none of the forms of exchange established seem to be “neutral,” as they are all organized by division according to sex, which is itself linked to division by age and by generation. But if Mauss emphasizes this feature, which he links to the non-state nature of societies that order their social cohesion differently, he also stresses that that the actual operation of dividing according to sex is not particular to them. In the phrase we cited at the beginning, he claims that division according to sex “is of great importance in all societies….” He mentions all societies, not just polysegmentary societies.

58 It is here that we come full circle. It took Mauss some effort to “step outside of himself” in order to understand how societies that are different from our own organize themselves. He also, for example, had to cease using a “self-evident” criterion, like conjugal society, or marriage. In the end, he creates a category to rid himself of a sociocentric vision that not only applies to societies “studied by ethnologists.” This category allows for a comparison between “us” and “them.” The concept of division according to sex is not part of the vocabulary of these societies any more than it is part of our own; it is a tool of sociology and of comparative anthropology. [47] We also “divide according to sex,” even if we are not aware of it, simply believing that we “recognize” a preexisting reality. What we no longer understand, but that will appear once we escape the view that society in general is made up of two parallel orders of reality, the natural order of causality (even if it is thought of as a process, as the division of labor), and the mental order of “collective representations,” is that division according to sex is not part of the order of “causes,” but is part of the order of “reasons,” that is, of the rules and institutions of active social life.


59 What Mauss might have meant when he emphasized that “our sociology is much weaker than it should be” becomes much clearer now. Sociology’s inability to theorize division according to sex as such is part of the difficulty of escaping dualism. At bottom, as the comparison with the Durkheim of The Division of Labor in Society showed, what the question of the sexes exemplifies and reveals is the temptation to always separate the two orders of reality within a single sociological viewpoint. Accordingly, then, there would be on one side nature and its mechanisms, which would form a “base” of some sort, and which could be conceived of as fixed or (like Durkheim) like a vital biological process. On the other side, there would be representations, that is, all the forms of the human mind that make up and institute these processes.

60 As we have said, for Mauss, the main characteristic of social effect is not constraint—a word that always leads to confusion with the causal mechanism—but expectation, in the sense of “I await.” As such then, the institution as he understands it is that which allows for an escape from the dualism of exteriority and interiority. Not only does it avoid the “translation” of the existence of divisions at the social level that would be the product of a blind process external to human organization of the signification of the world, but it is also not a sort of straitjacket that comes into play simply to constrain and restrain action. It is that which organizes action as specifically human and intentional, and it is that which makes it possible for each individual to act based on a shared set of meanings.

61 Defined, then, as a major modality of organization established through exchanges, division according to sex is not the privilege (nor the burden) of any particular society, of any particular form of organized labor, or of any specific stage of the development of the rational mind. It is, along with division according to age and by generation, one of the major forms by which the human race distances itself from itself, in order to conceive of the idea, “we humans,” and to bring it into being through action. For a long time, in the place of “humans,” societies have used their own name. In addition, the ways that division according to sex can be applied are fundamentally diverse in the imaginary that it mobilizes, and in the social effects of distinction in status and the respective roles of men and women. However, even though our societies are also particularized and sexualized to the extent that they believe that they are only “recognizing” a preexisting biological reality, it remains a process.

62 It still remains to be seen how Mauss’s lesson, which emphasizes the universality of division according to sex in and through its infinite diversity, concerns us today. Since it does not presuppose any male plot to dominate, it seems to shy away from contemporary concerns, which seek primarily to disentangle the question of inequality and power between the sexes. We might even be shocked that it is not, in itself, scandalized and capable of denunciation. In the end, we need to see that it offers us other ways, ones that are more solid than the dualism of sex and gender, to reflect on the sexualized hierarchy in and beyond our own societies, as well as the new forms of division according to sex that accompany the egalitarian dynamic of democratic societies.


  • [1]
    The first version of this text was presented at the colloquium “Le genre comme catégorie d’analyse,” organized by the international network for Gender Studies, Paris, March 23, 2002.
  • [2]
    Marcel Mauss, “La cohésion sociale dans les sociétés polysegmentaires,” Œuvres III (Paris: Minuit, 1981), 15.
  • [3]
    L. Dumont, “Marcel Mauss, une science en devenir,”in Essais sur l’individualisme (Paris: Le Seuil, 1983); B. Karsenti, L’homme total, sociologie, anthropologie et philosophie chez Marcel Mauss (Paris: PUF, 1997); Camille Tarot, De Durkheim à Mauss, l’invention du symbolique (Paris: La Découverte, 1999).
  • [4]
    E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Position of Women in Primitive Societies and Other Essays in Social Anthropology (London: Faber, 1965) [La femme dans les sociétés primitives et autres essais d’anthropologie, trans. A. et C. Rivière (Paris: PUF, 1971), 32].
  • [5]
    Evans-Pritchard, The Position of Women.
  • [6]
    Evans-Pritchard, The Position of Women.
  • [7]
  • [8]
  • [9]
    Ibid. (my emphasis).
  • [10]
  • [11]
    On this point, see Tarot, De Durkheim à Mauss, in particular chapter 7, 134–72
  • [12]
    Émile Durkheim, Textes III. Fonctions sociales et institution (Paris: Minuit, 1975), 35–49.
  • [13]
    On this issue, see Tarot, De Durkheim à Mauss.
  • [14]
    Émile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, trans. Lewis A. Coser (New York: Free Press, 1984) [De la division du travail social (Paris: PUF, 1893/1998].
  • [15]
    Durkheim, Division [De la division, 20].
  • [16]
  • [17]
    Ibid. [De la division, 22].
  • [18]
    Ibid. [De la division, 21].
  • [19]
    Ibid. [De la division, 21–22].
  • [20]
    Ibid. [De la division, 23].
  • [21]
  • [22]
    Ibid. [De la division, 20].
  • [23]
    Ibid. [De la division, 21].
  • [24]
    Ibid. Durkheim indicates that this is a citation from Dr. Lebon. L’homme et les sociétés, II, 154 (no date given).
  • [25]
    Durkheim, De la division du travail social. 24.
  • [26]
    Mauss, Œuvres III.13.
  • [27]
    Mauss “Divisions et proportions des divisions de la sociologie,” Œuvres III, 221.
  • [28]
    See in particular his first course at the Collège de France, summarized in Œuvres III, 355–8.
  • [29]
    Mauss, 1931 lecture, cited in note 1, Œuvres III. 13.
  • [30]
    He wrote elsewhere that “the opposition of sexes and generations, and very early, exogamy, divided societies.” Œuvres III, 221.
  • [31]
    Mauss, Œuvres III, 15.
  • [32]
    I owe this remark to a comment made by Vincent Descombes, during a presentation on collective consciousness in Durkheim of January 16, 2001, at EHESS, at the invitation of Daniel de Coppet in the ERASMUS team seminar.
  • [33]
    See in particular his 1931 lecture, Œuvres III, 15–22, but also other texts, in particular Œuvres III, 320–23, 345, etc.
  • [34]
    This aspect is particularly pronounced in his 1931 lecture: Mauss, Œuvres III, 15–22.
  • [35]
    Mauss, Œuvres III, 307.
  • [36]
  • [37]
    Durkheim, Division [De la division, 244].
  • [38]
    Ibid. [De la division, 248].
  • [39]
    Durkheim, Division (De la division, 252).
  • [40]
    Durkheim, Division (De la division, 253, 262).
  • [41]
    Durkheim, Division (De la division, 271).
  • [42]
    Tarot, De Durkheim à Mauss.
  • [43]
    Mauss, Œuvres III, 12.
  • [44]
    See in particular, “Débat sur les fonctions sociales de la monnaie,” in Œuvres II, 117, and “Rapports réels et pratiques de la psychologie et de l’anthropologie,” Sociologie et anthropologie (Paris: PUF, 1999), 306–8. Bruno Karsenti has highlighted this decisive originality on Mauss’s part: Karsenti, L’homme total.
  • [45]
    See Œuvres III, in particular 17–20 and 320–24.
  • [46]
    On this point see in particular Œuvres III, 15ff, 341ff.
  • [47]
    The concept of “sex distinction” put forward recently (in preference to “difference of the sexes”) in a work of anthropology, has points in common with Mauss’s “division according to sex,” in particular insofar as it also implies putting the stress of the social operation of distinction/relation. See in particular C. Barraud, “De la distinction de sexe dans les societies,” in Sexe relatif ou sexe absolu?, ed. C. Alès and C. Barraud (Paris: Éditions de la MSH, 2000).

In some texts written after The Gift, Marcel Mauss stresses the importance of a notion he calls “division according to sex.” However, this point of his theory seems, strangely, never to have attracted attention. This paper attempts first to sketch the context in which this notion of “division according to sex” appeared in Mauss’s texts of the 1920s and 1930s, and the use to which he put it. Initially applied to polysegmentary societies, it constitutes a major break with Durkheim’s analyses in The Division of Labor in Society concerning the evolution of gender relations.
It proceeds then to a finer inquiry of “division according to sex,” about which Mauss says, “It has oppressed every society to a degree that we may not suspect.” This notion, integral also to “division by age” and “division by generation,” paves the way toward a nonsubstantialist concept of sexual difference which deserves the utmost attention of contemporary sociology and anthropology. Moreover, this notion clearly indicates how Mauss’s work is affiliated with the founder of L’Année Sociologique.

Irène Théry
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