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Total Social Phenomenon

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Mauss emphasizes the idea of the "total social phenomenon." How do the Trobriand kula and Nuer cattle illustrate this concept? Are there any comparable examples in our society?
Total Social Phenomena and University
Jill Coen
Trobriand Kula and Nuer cattle exemplify Mauss’ concept of total social phenomena, those which act in “all directions,” which “concern the whole of society and its institutions” in and of themselves, or by “exchanges and contracts” by individuals (99).
Malinowski illustrates that the Trobriand Kula exchange ring forms ties between individuals, clans, and islands hundreds of miles apart by virtue of the priceless, ceremonial items meticulously exchanged. The items have symbolic significance regarding status, they have ritual and ceremonial significance, and they set the stage for pan-island alliance and interaction. (It should be noted that although Malinowski argued that there was no utilitarian aspects of Kula, there were utilitarian commodities traded alongside the kula ritual objects—providing yet another social institution the complex kula exchange reaches.) Malinowski drives home the complexity of the kula as the very complex summations of individual exchange—in essence, the nature of Kula as a total social phenomenon.
Nuer “identification” with cattle is another total social phenomenon linked with Neur religion, kindship, ceremony, rites of passage, and economic and social structure. Evans-Pritchard illustrates the Nuer’s complex relationship and idenfication with their cattle, including but not limited to the way cattle mark matrilineal kinship, provide a stability and continuity with the ancestral “herd,” open the line of communication between God and the Nuer people, and signify a man’s initiation stages. This array of institutions affected on a societal level by the individual manifestations of these actions demonstrate how Nuer-cattle relationships are total social phenomena.
Finally, our culture’s intense engagement in and value of university education is a total social phenomenon. Students attend school to become better contributing members to society, become more eligible on the marriage market, for eventual economic benefits, to allay tensions with family and partners, and in some cases to manifest religious beliefs and practices. Students are being enculterated, trained, and socialized. Parents support this engagement for similar social, economic, and maybe religious reasons. Professors add to the complex whole of university by teaching their own ‘doctrines,’ spreading information, and enjoying economic benefits. In short, the university illustrates how individual interactions culminate in a phenomenon which at once speaks to a variety of larger social institutions.


Modernity's Total Social Phenomenon

Heddy Waters


I agree with Jill on the aforementioned; that, according to Mauss, total social phenomena are aspects of a society that permeate every sector of the culture. On page 99, Mauss states that they are "at once legal, economic, religious, aesthetic, morphological, and so on." When one looks at the role of Cattle to the Nuer or Kula to the Trobriand, many similarities stand out, and they both well fit the definition of a total social phenomenon. But when analyzing them, I tried to find what really made the roles identical and caused them to be the backbone of society... and I found that they were both the cores of the economic system, the currency, and images of status. So what equates this within our society? Money.


Although university education is definitely an important aspect, this education is only really the path for one to gain status through their earning of money. Money dictates everything within modern society. It is our currency, what gives items worth, most status within our society is determined by it, money frequently equals power, and almost every step in life one takes is done with the consideration of money. Money is legal, economic, religious (in the closest sense possible within our globalizing, multi-religious world), aesthetic, morphological, and more. Thus, I think money is our modern total social phenomenon.


re: Jill and Heddy

Allison Moss

I think this line of discussion is particularly interesting after today's class. We talked about Nuer cattle as a Total Social Phenomenon in the sense that, if cattle were removed from the equation, the Nuer would have to completely redefine themselves. I think Jill is right in describing university education as a total social phenomenon, but if you were to remove college from western life it would not have as huge an effect (immediately) as the removal of money. Whereas the absence of money would result in a situation similar to what Tyson experienced abroad (in Romania I think?), removing university education from western culture would probably just result in lowered stress levels among 18-22 year olds and less competent professionals in the long run. Both changes could be catastrophic, but I think the absence of university education would cause problems at a slower rate than the absence of money. I think that any aspect of culture, once removed from the culture, would have an impact. Maybe the question we should have analyzed in discussing total social phenomena is what elements of culture, when removed, would cause problems the quickest.



re: Allison


I agree with Allison that “any aspect of culture once removed from the culture, would have an impact.” Whatever that becomes aspect of culture becomes one because the society thought that it is important and necessary. If not, it would have already disappeared before becoming an aspect of culture. If this important aspect of culture disappears, it would cause some impact. Depending on how much the impact prolongs one can tell how much the missing feature was deeply incorporated into the culture and necessary to the society.



Lindsey Scott

I think the Kula and the Nuer cattle illsutrate Mauss' idea of total social phenomenon. According to Mauss, total social phenomena are social phenomena that "simultaneously express a great many institutions" (92), meaning that they express a culture's religion, political and economic system, social structure, and law (to name a few). When looking at the Nuer cattle and Kula ring it is difficult to describe them as anything but total social phenomena. Their culture revovles around these two phenomena and without them, it is likely that they would be forced to redefine themselves as cultures. It is as we discussed in class today, without cattle, chances are the Nuer would be forced to create new identities because cattle are representative of their culture, are their economic staple, and their religious icon: not to mention that the men would have to find a new way to name themselves. I think it was an interesting idea to ask if we removed computers, would we be forced to redefine ourselves. And like I answered in class, I think we would. I feel as though our technology is helping to define who we are as a culture and is providing people with identities. As Allison brought up in response to Jill's idea of university as a total social phenomenon, we may not have to redefine ourseves immediately but over time we most definitely would.


Total Social Phenomena

Dave Schatz

When Mauss describes an object or idea in society as a "total social phenomenon", he is referring to something that encompasses all sectors of societal life. It plays an intricate part in the sustainability of the society and without it, there would be considerable, if not catastrophic, change taking place. The Nuer cattle is certainly an appropriate example of this description. Cattle play a part in the economy of the Nuer, as providers of food and a means of exchange in bridewealth. Cattle are religious figures, playing a vital role in initiation rituals. Cattle are a source of political distinction, the more one has, the more power one yields, or respect one garners. They are a source of pride and morale, of community and solidarity. Kula exchange continues the solidarity trend, but to different extents. Economically, Kula is similar to currency, but has the connotations of a gift. The stories that travel with each item serve to unify the entire region. The more one has to give, the more respect he is given in the entire community. So, we can observe a socioeconomic importance to these phenomena that have an aspect of unity (unity in religion, politics, etc.) associated with them. I would argue that the disappearance of these vital objects or ideas would not mean annihilation of the culture, but certainly, great changes would take place. It would depend on the idea one has of "culture" and to what extent a culture can change before it becomes something entirely different. (Whew, and that has its own can of worms). In our culture I think the automobile has the qualities of being a total social phenomenon. In an almost religious way, people flock to pilgrimage to car expos and car festivals of all different factions. There is some kind of underlying belief system here, and a sense of belonging. A car can be traded for currency, so it carries a value. A person who owns many cars for himself is associated with upper class society. I think it definitely qualifies.





I agree with Allison that “any aspect of culture once removed from the culture, would have an impact.” Whatever that becomes aspect of culture becomes one because the society thought that it is important and necessary. If not, it would have already disappeared before becoming an aspect of culture. If this important aspect of culture disappears, it would cause some impact. Depending on how much the impact prolongs one can tell how much the missing feature was deeply incorporated into the culture and necessary to the society.


Caitlyn Scherer


I believe that the Kula trade of the Trobriand Islands and Nuer cattle are certainly total social phenomena within these societies.  They dictate social relations through economics, religion, ritual, gender, and age disparities, leading to rich points within their respective cultures that would ultimately change the culture if removed.  That said, it may not be the material objects themselves that hold the key to the social phenomena, but rather the value placed on the objects. If such objects were removed, the cycle would imminently survive unless completely uprooted in place of something more appropriate to fit society.  In the example of the Nuer, the introduction of money has been used in a similar way to cattle, albeit with slightly different value placed on it.  Money used in purchasing cattle for bridewealth is seen as negative; however, money used to buy seeds, etc. is seen as a legitimate use.  In this sense, though the colonial powers tried to eliminate the importance of cattle from the Nuer equation, the frame still remained.  In the Trobriand islands, removing beads from the Kula trade would most likely not end the trade, but would lead Trobriand Islanders to look for another material object to continue their trade.  Western cultures, one can argue, have social phenomena in terms of technology.  It would be difficult, however, to imagine life without the internet or computers.  But, like the Nuer and their money, we would most likely adapt to the change to fit the preconceived frame.  Total social phenomena serve as a way to unify and define terms of society; if they disappeared completely, the culture may become unrecognizable.

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