Function And Change In China: Reviving Mauss’ “Total Social Fact” To Gain Knowledge Of Changing Markets

By Min Lieskovsky, Morgan Ramsey-Elliot & Charles Hill

From the EPIC 2012 session ‘Renewing ethnographic theory’ 

This paper attempts to revive Mauss’s concept of the total social fact as a means of understanding new markets. Our case study of alcohol in China illuminates the spirit baijiu’s connections to the total social facts of guanxi and hierarchy. We outline a methodology based on using total social facts as a heuristic device, removed from the problematic assumptions of classical functionalism. 

Proceedings from EPIC 2012

Presentation video


Baijiu stories from the field

Two Americans and an Englishman had come to China to study female drinking practices—it sounded like a setup to a bad joke. We had been asked by our client, a spirits company, to identify future “opportunities” for alcohol-based products in the Chinese market. Although our primary focus was wine and spirits, a quick glance up and down supermarket aisles told us that alcohol has found its way into a surprisingly diverse set of categories: carbonated tea-flavored beer, wine-based facial cleansers and hair masks, and vigor-enhancing “muscle wines”—which indicate the breadth of possible opportunities for new offerings in this industry.

We decided to set a broad scope for our study; in addition to studying consumption of Western spirits and wines in relation to women’s lifestyles and aspirations, we also explored their perspectives on traditional Chinese spirits, such as baijiu and huangjiu, which turned out to be a fortuitous decision.

Gu, a businesswoman in her late thirties, filled the trunk of her car with name brand baijiu, Wuliangye and Maotai. The rampant counterfeiting of high-end baijius is such a problem that she could not find a dependable source. For her, worse than being poisoned by “fake” dumplings would be to buy fake baijiu for a client: it would constitute a loss of face from which she could not recover. She stocked the “heavy-fragrance” type of baijiu for clients who had become friends—the sweet aroma representing the sweetness of their friendship. Maotai, with its mythic connection to Mao’s victorious Long March and the later warming of Sino-American diplomacy, was reserved for government clients who were straightforward in their symbolism and believed that the power of Mao and Nixon could be symbolically channeled by replicating the consumption of Maotai. For Gu, keeping a stock of baijiu in her car meant being ready for an impromptu invitation for a business meal, which in the Chinese world of guanxi (social capital) and connections could mean the difference between new business or none. In her car she also kept Canadian ice wine, a sweet taste she acquired when visiting her Chinese-Canadian boyfriend abroad. This she reserved for romantic meals and double-dates with friends, demarcating a professional/personal boundary in her alcohol choices. Gu’s behaviors and beliefs about baijiu—where to buy it, store it, when to drink which kind, with whom, and finally when not to drink it—exposed deeply held beliefs ranging from anxiety over the safety of food supply to the corrupt guanxi business culture and the fine-tuning of relationships across the spectrum from the professional to the romantic.

Younger, foreign-educated, or female Chinese professionals and entrepreneurs, such as our respondents, are rebelling against the dominance of baijiu and what it represents. In particular, they are beginning to reject the relentless ganbei bottoms-up toasting culture that’s a necessity for career advancement. Our respondent Li, a 28-year-old newlywed from Shanghai, claimed that she barely drank. She avoided business dinners because of the baijiu toasting rituals that forced all participants into drunkenness, which isn’t seemly for a married woman. Yet when asked about their plans for children, her mood changed. Their parents were pressuring them, though they still wanted to have fun and pursue their interests. Her interests were karaoke and clubbing. Of course she drank at these events: sometimes three large bottles of whiskey among six people. But that’s only Western whisky with green tea, nothing like baijiu. Li denied that she could even get drunk off of whisky; it is baijiu that’s the rough stuff, that makes her drunk, that she is forced to drink at work banquets by her male bosses, and forced by her in-laws to provide at their wedding, at great cost. For Li, baijiu was so mythical that it dominated her entire conception of drinking, and it represented everything oppressive about her life: her parents and in-laws, her hierarchical work situation, and even the patriarchal expectations that she bear a (male) child as soon as possible.

Another respondent, Yu, equally successful in her career, recalled how she, as the oldest grandchild, was responsible for starting the toasts to her grandfather and patriarch at family banquets. One day when she was twelve, her uncle urged her to ask to toast with baijiu instead of water. None of the women in her family, or village, ever drank. Young Yu had coughed, but no one laughed or questioned her baijiu drinking. She remembered the moment as a rite of passage. For Yu, it was her first step in joining a new generation of women, and she did so by co-opting a traditionally male symbol. Now, in her mid-thirties, she drinks sanbianjiu, a traditional male vigor tonic made by infusing rice whisky with three animal penises, when out with friends at the Beijing equivalent of a dive bar. Showing her comfort and mastery with “male” spirits, instead of rejecting them, was Yu’s way of creating her own female identity.

In these cases, the practices and beliefs around upholding traditional baijiu consumption and also purposefully rejecting it illuminate its deep connections to many facets of Chinese society, including guanxi and hierarchy.


So why was baijiu able to teach us so much about the Chinese market so efficiently? We argue that baijiu is like a prism that reflects and refracts the key “total social facts” that shape contemporary China: social hierarchy and guanxi. Guanxi is the interplay between influence, relationships, obligation, and “face” that defines many social and professional relationships in Chinese society. Hierarchy is another defining characteristic of Chinese society, and the respect and propriety generated around it is deeply rooted in everything from Confucianism to CCP organization and family dinner seating arrangements. Though our study was explicitly about Western spirits in “modern” Chinese women’s lives, baijiu repeatedly resurfaced in our discussions, and was a gateway to discussions about the traditional, patriarchal culture that our respondents defined themselves by—and against.

The “total social fact” is a concept introduced by the early-twentieth-century French sociologist Marcel Mauss in his seminal study of gift exchange. Expanding on his mentor Èmile Durkheim’s idea of the “social fact,” Mauss examined seemingly “decadent” potlatches among Pacific Northwest Indians, shell-necklace gift networks in Oceania, and ancient Roman slave gifting. Across all of these phenomena, Mauss identified a pattern he called the “total social fact,” which involves: 

the totality of society and its institutions … all these phenomena are at the same time juridical, economic, religious, and even aesthetic and morphological, etc. … thus these are more than themes, more than the bare bones of institutions, more than complex institutions, even more than systems of institutions divided, for example, law, economy, etc. They are whole entities, entire social systems … it is by considering the whole entity that we could perceive what is essential. (Mauss 2009).

There are an infinite number of phenomena that surround us, but very few of them can help identify and access a society’s total social facts. It is tempting for researchers (even ethnographic ones) to try to turn any phenomenon they study (e.g. candy bars, toothbrushes, woolen scarves) into a total social fact and use it as a metaphor or microcosm of society. This may be a good consulting technique, but it isn’t good research. This is because candy bars, toothbrushes, and woolen scarves (depending on the culture, society, time or geography) may not permeate the many facets of social reality, and therefore cannot be used to shed light on society as a whole.

But some things in a society do give us access to the total social facts that permeate society, and in contemporary China, we found that baijiu opened up two of China’s key total social facts: social hierarchy and guanxi (social capital). In China, studying total social facts helped us uncover insights about Chinese society on a much deeper, more nuanced level than is usually possible within the resource constraints typically experienced in our work. Crucially, the insights into Chinese society gained from studying baijiu were rich enough to be applicable beyond the scope of that particular project. We have since used the understanding of social hierarchy and guanxi developed during that project to studies ranging from healthcare to technology.


Durkheim defined sociology as the study of social facts, and Mauss’s concept of the total social fact built on this conception, locating total social facts squarely within functionalist theory. Later scholars came to critique functionalism’s implicit assumption that societies evolve towards progress and equilibrium. This teleological view was considered incompatible with the changes and conflict obvious in most societies. Functionalism as an approach to understanding societies became largely irrelevant, and critical theory, structuralism, and post-structuralism gained favor. Even as functionalist thinking has reappeared more recently in sociology, in Jeffrey Alexander’s work (1998), and interdisciplinarily, in systems theory, the idea of the total social fact has been left behind.

We don’t assume that we can cleanly lift the concept of the total social fact away from its theoretical context within functionalism. The concept of the total social fact and its fundamental ability to encompass the entire social system is premised on the assumption that a society can be considered a system. The notion of a system with parts that have specific functions is based on the assumption that such a system should ideally be in equilibrium and function well. These assumptions leave the theory open to critique by just about any type of postmodern theory, conflict theory, practice theory, and so on.

We do not assume that the societies we study are static, well functioning, or in equilibrium. Instead, we propose to use the total social fact as a methodological equivalent of a contrast medium, such as iodine or barium, which makes the branches and linkages of the system more visible. It allows the researcher to take an X-ray of the system, but does not assume that the system is functioning. This is a more cautious, diagnostic use of the total social fact—a heuristic device that jettisons much of the theoretical baggage of functionalism.

To continue using the diagnostic metaphor, studying total social facts reveals which branches of the system (which parts of society) are functioning well and which are not. As design and strategy researchers, the blockages and dysfunctions represent problems, and therefore areas where there is an opportunity for a solution. Likewise, areas of vigor and health in the society we study can serve as inspiration and best practices to be used to guide our solutions.


Alexander Gofman identifies in Mauss two parallel meanings of the idea of total social facts, each of which has methodological implications for applied ethnographic research. The first of Gofman’s interpretations of the total social fact as “epistemological and methodological above all else,” which is “to study all social facts as total.” The second interpretation is that total social facts are “specific ontological entities which are sui generis (to speak in a Durkheimian vein) and distinct from other social facts” (Gofman 1998:67). Both meanings of total facts are useful for our discussion of methodology, and we argue for using the first as a means of connecting with the second.

  1. “Study all social facts as total” 

The first meaning calls for the sociologist or ethnographer to “to study all social facts as total.” Taking a “total” approach means looking at phenomena in relation to other parts of the system and seeing how they work together as a system.

In practice, this means framing research and business questions not as sharp inquiries that tunnel down into a specific problem, but looking at context and even expanding what we might consider to be context. A contextual or ecological approach is widely accepted, but by looking at the social fact or research phenomenon and how it permeates every aspect of the social system, or as many institutions as is credible, we can understand how these disparate parts form a system and function as a system.

Even more concretely, this means expanding the subject of research (whether it is a product, service, brand, segment, etc.) until it can be linked with a total social fact. For instance, this would mean expanding the research topic from insulin-injection devices to diabetes or illness, and looking at the intersections of economics, class, religion, culture, health, and education. However, treating all social facts as total does not elide the difference between total social facts and social facts, but is valuable methodologically.

    2.  Total social facts as sui generis

The second posits the total social facts as sui generis, because of their unique position as “phenomena which penetrate every aspect of the concrete social system; they concentrate it and constitute its focus, they are the constitutive elements, the generators and motors of the system” (Gofman 1998: 67).

This interpretation has two implications for our methodology:

1.  Parallel lines of inquiry – We propose researching a total social fact in parallel to the main industry focus a study. For example, if asked by an air conditioning manufacturer hoping to break into the Chinese market, we would propose to study both air conditioning, as would be expected, but also, in parallel, to study baijiu. Client companies might find this approach irrational, but we anticipate that studying baijiu would be one of the most effective and fruitful approaches to uncovering how people think about and experience the home, social mobility, health, and progress that would help guide the client’s design directions and strategy.

Different markets would require that different phenomena be studied to reflect that society’s total social facts, in addition to the client’s actual target research area. Identifying those phenomena could be done through a combination of short expert interviews and review of cultural literature. For example, for a client entering the Indian market, weddings would probably give a comprehensive reflection of that society’s total social facts; or soccer in Spain, pubs in the U.K., barbecues in the U.S., and so on.

2.  Continuous Inquiry – Once fruitful total social facts are identified through research, we propose maintaining a running line of inquiry into the total social fact, over time. Adding to, tracking, and observing the evolution of the areas uncovered by baijiu would enable us to have a more nuanced, longitudinal vision of China and the changes that are occurring there than those that are covered publicly in newspapers and industry reports. Sustaining these lines of inquiry, which tend to be more nuanced than social or economic indicators, would likely be an efficient and intellectually compelling way of studying changing societies.


The global business landscape is littered with the failed attempts of foreign companies to enter unfamiliar markets. In China, American giants like Amazon and Google have, to say the least, found it difficult to capitalize on the opportunities of this growing market. In this section we use the U.S. consumer electronics retailer Best Buy as a case study in how studying total social facts can potentially help companies avoid such struggles.

In 2006, Best Buy tried to replicate their “big box” retail strategy and high-end shopping experience by targeting first-tier cities and high-income consumers. David Deno, Best Buy’s Asia chief until earlier this year reflected on Best Buy’s initial strategy in China by saying, “We were stupid and we were arrogant” (Wall Street Journal, 2012). What Best Buy didn’t understand was how and why lower- income consumers, earning an average of $800/month in Tier 2 and 3 cities could be a powerful value generator.

Zhao, one of our respondents in Chengdu, was a self-styled “entrepreneur” who rode a beat-up scooter to business meetings and spent his nights at cheap disco clubs that played bad Korean pop. As a young, low-income migrant, he wasn’t exactly the type of consumer that Best Buy thought they should target. However, when we started discussing baijiu with him, we discovered that he spent exorbitant amounts of money (upwards of $300) on bottles of the famous Maotai brand of baijiu when treating potential business clients and officials involved in his industry. Spending so much money on this spirit seemed entirely natural, expected even, because it demonstrated his facility with handling the complexities of China’s social hierarchies. It also highlighted an economic ability to afford the high-quality stuff, which was important for signaling to potential partners that he was somebody worth doing business with.

Zhao is just one example—but a particularly clear one—that Tier 2 and 3 denizens are ambitious consumers willing to outspend their Tier 1 counterparts in their efforts to get ahead. A conversation with Zhao about baijiu illuminated the value of products that help people maneuver their way up social hierarchies.

Best Buy closed its Chinese stores last year and is now focused on building its new Five Star brand in China. After over seven years of trial and error, they have stumbled upon a formula that appears to be working: focusing on lower-tier cities and the emerging middle classes who buy home appliances as shining symbols of success and progress. By understanding how Chinese consumers perceive social hierarchies in these lower-tier cities, an $800 per month consumer base begins to make much more sense.

Even though it might have been a difficult conceptual leap for a consumer electronics retailer to make, we argue that studying baijiu would have helped them avoid a decade’s worth of costly experimentation and the tarnishing of the reputation of their global brand.


This paper has attempted to demonstrate that the theoretical construct of the total social fact can be used methodologically to enable researchers to efficiently go deep and go broad in unfamiliar markets. Moreover, using total social facts as a methodological tool doesn’t necessarily presume that the society in question is well functioning or static. On the contrary, it can actually highlight potential business opportunities (in the “dysfunctional” areas of the system), as well as sources of business inspiration and transferrable value (from well-functioning areas of the system). More generally, understanding a society’s total social facts can provide both the applied anthropologist and their client with a deep cultural understanding that can inform all of their future projects in that market.

In practice, we suggest at the very least finding ways to expand the client’s research frame to increase the likelihood of linking up with the society’s total social facts. Another approach is to pursue a parallel line of inquiry to the client’s target research topic, studying a phenomenon (like baijiu in China) that, like a prism, reflects and refracts that society’s total social facts. Finally, by tracking over time these phenomena and how they reflect the underlying total social facts, researchers can gain insights into crucial changes in the society, as well as emergent areas of opportunity.


We would like to thank the other members of ReD Associates that were part of our research team in China: Eliot Salandy-Brown, Yuebai Liu, Gong Yubei, Zhang Jing, and Elizabeth Ginsberg. And special thanks to Stokes Jones for helping us pull this paper together. Please note that the views expressed in this paper do not reflect those of our clients.


Alexander, Jeffrey C. Neofunctionalism and After: Collected Readings. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998.
Durkheim, Emile. Suicide: A Study in Sociology, ed. George Simpson. New York: Free Press, 1997.
Durkheim, Emile. The Rules of Sociological Method and Selected Texts on Sociology and its Method, ed. Steven Lukes. New York: Free Press, 1982.
Gofman, Alexander. “A Vague but Suggestive Concept: The ‘Total Social Fact,’” in Marcel Mauss: A Centenary Tribute. Oxford: Berghahn, 1998. 
Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W.D. Halls. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.

Web resources

Biz Journals. “Best Buy’s success in China is due to the growing middle class”.
EPIC 2012 Proceedings, pp. 1-XX, ISBN 13: 978-0-9826767-7-6. © 2012 by the American Anthropological Association. Some rights reserved. 

Related perspectives

Featured press