Awards, History, Press Releases, Sociology

Elisabeth S. Clemens Receives the 2023 Laing Award

At the Gordon J. Laing Prize reception for 2023 winner Elisabeth S. Clemens for her book “Civic Gifts, Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State” at the University of Chicago’s Rubenstein Forum on May 8, 2023. University President Paul Alivisatos (left), author Elisabeth S. Clemens (center), and Press Director Garrett Kiely (right) (Photo by Jason Smith)

The University of Chicago Press is pleased to announce that Civic Gifts: Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State by Elisabeth S. Clemens is the recipient of the 2023 Gordon J. Laing Award. The award was presented by the University of Chicago President Paul Alivisatos at a gala reception on May 8, 2023, in the City View Room of the David Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago.

The Gordon J. Laing Award is conferred annually by vote of the Board of University Publications on the faculty author, editor, or translator whose book has brought the greatest distinction to the list of the University of Chicago Press. Books published in 2020 and 2021 were eligible for the 2023 award. The award is named in honor of the scholar who, serving as general editor from 1909 until 1940, firmly established the character and reputation of the University of Chicago Press as the premier academic publisher in the United States.

Book cover image featuring a painting of several white flags with a red cross and the book title in red text on a white background.

In Civic Gifts, Elisabeth S. Clemens takes a singular approach to probing the puzzle that is the United States. How, she asks, did a powerful state develop within an anti-statist political culture? How did a sense of shared nationhood develop despite the linguistic, religious, and ethnic differences among settlers and, eventually, citizens? Clemens reveals that an important piece of the answer to these questions can be found in the unexpected political uses of benevolence and philanthropy, practices of gift-giving and reciprocity that coexisted uneasily with the self-sufficient independence expected of liberal citizens. Civic Gifts focuses on the power of gifts not only to mobilize communities throughout US history but also to create new forms of solidarity among strangers. 

In its review, the Wall Street Journal offered this praise: “Fascinating. . . During wars, natural disasters, economic depressions, and previous epidemics, Americans have turned not just to the public sector for aid and guidance but also to a variety of business groups and voluntary organizations—in essence, taking ‘personal responsibility’ for the problems they were facing. This philanthropy-rooted approach, Clemens argues, has helped Americans offset their ambivalence about active government while forging a sense of shared purpose in crisis.”

Garrett Kiely, Director of the Press commented, “We are very proud to have published Professor Clemens’s work, which offers an insightful and unique approach to understanding the history of the United States. We are excited to see her receive this acknowledgment of the strength and influence of her work.”

“The Board of University Publications is honored to bestow this recognition on Civic Gifts. As evidenced by the breadth of reviews in general interest and academic publications and by the awards it has received from the American Sociological Association among others, Lis’s book embodies the best of a university press publication: it offers a new perspective on the American nation-state and civic identity as defined in relationship to voluntarism and philanthropy, a perspective grounded in historical research while also accessible and relevant,” noted Board of University Publications Chair Christine Mehring.

Elisabeth S. Clemens is the William Rainey Harper Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology and the College at the University of Chicago.

“Civic Gifts was printed and in the press warehouse in March 2020 when the Covid lockdown up-ended so many plans. Although the fate of a book was the last thing to worry about at that moment, I did feel as though years of work were disappearing into a black hole of crisis. That crisis, however, provoked countless examples of complex public-private collaborations, reminders of how voluntarism continues to function as an important element of governing. After such a strange few years, it is deeply rewarding to know that, despite that inauspicious start, the argument has found its audiences. It is even more rewarding to receive this honor from the members of the Press Board, perhaps the most discerning group of readers on campus, “ said Clemens.

University of Chicago President Paul Alivisatos noted: “In recognizing Professor Clemens with the Laing Award, the University of Chicago Press has distinguished Civic Gifts as one of the great scholarly works produced in recent years. Her book interrogates one of the most distinctive features of American society, which is both one that has shaped us deeply and that is important to understand.”

Clemens joins a distinguished list of previous recipients that includes, most recently, Lisa Wedeen, Michael Rossi, Eve L. Ewing, and Deborah Nelson. For a complete list of winners, visit the Laing Award page.