UChicago Press honors Prof. Elisabeth Clemens with 2023 Laing Award

In “Civic Gifts,” the UChicago sociologist examines how philanthropy shaped U.S. history

Prof. Elisabeth S. Clemens, author of “Civic Gifts: Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State,” is the recipient of the 2023 Gordon J. Laing Award. The award was presented by UChicago President Paul Alivisatos at a gala reception on May 8 at the David Rubenstein Forum.

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. 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.

“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,” Alivisatos said. “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.”

In “Civic Gifts,” 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 U.S. history but also to create new forms of solidarity among strangers. 

“‘Civic Gifts’ was printed and in the Press warehouse in March 2020 when the Covid lockdown upended so many plans,” said Clemens, the William Rainey Harper Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology and the College. “That crisis, however, provoked countless examples of complex public-private collaborations, reminders of how voluntarism continues to function as an important element of governing. 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."

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,’” said Chair Christine Mehring. “As evidenced by the breadth of reviews in general interest and academic publications, 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.”

Clemens joins a distinguished list of previous recipients that includes, most recently, Lisa Wedeen, Michael Rossi, Eve L. Ewing, and Deborah Nelson.

—This article was adapted from the University of Chicago Press blog