The Return of the Gift: European History of a Global Idea

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This book is a history of European interpretations of the gift from the mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Reciprocal gift exchange, pervasive in traditional European society, disappeared from the discourse of nineteenth-century social theory only to return as a major theme in twentieth-century anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, and literary studies. Modern anthropologists encountered gift exchange in Oceania and the Pacific Northwest and returned the idea to European social thought; Marcel Mauss synthesized their insights with his own readings from remote times and places in his famous 1925 essay on the gift, the starting-point for subsequent discussion. The Return of the Gift demonstrates how European intellectual history can gain fresh significance from global contexts.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This lucidly written and insightful book follows the fortunes of the gift in European social thought from Thomas Hobbes through Marcel Mauss. Evoking fascinating life stories, intellectual traditions, changing economies, and war-torn worlds, Harry Liebersohn describes the waning of the idea of the gift among 19th-century political economists and its flowering among early 20th-century anthropologists. The Return of the Gift reminds us of the resources we have to make strangers into friends and to replace the calculations of the bottom line with the hopes for reciprocity.” – Natalie Zemon Davis, University of Toronto

“Harry Liebersohn’s The Return of the Gift is an important contribution to the genealogy of changing understandings of the gift in the human sciences, which both re-affirms the centrality of Mauss’s 1925 classic essay and replaces it within the ebb and flow of a broader European discourse on the gift. Weaving in an unusual attention to the biographical dimension of European thinkers’ encounter with the gift, it illuminates the return of the gift as a topic of systematic sociological reflection after a long period of relative oblivion in the nineteenth century. The result is a rich historiographical treatment, demonstrating that it is precisely when European societies were losing sight of the dynamics of reciprocal gift-giving in their own midst, that they had to ‘re-discover’ it via their dealings both with distant societies and with new social problems of their own.” – Ilana Silber, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

"Liebersohn has done an expert job illustrating the history of the idea of gift giving in Europe. Highly recommended." -Choice

"Liebersohn has bequeathed a major gift to historians interested not only in the genealogy of the gift in European thought, but in the wider history of solidarity. His book spans confidently across three centuries, multiple disciplinary traditions and national literatures, and several continents." -- Kenneth Loiselle, Trinity University

"...admirably concise, focused, and well written." -Andre Wakefield, The Journal of Modern History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781107002180
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 12/6/2010
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Harry Liebersohn is a Professor of History in the Department of History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of several books, including Fate and Utopia in German Sociology, 1871–1923 (1988), Aristocratic Encounters: European Travelers and North American Indians (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and The Travelers' World, Europe to the Pacific (2006). His article 'Discovering Indigenous Nobility: Tocqueville, Chamisso, and Romantic Travel Writing', which appeared in the American Historical Review, was awarded the 1995 William Koren, Jr Prize of the Society for French Historical Studies. Professor Liebersohn was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1996–1997 and a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin) in 2006–2007.

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Table of Contents

1. The crisis of the gift: Warren Hastings and his critics;
2. Liberalism, self-interest, and the gift;
3. The selfless 'savage': theories of primitive communism;
4. Anthropologists and the power of the gift: Boas, Thurnwald, Malinowski;
5. Marcel Mauss and the globalized gift;
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