Civic Gifts: Voluntarism and the

Making of the American Nation-State

University of Chicago Press, 2020


In Civic Gifts, sociologist Elisabeth Clemens takes up the question of how a powerful state developed in the U.S. within the strong anti-statist political culture. In the tradition of social science work on the role of gift-giving and reciprocity in the forming and maintaining nations, Clemens takes up the political uses of benevolence and philanthropy across U.S. history. In what one reviewer described as a “masterpiece of social, political, and cultural history,” Clemens shows the power of gifts to mobilize communities and – in a point increasingly relevant with each passing day – to create new forms of solidarity with strangers. 


Read Lis Clemens’ recent op-ed in the Washington Post about COVID-19 and volunteerism here.

“This brilliant, colorful, and profoundly theorized book shows how, bit by bit, a contraption arose that precariously reconciled many contradictory pieces of American civic life, state, and culture: the voluntary association, in its many surprising permutations. Clemens’ masterpiece of social, political, and cultural history reveals how the American state crafted American emotions, and vice versa. Civic Gifts is a book for all political theorists and social historians."
Nina Eliasoph,
author of The Politics of Volunteering

Elisabeth S. Clemens is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago as well as a former Master of the Social Sciences Collegiate Division. Her research explores the role of social movements and organizational innovation in political change. Clemens' first book, The People's Lobby: Organizational Innovation and the Rise of Interest Group Politics in the United States, 1890-1925 (Chicago, 1997) received best book awards in both organizational sociology (1998) and political sociology (1999). She is also co-editor of Private Action and the Public Good (Yale, 1998), Remaking Modernity: Politics, History and Sociology (Duke, 2005), Politics and Partnerships: Voluntary Associations in America's Past and Present (Chicago, 2010; winner of the 2012 Virginia Hodgkinson Research Prize from ARNOVA), and the journal Studies in American Political Development