Cover of Disquieting Gifts by Erica Bornstein
Disquieting Gifts
Humanitarianism in New Delhi
Erica Bornstein


232 pages.
from $28.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9780804770019
Paperback ISBN: 9780804770026
Ebook ISBN: 9780804782081

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One of the Best Books of the Year 2012, TLS.

Winner of the 2013 Outstanding Book in Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research Award, sponsored by the ARNOVA.

While most people would not consider sponsoring an orphan's education to be in the same category as international humanitarian aid, both acts are linked by the desire to give. Many studies focus on the outcomes of humanitarian work, but the impulses that inspire people to engage in the first place receive less attention. Disquieting Gifts takes a close look at people working on humanitarian projects in New Delhi to explore why they engage in philanthropic work, what humanitarianism looks like to them, and the ethical and political tangles they encounter.

Motivated by debates surrounding Marcel Mauss's The Gift, Bornstein investigates specific cases of people engaged in humanitarian work to reveal different perceptions of assistance to strangers versus assistance to kin, how the impulse to give to others in distress is tempered by its regulation, suspicions about recipient suitability, and why the figure of the orphan is so valuable in humanitarian discourse. The book also focuses on vital humanitarian efforts that often go undocumented and ignored and explores the role of empathy in humanitarian work.

About the author

Erica Bornstein is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is author of The Spirit of Development: Protestant NGOs, Morality, and Economics in Zimbabwe (Stanford, 2005).

"Following up her earlier book The Spirit of Development: Protestant NGOs, morality, and economics in Zimbabwe, [in Disquieting Gifts, Bornstein] analyses examples of the whole spectrum of charity and volunteering in India, including both international aid and intra-Indian giving. The extreme contrasts of living standards in India, and the coexistence there of entrenched religious practices and secularism, stimulate Bornstein to delineate a "global economy of giving" while questioning Western preconceptions about humanitarianism."

—Jonathan Benthall, Times Literary Supplement

"Bornstein's illuminating ethnography attunes us to the unofficial philanthropic engagements that often go undocumented by journalists and academics, overshadowed as they are by the institutional complex of humanitarian aid. . . Bornstein's artful ethnography is itself a disquieting gift, one that challenges us to reconsider both what giving looks like, and the relational possibilities of anthropological practice itself."

—Jocelyn L. Chua, American Ethnologist

"[An] insightful and beautifully written analysis of diverse forms of aid in New Delhi . . . The book's accessible and engaging tone makes it appropriate for use in anthropology courses of varying levels, while its innovative approach and reformulation of classic concepts will make it of great value to specialists working in the areas of gift theory, ethics, humanitarianism, and South Asian studies."

—Pierre Minn, Social Anthropology

"Bornstein has pioneered the holistic study of aid, and in this delicately crafted book she conveys deep insights into international and intra-Indian charity and volunteering. An important sequel to The Spirit of Development."

—Jonathan Benthall, University College London

"In a time when humanitarianism seems to have become a prerogative of the Western world, Erica Bornstein's inquiry into philanthropy in India opportunely provides novel insights on charity. Reappraising an object which has become a classic in anthropology since the pioneering study of Marcel Mauss, her rich ethnography reveals the complexity of the contemporary moral economies of the gift."

—Didier Fassin, Institute for Advanced Study, author of Humanitarian Reason. A Moral History of the Present