Love's Labor Paid for: Gift and Commodity at the Threshold of Death

Abstract

This article reflects on the status of professional care as both gift and commodity and its role in mediating the relationship between life and death in hospice settings. Based on research in San Francisco AIDS hospices in the mid-1990s, it examines how a discourse about restraint and about the need to set limits to compassion took hold among paid caregivers at that time. It explores also how hospice staff sometimes transgressed those limits in an effort to maintain and perceive the value of their care. Considering gift and commodity as phenomenological and ethical categories, the article contributes to theories of exchange that have emphasized reciprocity and return by focusing instead on the centrality—even the desirability—of loss in human transactions.

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