The Impulse of Philanthropy

Peer Reviewed


 "Two sadhus." via Contemporary Nomad.

In the November 2009 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Erica Bornstein examines how the impulse to give is often tempered by the regulations that govern giving. Through a study of Indian dan, “a disinterested gift, a gift without expectation of return,” Bornstein challenges the influential Maussian idea of the reciprocity of the gift. She examines three cases – the daily giving of dan at a residence in south Dehli, the efforts of an orphanage owner to rehabilitate the poor, and philanthropic efforts justified through Indian epic texts – to demonstrate how dan poses a challenge to attempts at creating a Western-style system of NGO-driven philanthropy by acting as a system of “underground donations” that are difficult to regulate.

Philanthropy, Bornstein argues, is an impulse to end misery. However, impulsive philanthropy is understood as irrational because it does not alleviate the long-term need of the recipients. Attempts to regulate donations by inserting more accountability into the process are resulting in an instrumentally rational philanthropy. Bornstein argues that, while this can indeed enhance the rights of recipients and render the philanthropic process more equal, it also removes the freedom of the gift and the liberation occurring in the spontaneous act of giving. Bornstein concludes by arguing for the creation of structures that encourage the creation of both forms of philanthropy.

Cultural Anthropology has published other essays on ethics and exchange. These essays include Deepa Reddy's “Good gifts for the Common Good: Blood and Bioethics in the Market of Genetic Research” (2007) and Steven Rubenstein's “Circulation, Accumulation, and The Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads” (2007). 

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of essays on humanitarianism, broadly conceived. These essays include Didier Fassin's “The Humanitarian Politics of Testimony: Subjectification through Trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (2008), Ilana Feldman's “Difficult Distinctions: Refugee Laws, Humanitarian Practice, and Political Identification in Gaza” (2007), and Aradhana Sharma's “Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women's Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India” (2006). 

 "Marcel Mauss." via NNDB.

About the Author

Erica Bornstein is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine. Her research interests include philanthropy, humanitarianism, and non-governmental organizations.

Relavent Links

Government of India - National Policy on the Voluntary Sector

Government of India - The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Bill, 2006

Marcel Mauss - The Gift


Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium


An interview with Warren Buffett on his donation to the Gates Foundation

India and Private Philanthropy

Chirala Grace Orphanage: An NGO in Andrha Pradesh

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. How does Bornstein's conception of the gift improve upon Mauss'?

2. What are the effects of a neoliberalization of charitable social movements?

3. Who benefits from the introduction of accountability in philanthropy?

4. How do philanthropy and social structures help create each other?

5. Is it possible or desirable to have both impulsiveness and accountability?

6. How do Hindu ideas of giving compare to other religious forms of giving, such as Christian charity or Islamic zakat?

7. How do religious forms of giving relate to secular forms of giving?

Related Readings

Appadurai, Arjun 1985 "Gratitude as a Social mode in South India." Ethos 13(3):236-245.

Derrida, Jacques 1992 Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money. P. Kamuf, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Haynes, Douglas E.v1987  "From Tribute to Philanthropy: The Politics of Gift Giving in a Western indian City." Journal of Asian Studies 46(2): 339-360.

Viswanath, Priya 2003 Diaspora Indians -- On the Philanthropy Fast-Track. Mumbai: CAP.

Wilson, Richard Ashby, and Richard Brown 2009 Humanitarianism and Suffering: The Mobilization of Empathy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Post a Comment

Please log in or register to comment