The University of Chicago News Office
December 4, 1996 Press Contact: Julia Morse
(773) 702-8359

Off-Beat Holiday Stories from the University of Chicago

Coping with families

Aunt Ima driving you crazy? University of Chicago philosopher and joke scholar Ted Cohen can discuss how to get through these stressful holiday times using humor. “I recently gave a talk about jokes on death–and really, jokes about families are pretty close in theme,” Cohen says.


Catalogue shopping is a $140 billion industry. Why?

University of Chicago anthropologist Arjun Appadurai thinks he has the answer. Shopping through catalogues is more than a way to avoid crowds. It satisfies our craving to give unique gifts–which is ironic, because those catalogues are mailed to millions of people.

“We want gifts to reflect who we are, we want them to be one of a kind, unusual–which means rare, handmade, expensive,” Appadurai says. “The world of gifts is fundamentally about the world of social relations. In a large society like America, we lose relationships over time. We lose contact, we go on to other things–gifts are a way of re-establishing a relationship, or of maintaining a relationship that has weakened. Part of us thinks that the perfect gift to make that connection is out there somewhere, if we can only find it. That’s why looking for gifts is so stressful.

“Gifts always carry something of the giver. Some cultures would say gifts carry the spirit of the giver–and in a way Americans think that, too. That’s the power of a gift. Things become more than just things. They reflect the person giving, the person receiving, and the relationship between them. A gift carries the mark of you. And when we wrap a gift, we are saying: This isn’t just something that can be bought. This is something that has a part of me with it.”

Because we want gifts to be as unique as we are, we turn to catalogues–which are becoming ever more specialized in order to convince us that the gift we buy for that special someone is truly one-of-a-kind.
Last modified at 03:50 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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