An Anthropological Perspective on Award Shows


Pernille Clemmensen

Photo by Pernille Clemmensen

Anthropologist Pernille Clemmensen


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An anthropological perspective on award shows by anthropologist Pernille Clemmensen

The Truisms of Everyday Life

We are surrounded by objects and phenomena which, in many ways, enters an inevitable part of our everyday life. For that same reason, we rarely wonder how these objects and phenomena hold meaning and value. Design products and solutions are no exception to this. So, soon we will celebrate all the multifarious positive effects that design creates for people’s everyday life, the business world and society with a big award show, which aims to render the value of good design visible.

However, what kind of phenomenon is an award show, such as Danish Design Award? And, why do we actually hand out prizes to each other? The meaning and value of holding an award show will be elucidated through an anthropological perspective with a focus on the tangible exchange, appreciation and man’s social nature.

A Ritualized Gift Giving System

The exchange which takes place at award shows is, first and foremost, a ritual celebration for the chosen ones and can be folded out under a classical anthropological theme, known as gift giving. In a classic piece of major work, The Gift, from 1924, the French anthropologist and sociologist, Marcel Mauss, charts a range of universal principles in gift giving. Mauss points out that a gift is never cost free, since every gift is followed by obligations. Namely, an obligation to receive the gift and an obligation to return the gift. In the exchange, the giver and recipient are tied together in a social network of obligations, where friendship, honour and social status can play a leading role.

These obligations are socially embedded in all of us and can be part of the explanation on why you rarely see the winners not accepting their award or omitting an acceptance speech. There is a strong social expectation for prizes to be received and returned – and preferably with gratitude. Mauss also points out that the gift giving is central to establishing and sustaining social connections between people, since the gift creates relations among people; contrary to an item, where the giver and recipient are usually socially independent from one another.

Danish Design Award is – in a gift giving perspective focusing on reciprocity – contributing to creating the frames for an evening where relations are acknowledged and strengthened and the professional design community is displayed. The golden D, which is about to be presented again, and general award shows are hereby confirmed to have a bigger social value than you probably would have first thought.


The goal of DANISH™ is to promote Danish architecture and design in a broad perspective, and demonstrate all the potentials in these fields.

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