Three Areas of Interest
The Department's comparative interests range even wider than the postsocialist countries, and all researchers have their own distinct theoretical interests. Much of our work has been influenced by three inter-related areas of debate in recent years.
The Tragedy of the Commons
First, there has been a surge of interest in ecological and environmental anthropology. In his well known 1968 analysis of the 'tragedy of the commons' Garrett Hardin argued that, under property systems which did not restrict access, conditions of rising population would soon lead to over-exploitation and degradation of the resource. The logic was unassailable. Hardin's own solution was reminiscent of coercive socialist central planning. Economists, who had in fact been debating these issues long before his contribution, usually favoured the interpretation that only private property systems could avert environmental disasters and ensure that resources were conserved for the common good.
Anthropologists, on the other hand, have pointed out that communal ownership systems are not the same as open-access systems, that a group may restrict access to its members and regulate usage by custom and tradition, and that cooperation can be more efficient than private ownership solutions (McCay and Acheson 1987).
Second, the land claims of indigenous peoples in many parts of the world, but especially in Australia and North America, have caused anthropologists both to engage practically and politically in support of local groups and, in some cases at least, to rethink concepts of ownership and property. The Mabo case was a watershed judgement for Australian Aboriginals, but the anthropologists have not always agreed on how best to make the arguments. Aboriginal groups hold title to territory in a sense consistent with that of English common law, or must a radically different basis for recognition be sought? (see Williams 1986, Rigsby 1998).
Some of the issues here were addressed at the conference Property and Equality, organized by the Department in Halle in June 2001. The papers are currently being edited for publication by Thomas Widlok and Wolde Gossa Tadesse.
Third, conceptual work on property has also been stimulated by a renewal of interest in what Robert Lowie called 'incorporeal property'. Liberal models of exclusive ownership have long been applied to a wide field of intellectual products, but technological advances (e.g. digitization) have increasingly called into question both the viability and the ethical defensibility of the liberal model. Anthropologists have regulary championed the rights of native peoples to profit when their traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) can be harnessed commercially, but intellectual property rights are of enormous significance in all contemporary societies. The rapidly developing field of reproductive technologies has brought a host of ownership issues into very corporeal aspects of the family and kinship (Strathern 1999).