Property in Anthropology

The Department's comparative interests range even wider than the postsocialist countries, anthropological concern with property dates back to the foundations of the discipline by comparative lawyers in the nineteenth century. We follow our predecessors by continuing to define property as a 'bundle of rights' and to view it as a social relation between persons rather than a relation between persons and things. The precise distribution of these social rights and obligations is always more complex than allowed by standard models of 'possessive individualism', even in contemporary capitalist societies. Few modern anthropologists work within the previously dominant evolutionist paradigm (e.g. Engels 1884), but an ethnocentric insistence on a sharp opposition between individual and collective ownership principles has never been completely overcome. Ethnographic complexities were well documented in the later colonial period, e.g. Malinowski (1935) and Firth (1939).

Above all, the work of Max Gluckman (e.g. 1965) showed that anthropologists could develop alternative theoretical frameworks to understand land tenure in tribal societies. Caroline Humphrey (1983) later applied Gluckman's approach to a Soviet collective farm, where complex unwritten status norms were, as in Africa, more important than formal legal rules. With a few exceptions, however, (e.g. Goody 1962, 1977), the subject of property became unfashionable in social anthropology. Of course it did not disappear altogether; among legal anthropologists and in the study of development, interest remained strong (e. g. von Benda-Beckmann 1979). Hunter-gatherer specialists continued to pay attention to the radically different, 'disengaged' character of property relations among the groups they studied (Woodburn 1998, cf. Myers 1986). But for the most part property was left under-theorised even when it featured centrally in the study, as in Leach's (1961) argument about the character of kinship in Sri Lanka, or Hirschon's (1984) feminist perspectives, or the neo-Marxist approach of Maurice Bloch (1975).

A possible reason for the relative neglect of property is simply increasing specialization in the discipline (Hann 1998a). The topic of property straddles at least three sub-branches, economic, political and legal, and cannot be snugly confined to any one of them. It is high time to bring property back to centre stage. The simultaneous appearance of the wide-anging collection of Hunt and Gilman (1998) suggests that we are beginning to witness a significant revival, in which the study of postsocialist transformations is playing a significant role (e.g. Verdery 1999, Humphrey and Verdery, forthcoming).

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