Three Styles of Analysis

Topics often, but not always, proceed hand in hand with particular theoretical approaches or styles of analysis. Here is an attempt to identify three broad bodies of literature which have influenced our work at the Max Planck Institute.

Political economy approaches

Anthropological work on property can hardly avoid taking account of political, economic and sociological variables. This includes (but is not restricted to) Marxist approaches to modes of production and class conflict. The failure of social systems inspired by this tradition has by no means invalidated the application of concepts by now well established in the social sciences. An updated political economy approach requires attention to macro-level distributional issues, including the 'terms of trade' between town and countryside and issues concerning the changing structure of the state and accelerating globalisation.

Working Paper:

The political economy of an Azeri wedding

Redefining place in southern Fujian: How ancestral halls and overseas mansions re-appropriate the local from the state

Neo-classical and new-institutionalist approaches

The basic liberal economic argument for property rights is a powerful one, namely that exclusive rights over a productive resource such as land can, if felt to be securely held, provide incentives for investment and growth. But the strong claims of some modern ('neo-liberal') economists can be subjected to ethnographic testing, and anthropologists may be able to show that in some circumstances other, apparently 'imperfect' forms of property are socially and politically optimal. For example, sharecropping is a well known example of a property relation whereby the labourer does not own the land but is paid a share, often one half, of the harvest. This property form was common in some socialist systems. It can in some circumstances be efficient, while in others it is both inefficient and highly repressive. No formal model can predict the actual outcomes - contextual information is required (Robertson 1987).

The modern discipline of economics is closely wedded to the liberal paradigm. Many economists simply assume that measures to extend the scope of private property in all sectors will necessarily increase certainty and improve the functioning of markets, thereby conducing to greater efficiency and both public and public welfare. Whether or not there exists a universal human propensity to accumulate 'goods', it is clear that the desire to possess objects is often a powerful motivating factor for the individual, and that behaviour changes as more exclusive forms of property rights develop (Schlicht 1998). But this does not mean that it always makes economic or social sense to promote such forms through legislation or otherwise. Even among 'new institutionalists', the emphasis upon individual maximizing actors remains paramount. For example, the widely cited work of Demsetz (1967) combines a 'bundle of rights' approach with all the basic assumptions of rational choice theory and classic evolutionism. Yet we have a lot of evidence from postsocialist China that rigour and certainty in property rights in the liberal sense are by no means necessary for impressive rates of economic growth (Oi and Walder 1999).

Culturalist approaches

Each of the intellectual traditions noted above has left its mark on economic anthropology, but trends that one can loosely label 'culturalist' have been more influential in recent decades. For example, Gudeman (1986) emphasises local models, i.e. the meanings, knowledge and symbols that surround property in each particular ethnographic case. Taken to an extreme this is inconsistent with our comparativist goals at the Max Planck Institute.

In his more recent work, however, Gudeman (2001) shows how key concepts such as 'base' and 'commons' can be applied in a general model applicable to all human societies. All of us pay attention to the particular linguistic and cultural idioms for property and ownership in the societies we study, and the challenges of cultural translation here can themselves be a stimulus to comparison.
Culturalist trends are particularly visible in work on taste and consumption inspired by scholars such as Arjun Appadurai (1986). In this new literature on the 'social life of things', persons do indeed have relations with material artifacts, which play a vital role in the establishment of identities. The usage runs against the standard definitions but, provided that these relation-ships are studied in social context, this culturalist influence can be readily integrated with the other orientations (cf. Humphrey 2002).

A Note on History and Fieldwork

Most of our work addresses current experiences of postsocialism, but this very term implies a need to understand socialism itself, or rather the local variant of socialism, both as this is subjectively recalled and as it can be documented from historical sources (for an East German case study see Working Paper 27). Sometimes it is be important to consider pre-socialist history and traditions. For example, to understand the Russian case today it is important to recognise not only the longer experience of collective farms (compared to the eastern European average) but also distinguishing features of the pre-socialist 'moral economy'. It is not, however, expected that research workers at this Institute devote their primary energies to archival work: fieldwork (notably 'participant observation') has priority, and ethnography is the main product of our researches. For an account of our early discussions on research methods see Working Paper 16.

Working Paper:

Collectivization, Privatization, Dispossession: Changing Property Relations in an East German Village, 1945-2000

Growing Together - Methodological Aspects of Joint Research in the Property Abteilung

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