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TitleProperty in Question: Value Transformation in the Global Economy (Wenner Gren International Symposium Series)
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Total Pages336
Table of Contents
1 Bodily Transactions
2 Heritage as Property
3 The Selective Protection of Musical Ideas
4 Crude Properties
5 Prospecting’s Publics
6 The Obligations of Ownership
7 Proprietary Regimes and Sociotechnical Systems
8 At Home in the Violence of Recognition
9 Cultural Rights and Wrongs
10 The Menace of Hawkers
11 Value, Relations, and Changing Bodies
12 Economic Claims and the Challenges of New Property
13 Cyberspatial Properties
Document Text Contents
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W E N N E R - G R E N I N T E R N A T I O N A L S Y M P O S I U M S E R I E S

Series Editor: Richard G. Fox, President, Wenner-Gren Foundation for
Anthropological Research, New York.

ISSN: 1475-536X

Since its inception in 1941, the Wenner-Gren Foundation has convened
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Reports on recent symposia can be found on the foundation’s website,, and inquiries should be addressed to
[email protected]

Page 168

156 Property, Value, and Liability

they could see it confiscated by the state, this time for good. Their
capital, both economic and social, would have been devalued, if not
(from their standpoint) completely destroyed.


What does the material I have presented contribute to thinking about
property? First, I believe it helps us to see how even land, that concrete
and material thing, a property object firmly embedded in local social
relations, gave way to greater abstraction as it was devalued – twice –
by people ’s incorporation into imperfect markets and a global economy
unfriendly to traditional agriculture. Land lost its particularity as it
entered the large fields of super-tenants, whence its product returned
to its owners as bits of “the average harvest” and the “standard rent, ”
regardless of the quality of their parcel. For smallholders, land could
no longer be a concrete bounded object and still retain its social value
(a fate they share with other groups drawn into the process of commodi-
fication). In the hands of super-tenants it then underwent another
abstraction, because of their use of complex and costly technology for
raising yields. Agriculture worldwide has ceased to be an activity
producing nearly all its necessary inputs; instead, genetic engineering
has made land no more than a neutral medium for absorbing manu-
factured imports and exporting “manufactured ” products. Its own
qualities grow insignificant, as it becomes but a platform for special
seeds that respond only to specific chemical fertilizers and herbicides;
improper application of any of these can wreck the harvest, no matter
how good the soil. Super-tenants “respected” (their word) this tech-
nology. They bought imported Pioneer seed, top-quality fertilizer, and
herbicides at exorbitant cost, increasing the overall level of expense and
risk they would spread among their lessors. This is not, of course, a
process peculiar to postsocialism: it is the story of agriculture every-
where. Peculiar to East European postsocialism, with its history of the
family-owned farm, is only the remarkable speed with which collective
farmers were ensnared in that process.

Second, I believe that emphasizing property ’s obligations and risks
has given me better purchase on my data than I would have if I
emphasized primarily rights. For a certain class of people, assigning
property rights to land was a way of assigning “bads,” not “goods.” The
element of financial obligation overtook the element of rights, under-
mining both the social value of land for these people and also their
ability to work it. Holding ownership rights, then, was less important

Page 169

The Obligations of Ownership 157

than manipulating the context in which things had value. In connec-
tion with this, deemphasizing rights reveals more clearly the new kinds
of person that property restitution created. They were, first, persons who
could not experience their ownership as efficacious, as “mastery” of the
soil. Second, they were persons who bore not just ownership rights to
land but accountability for it. To assume those rights subjected them
to processes that devalued the property object, generated risks of which
they were unaware, and opened them to debt. This kind of personhood,
I believe, is new only to them: it draws them into a much wider process
in which responsibility is individualized as corporations appropriate the

Finally, my focus on risks and liabilities has afforded us a glimpse of
the work that the property concept accomplishes. Although scholars
of property know that rights are just part of the story, millions of people
subject to privatization were told only about the rights they would
receive, not the obligations. Therein lies the poignancy of their
situation, for the myth of property rights created great joyful expecta-
tions, which the realities of risk-bearing ownership would crush.


The form of my argument in this chapter has been much influenced
by conversations with Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, Elizabeth Dunn,
Ashraf Ghani, Caroline Humphrey, Phyllis Mack, Herman Schwartz, and
Marilyn Strathern. In addition, I thank colleagues at the Wissenschafts-
kolleg zu Berlin (2000 –01), including Peter Bernholz, Richard Bernstein,
Wang Hui, Francis Snyder, and Patricia Springborg, for helpful comment
on an early draft. Participants in the Wenner-Gren conference contrib-
uted greatly with their very helpful reactions.


1. Such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, European Bank
for Reconstruction and Development, and international accounting firms (Price

Waterhouse, Arthur Andersen, etc.).
2. See Romania’s Law 18/1991, articles 53 –5.

Page 335

Index 323

Povinelli, E.A., 5, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 17,

185, 191, 193, 198, 213, 217
privatization, 139 –44, 172–6 passim

abundance, 234, 243

advertising images as, 233
and propriety, 5, 22fn5
as an analytical concept, 105

as a political category, 228
as “bundle of rights, ” 139, 252,


as failed work of purification, 315
changing definitions of, 1, 20 –1
classical and neoclassical economic

theories of, 276

concept of, 2 –5
performing ideological work, 11

“culture ” of, 307
free software as, 233
intangible, 78
labour-property, 230

metapragmatics of, 305 –7
“personal” and “fungible, ” 305, 307
personality theory of, 305, 306

regimes, 38, 45, 46, 94, 140, 162,
174, 179, 279 –80, 281

and positive incentives, 282
pastoralism and land, 163 –6
common-property, 288, 289, 292
see also limited common-

property regimes

relational character of, 248fn4
“social-republican, ” 301
social glue, 306

talk, 3, 4, 5, 8, 12, 142
values and, 140

temporal and spatial context of,
252, 255, 256

“universal ”, 234
see also scarcity

property relations, 29, 30

cognitive models of, 270

in-the-body and, 37 –45
shaped by “thing, ” 103–4
thing-ness of, 104, 105, 106

property rights, 9, 10, 29 –44 passim,
139, 141, 156, 174

and international organizations, 12
cultural politics of, 228
endowed by state, 231

legitimate and illegitimate, 228
model of empowerment based on,


myth of, 157
restitution of, 16, 144

proxies, 32, 33

accountabilities, 118
“health, ” 135fn14
prospecting, 131

space, 229, 237, 239, 240, 279
usufruct rights in, 235

public-ness, 120 –31 passim
public-ization, 118, 133

of medicinal plants, 125
public domain, 69 –77 passim,

119–34 passim, 284
paid, 76, 81fn5

publics, 118 –34 passim
making and remaking of, 133

of plants, 118, 133

Radin, M.J., 44, 47fn7, 298 –9, 305,
308, 311–12

“rainforest, ” 91
Rajagopal, A., 9, 10, 18, 227, 232,

234, 244fn5, 245fn7, 13
“re-materialization, ” 39

of land rights, 147

of property rights, 144
and personhood, 157

of rights, 143

problems of, 147

Page 336

324 Index

“rights-talk, ” 6, 22fn6
risk, 132, 151, 174, 175

and ownership, 151 –6
and public domains/spheres,


centralized in the state, 141
distribution of, 118, 140
indigenous communities and, 117,

perceived risk, 146
sociopolitical dimensions of, 141

see also cooperatives
Rose, C.M., 3, 9, 10, 11, 19, 20,

21fn2, 22fn4&6, 134fn4, 275 –91

Rowlands, M., 7, 12, 13, 16, 17, 49,
52, 207, 218, 219

royalties, 39, 41, 43, 45, 71 –80 passim

sampling, 69, 70, 73
Sawyer, S., 8, 13, 15, 85, 90, 93, 102,

scarcity, 9, 18, 19, 22, 233, 275, 276
secrecy, 49

Seeger, A., 11, 13, 14, 49, 55, 69, 72,
75, 81fn4, 287

Sneath, D., 5, 8, 12, 13, 16, 17, 141,
143, 161, 163, 166, 176, 180fn9,

252, 277, 278
social anthropology

land-claim legislation, 189 –93
land claim litigation, 62

“social buildings, ” 262, 263
theft of, 270

sociotechnical systems, 171, 172,
176, 179

citizenship regimes and, 178
definition of, 170

property as an element of, 173
property regimes and, 178, 179

soft budget constraints, 140, 175


cultural, 51, 64fn4

taxation, 304
territorial, 304, 312

Strathern, M., 6, 7, 11, 20, 49, 50, 62,
158fn6, 208, 213, 307, 308, 316fn5

as loss of social relations, 270

as relational absence, 253
of copyrighted music, 64fn11
of traditional knowledge, 131

relations of property and, 270 –1
tradable environmental allowances

definition of, 283, 284 –4
moral objections to, 283
not pure private property, 285
regimes, 283, 284

trademark, 56, 57
law, 55
practices, 55

“traditional culture, ” 2, 214
traditional ecological knowledge

(TEK), 54

“traditional knowledge, ” 120, 126,
129, 131

Tragedy of the Commons, 279, 281,
285, 288, 289, 291, 292

Tragedy of the Anti-commons,

property scholarship on,

289–91, 292

lack of, 258

Verdery, K., 1, 5, 6, 12, 13, 16, 17,
118, 139, 143, 161, 174, 252,
272fn4, 277, 278

World Bank, 105, 161, 215, 216
and “indigenous peoples, ” 217

WTO, 121, 129

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