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Changing Property Relations at the Turn of the Millennium

WGF International Symp #128 Group Photo

April 6-12, 2001
El Parador, Ronda, Spain

PUBLICATION: Property In Question: Value Transformation in the Global Economy (Katherine Verdery and Caroline Humphrey, Eds.), Berg, Oxford, 2004.

bookcoverCatherine Alexander (University of Cambridge, UK)
Michael F. Brown (Williams College, USA)
Jane F. Collier (Stanford University, USA)
Richard Fox (Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA)
Christopher M. Hann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany)
Cori Hayden (University of California-San Diego, La Jolla, USA)
Caroline Humphrey, organizer (University of Cambridge, UK)
William M. Maurer (University of California, Irvine, USA)
Bronwyn Parry (University of Cambridge, UK)
Elizabeth Povinelli (University of Chicago, USA)
Arvind Rajagopal (New York University, USA)
Annelise Riles (Northwestern University, USA)
Carol Rose (Yale University, USA)
Michael Rowlands (University College, London, UK)
Suzana Sawyer (University of California, Davis, USA)
Anthony Seeger (University of California, Los Angeles, USA)
David Sneath (University of Cambridge, UK)
Marilyn Strathern (University of Cambridge, UK)
Patricia Urteaga-Crovetto (University of California, Berkeley, USA)
Katherine Verdery, organizer (University of Michigan, USA)

Final Report

The conference on “Changing Property Relations at the Turn of the Millennium” was aimed at a radical rethinking of the concept of property in anthropology. The need for such a conference arose in considering the seemingly new contexts that face us at the start of the new millennium.  New objects, such as genetic materials, are being seen as “property,” a variety of innovative types of transaction are taking place, and issues of control and political legitimacy, perhaps especially of intellectual property in international arenas, is becoming more difficult.   To address such issues, the conference brought together not only anthropologists but also specialists from legal studies, geography and ethnomusicology. 

The conference sought to explore fundamental concepts and it thus reconsidered questions that have been at the heart of anthropology for decades.  A common conceptualization of property in both anthropological and legal analysis has seen it as a social relationship among persons by means of (or with reference to) things/objects.  The legal-realist notion of property as a bundle of rights can be taken as further specifying these relationships.  This conceptualization opens three questions for any given property analysis: what kinds of relationships are at issue (what do we mean by “relationships”), what count as (or what do we mean by) “persons,” and how do we understand the kinds of things/objects that can enter into a property relation – what difference does their “thinghood” make? 

These questions informed the organization of the panels but did not exhaust the ways in which the papers interrelated to one another.  After an initial discussion of legal approaches to property and the ways these have been informed by anthropology (Rose), the first panel considered the kinds of knowledge that goes into constituting something as “property,” the means by which social actors seek to impose their definitions of property, the obligations incurred by owning property, and the extension of the language of property into new socio-political contexts (Sawyer, Riles, Verdery).

The second panel took up the issue of the new objects now being considered as property, such as cyber / digital data, musical ideas, and biological material / information (Maurer, Seeger, Parry).  Discussion centered on whether such new property objects require that we reconceptualize property, and on the nature of the transactions involved, such as leasing, donation, and copyright.  The interdisciplinary discussion between anthropology, geography and ethnomusicology was especially fruitful here.

The third panel addressed questions of how regimes of value constitute the worth of property and the role of the state in transforming property regimes (Sneath, Alexander, Povinelli).  Particular attention was paid to the dramatic examples of property “regime change” offered by the demise of socialist systems and privatization.  The relation between “indigenous” property notions and those of socialist, post-socialist and post-colonial regimes were debated. 

The fourth panel moved on to discuss the public moralities of property and issues of collective rights and heritage (Rowlands, Rajagopal, Hayden and Brown).  This exciting session was particularly wide-ranging, covering issues from the relation between “cultural property” and the properties of culture to the definitional powers and taxonomies developed by oil corporations and bio-prospecting companies in constituting “natural” objects as property.

The conference was successful in creating a fruitful dialogue between participants working on widely differing topics and regions of the world, and with diverse theoretical approaches.  This was achieved largely through the thoughtful and integrative contributions of the discussants and panel chairs (Strathern, Fox, Humphrey, Hann, and Collier), but also through the generous time allotted to reconsiderations of each paper and general discussion.  The friendly willingness of participants to put their ideas on the line was also central to the process of discovering the extensions, limits, and future viability of given positions.

Some of the conclusions reached in this highly productive symposium are the following.  Consideration of 'property' needs to recognize the discursive field that constitutes certain objects as property as well as the institutional-political property regimes themselves.  By 'discursive field' is meant the modes of accountability, legitimation, and empowerment; the creation of new responsibilities and liabilities; and the emphases and lacunae that attend the particular values and ethics of given regimes.  The idea of a “property regime” should incorporate the range of different forms of property found in any one situation, the institutions that materialize value, and the socio-political organizational forms whereby control of property is recognized in society. 

A second theme to emerge from the conference was the importance of recognizing that property notions occur in an ethnographic encounter, in which “property” may be an indigenous category whose content has to be ascertained. The “indigenous” here would include the operational categories of bodies such as the IMF or UNESCO.

A third theme was the implications of anthropological reflexivity, for example the way “property” appears as a metaphor in our own discussions, and how looking at contemporary property forms in the world enables us to see more clearly the limitations of the concepts we have been using up to now.  One particular example emerging from the conference was the question mark placed over the conventional equation of property jurisdiction with territoriality – these two may coincide, but as several papers showed, in the new millennium they often do not.

The success of this conference should result in the publication of a path-breaking book.