Chapter 7: Property
Chris Hann One key element in the anthropologist’s approach to property (as to other key concepts) is to ‘relativise’, to question whether the understanding that has emerged in our intellectual traditions can provide an adequate base for understanding others. The English term ‘property’ is closely tied to the history of enclosures and the emergence of capitalism. It may be misleading to conceive the complex, non-exclusive patterns of access and use characteristic of precapitalist land tenure in terms of property relations (Peters 1998). Close inspection of the concept reveals that currently dominant understandings, both academic and ‘folk’, are also a highly distorted representation of how contemporary Euro-American property systems function. Even those committed in principle to the comparative analysis of social institutions may hesitate to make use of a concept which cannot readily be translated ‘one for one’ even into a closely related language such as German. The problems of translation into more remote contexts, say Polynesia, are of course more formidable (Firth 1965 ). The tension is particularly evident in a field such as economic anthropology, which for some of its practitioners implies a commitment to the generalisability of the toolkit of a powerful Western social science, while others vigorously contest the very possibility of such generalisation. How far can a word with a particular history and meanings in the English language be applied analytically in comparative work? If ‘property’ is somehow contaminated, is a more suitable term available? Peters (1998: 370) pleads for ‘the old language of “rights”’,...
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