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Engaging with property relations: ontologies, practices, and theoretical frameworks


October 17-19, 2024


Prof. Mark Goodale, UNIL

Amelia Veitch, UNIL


Prof. Paige West, Columbia University, USA

Prof. Tobias Haller



This CUSO workshop is an invitation for students to critically reflect upon which kind of property relations unfold in their field. In anthropology and across the social sciences, property or property rights are seen not as a relationship of someone's ownership over something, but as a set of social relations that regulate who can use resources (Goodale, 2017). Property is then not a right to the thing itself but a relationship between people to exclude others from resources. Resources can be of different kinds, material or immaterial (living beings, goods, cultures, ideas, energies, etc.), and their value is relative to historical and spatial contexts. They are not resources per se  but are assembled as resources to be exploited in a social process of changing interdependencies (Li, 2014)Moreover, property is of course not only about material goods to be appropriated, but also about symbolical ones to be distributed.


Capitalist regimes are systems supported by institutions (rules, regulations, law, values and norms) that guarantee property rights over resources. These can then be legally accumulated in markets through predatory practices – a process known as "commodification", the transformation of these things into objects of trade. This process is often criticised on the grounds that some things should not be treated as commodities – for example water, education, data, knowledge, human and nonhuman life. In response to commodification and privatisation, the "commons" are seen as the main alternative. Environmental, racial and gender issues have been linked to the loss of commons during colonial times ("commons grabbing", Haller, 2022), leading many to re-enact new commons today. In the wake of Ostrom's work, studies have indeed intensified, presenting the commons as a possible way to provide more equal access to resources for all, this however needs to incorporate power relations between external and internal factors and actors neglected by Ostrom (see Ensminger, 1992) and inherent in an institutional political ecology analysis (Haller, 2019). 


Nevertheless, there are a large number of possible configurations between different property regimes such as combinations of "private property" and "common property" regimes, and in practice, both are often combined in local settings (Netting, 1981). We invite students pay attention to the particular mix of institutional arrangements and local productions of property they find in their fieldwork. Commons, for example, can be understood very differently at the local level and in new "global assemblages" where they are often referred to as "common goods" (Ogden et al., 2013). Beyond these institutional arrangements, anthropologists are concerned with everyday encounters and different ontologies of property, which are often guided by contradictory principles and imply different notions of ownership. People often produce themselves and their worlds through the social relations that revolve around their original understandings of property and ownership (West, 2005). Even in capitalist regimes, for example, Graeber notes that « everyday communism » is basic to living in society (Graeber, 2014). If dominant capitalist private property regimes are expanding in most places, they can be challenged externally or internally, which constitute ongoing social processes. The commons are therefore continuously being produced (commoning, see Bollier & Helfrich, 2012; Harvey, 2011) just as they are continuously being enclosed and therefore grabbed in expanding neoliberal times (Haller 2022). 


Who is commoning and who is enclosing what? Is the neoliberal state perhaps happy that communing of services might reduce cost to both the state and the private sector and enable further commons grabbing? Are these categories even relevant in your ethnography (see Blaser & de la Cadena, 2017)? Property might be central and important on your fieldwork (see Joel, 2006) but also significantly absent. Who has the power to select property rights or craft property institutions that govern the commons or that guarantee exclusive property rights? How do people perceive their own property rights, and those of others, such as state property? Is possession strictly human? Do people regret past property relations, do they perceive them as having changed through time? How do gender and class power asymmetries play out in these entanglements? Are "bundle of social rights" being reconceptualised and if yes based on which ontologies? 


The main focus of the workshop is to question the relationships of appropriation that exist in our fields, which may seem natural and self-evident, but need to be unpacked through a close examination of everyday practices of ownership. This will be of interest to students conducting research in a broad range of fields. This includes but is not limited to: human-nonhuman relations, development and inequality, medical and reproductive technologies, labour arrangements, technology and digitalization, economy and exchange processes.





Blaser, M., & de la Cadena, M. (2017). The Uncommons : An Introduction. Anthropologica59(2), 185‑193.

Bollier, D., & Helfrich, S. (Éds.). (2012). The Wealth of the Commons : A World Beyond Market & State. Levellers Press.

Ensminger, J. (1992). Making a Market : The Institutional Transformation of an African Society (Illustrated edition). Cambridge University Press.

Goodale, M. (2017). Anthropology and Law : A Critical Introduction. In Anthropology and Law. New York University Press.

Graeber, D. (2014). On the moral grounds of economic relations : A Maussian approach. Journal of Classical Sociology14(1), 65‑77.

Haller, T. (2019). Towards a new institutional political ecology : How to marry external effects, institutional change and the role of power and ideology in commons studies. In The Commons in a Glocal World. Routledge.

Haller, T. (2022). From commons to resilience grabbing : Insights from historically-oriented social anthropological research on African peasants. Continuity and Change37(1), 69‑95.

Harvey, D. (2011). The Future of the Commons. Radical History Review2011(109), 101‑107.

Joel, R. (2006). Properties of Nature, Properties of Culture : Ownership, Recognition, and the Politics of Nature in a Papua New Guinea Society.

Li, T. M. (2014). What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers39(4), 589‑602.

Ogden, L., Heynen, N., Oslender, U., West, P., Kassam, K.-A., & Robbins, P. (2013). Global assemblages, resilience, and Earth Stewardship in the Anthropocene. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment11(7), 341‑347.

West, P. (2005). Translation, Value, and Space : Theorizing an Ethnographic and Engaged Environmental Anthropology. American Anthropologist107(4), 632‑642.


Les Diablerets


Participation fee: CHF 60 

For students of the CUSO universities (Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchâtel and Fribourg) and from the universities of Bern, Zürich, Luzern, Basel and St. Gallen, accommodation and meals are organised and covered by the CUSO doctoral program in anthropology. 

Travel expenses will be reimbursed via MyCUSO based on half-fare train ticket (2nd class) from the student's university to the place of the activity.



Deadline for registration 01.09.2024
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