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The commons, property, and ownership

Suggestions for further discussion

Katharina Bodirsky

In response to the theme section on commoning in the December 2017 issue of Focaal, this article raises further questions for discussion and proposes an analytics of the commons that grasps it through the lens of property regimes. The key question concerns how we might best envision the relation of the commons/ commoning to the state, capitalism, and commonality in a way that does justice to both a broadly Leftist politics of the commons and an analysis of really existing commons that might deviate from this ideal. The conceptual lens of property regimes proposed here focuses empirical attention on relations of production and the organization of membership and ownership in the commons without including a particular politics into the definition as such.

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Rescuing Indigenous Land Ownership

Revising Locke's Account of Original Appropriation through Cultivation

S. Stewart Braun

As part of his account of original appropriation, John Locke famously argued that uncultivated land was open to acquisition. Historically, this account has played a large role in justifying the seizure of indigenous land. In this article, I contend that despite the past acts of dispossession Locke's account seemingly justified, a complete rejection of Locke's idea of original appropriation would be a mistake since a generalised account can be constructed that does not subvert indigenous ownership. I also contend that the revised account can be used to critique the current legal and political situation regarding native title in Australia.

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Introduction

Owning culture

Deema Kaneff and Alexander D. King

'Culture' has become a powerful political symbol and economic resource in the information age, where the development of the service economy (including tourism) provides new opportunities to marginal groups and new challenges to dominant ones. In this introduction the authors explore a number of themes that are developed further in the following articles: the way in which 'culture' is produced, possessed and often transformed into a commodity for the market; the role of such reified culture in relations of power and inequality; the ownership of culture as a tool of identity and nation building. While to date such an interest has been largely limited to indigenous populations, here the discussion is taken a step further by focusing on the relevancy of owning culture in the Eurasian context. This allows us to expand our understanding of cultural property: as a tool available to any group seeking confirmation of an identity perceived to be under threat or as an instrument in the negotiation of a group's position vis-à-vis wider power structures.

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Economic Transitions and Land Ownership

Challenging Traditions among Rural Yezidis in Post-Soviet Armenia

Hamlet Melkumyan and Roman Hovsepyan

The Yezidis of Armenia, traditionally considered transhumant pastoralists, have been changing their economic habits over the past century. Nowadays, they are more engaged in agriculture than they were a century ago. The social and cultural backgrounds of these transformations are discussed, showing the involvement of the treatment of the Armenians and the adaptive character of the Yezidis’ economy. Presently, the Yezidis practise animal breeding and plant cultivation in parallel, using the human resources available in their family. The ongoing transformations in the economy and their engagement in agriculture are challenging the conservative lifestyle of the Yezidi community. Thus, the people who have shifted to the agrarian economy are seen as outsiders in the traditional framework and are perceived to be of low prestige.

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Feeding (and Eating)

Reflections on Strathern's 'Eating (and Feeding)'

Carlos Fausto and Luiz Costa

Drawing on Marilyn Strathern's comparative insights on eating and feeding, we explore the difference between giving food and eating together in Amazonia. These two elementary modes of alimentary life have often been conflated in the Amazonian literature. We distinguish between them by asking what these acts produce, what agentive capacities and perspectives they evince, and what kind of relationships they configure.

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Nigel Rapport

I am grateful (once more) for the attention Don Gardner has paid to my work, in particular to arguments pertaining to individuality and its relation to the aspirations of the social sciences. Let me begin with overlaps he sees between us: (a) prevailing images of what anthropology needed to be, historically (in order to be an adequate science) have led to too great an emphasis on developing taxonomies of cultural variation, along with the generalising and essentialising descriptions this entailed; (b) some of social science’s taken-for-granted vocabulary (such as ‘role’ or ‘status’) hampers our understanding of the nature of human agents and the springs of that agency; (c) questions of will and freedom, choice and moral responsibility are subtle and important; engaging with these is a necessary step for strengthening the social sciences, which cannot escape their philosophical roots. Notwithstanding, Gardner would take me to task for my understanding of causation, for not adopting a reasonable view on the hoary issue of ‘free will’ and for not taking account of post-genecentric accounts of human-evolutionary process.

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Religion through the Looking Glass

Fieldwork, Biography, and Authorship in Southwest China and Beyond

Katherine Swancutt

This article is an exploration into how a distinct fascination with the study of religion traverses the biographies of researchers who, through fieldwork, episodically enter into the life-worlds of the peoples they study. In it, I offer up ethnographic and autoethnographic reflections on the experiential crossroads and personal biographies that are perhaps as constitutive of religion as they are of the persons who study it. Through a discussion of interconnected events that arose during and outside of my anthropological fieldwork among the Nuosu, a Tibeto-Burman group of Southwest China, I highlight how Nuosu claims to authoring my biography have brought their animistic religion and culture, as well as its international import, further into focus for myself, local scholars, and rural Nuosu persons. My argument pivots around the idea that fieldwork-based researchers and their interlocutors often appropriate each other’s biographies in rather cosmic ways, thus revealing the historically, socially, and personally contingent qualities that are involved in studies of religion.

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Hydrologic Habitus

Wells, Watering Practices, and Water Supply Infrastructure

Brock Ternes and Brian Donovan

Private water wells and municipal water supplies function as different systems of water provision, creating distinct—but understudied—patterns of water consumption. This article examines private well ownership to assess the relationships among conspicuous water consumption, cultural practices, and environmental structures. We surveyed well owners and non-well owners throughout Kansas, a state highly reliant on groundwater (n = 864). Borrowing insights from Bourdieu’s analysis of cultural consumption, this research considers the relationships between demographic variables and watering routines. We provide evidence that well ownership is a significant predictor of conspicuous water usage, and suggest attention to individuals’ hydrologic habitus—a disposition toward water usage shaped by infrastructure, class, and pertinent social variables—facilitates a better understanding of well ownership, drought-time watering, and conspicuous water consumption.

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Rutger Henneman

In the past, land agitations have had a clear spiritual and theological dimension. The morality of ownership over land itself is often questioned. Many see land as a community resource, and community ownership is an emergent 'model' of land tenure, both in word and in practice. This project on the role of spirituality and theology in Scotland's modern land reform is linked to research into the spirituality of community regeneration, supported by WWF International in Geneva. The findings show that for contemporary Scottish land reformers spiritual and theological dimensions are very important.

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Dwayne Woods

Olivetti’s successful takeover of Telecom Italia was an astounding

feat that represents a significant change in Italian and European

capitalism. As one observer put it, ‘for Americans who have long

since grown used to the dog-eat-dog world of hostile corporate

takeovers, none of this sounds new. But for Europeans, the ground

is shaking’. The fact that Olivetti succeeded in such a flamboyant

fashion in acquiring a firm seven times its size indicates that the

structure of ownership in Italy is changing and that the Italian

stock market has finally become a player in determining ownership

and influencing the behaviour of management. In particular, the

family-owned and tightly knit ownership patterns of the past are

giving way to the influence of shareholders. It is becoming harder

for a few shareholders with a limited amount of stock to control a

company. Also, foreign investors, in particular, Americans and

British, are demanding clearer accounting practices and the reporting

of quarterly earnings.