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In contemporary societies people generally acquire property within a property regime based on trade, contracts, inheritances, and welfare state redistributions. Sometimes, however, people acquire property in contested acts of expropriation and appropriation: making claims to property that interrupt the dominant system of contracts, exchanges, and so on. These contested property claims raise questions about how individuals and groups confront the norms of a dominant property regime, and illustrate how disagreements over property force social actors to reason about the institution of property as such. This constitutes the object of the project’s interdisciplinary research as it asks:

• How do social actors configure property claims as moral problems?

• What kinds of moral justifications or critiques do different social actors produce as they reason about these contested property claims in specific social contexts?

• How do they argue about the justice of these contested claims in relation to the justice of dominant property regimes?

An interdisciplinary approach

The proposed research project will investigate these questions by integrating studies from three disciplinary areas: an anthropological study of a contemporary social controversy over property, an intellectual history study of property-arguments in ideological and social context, and a philosophical study of theories of legitimate expropriation and appropriation. This interdisciplinary approach will give the unique possibility of studying moral reasoning about property as an aspect of ongoing socialpractice, as an aspect of politicalstruggle, and as an aspect of theoretical argumentation. The project will bring this approach to bear on social controversies surrounding the issue of squatting and the use of urban space.

Two major advantages

This interdisciplinary approach has two major advantages over independent work on property and moral reasoning in any of the individual disciplines represented.

First, it responds to the fact that moral reasoning is not contained in any single set of social products. Rather, texts from the philosophical tradition, juridical texts, political tracts, verbal statements in practical context, or routine social practices developed over time may all be treated as contributing to the organisation of society as a set of relations shaped by moral tensions, disagreements, and consensus. The project will seek to capture some of this diversity and where appropriate to analyse the links between the different practical forms that moral reasoning takes in society.

Second, the proposed humanistic approach will provide an excellent platform for the investigation of property as a key social institution that is fundamentally based upon processes of ‘communication’; that is, on processes of explanation and justification. The three disciplines entering into interdisciplinary dialogue can all contribute unique conceptual tools and methods for developing this communicative approach to property, and together they will be able to construct a nuanced study emphasising the complexity of property as a key social institution.   

Sub-projects