Understanding property

Property rights are formative for how actors can gain access to resources, use them or exploit them. An integrative analysis of the distribution of resources is not possible without a stringent understanding of property itself.

by Jean-David Gerber

The literature on property does not only cross disciplinary boundaries, it also crosses geographical boundaries. Property has different meanings depending on the geographical location. One major difference that we can observe is between Anglo-Saxon countries, which are organized according to the principle of common law, and continental Europe, which has legal systems based on a civil code.

Of course, in academia, the discourse is dominated by the English language. Many of the concepts related to property in the scientific literature are somewhat connected to the Anglo-Saxon perspective, which is basically common law. Many English-speaking scholars probably do not even notice it because they are in this dominant position.

However, this does not make the life of geographers or other non-legal disciplines working on property easy because there are lots of differences between common law and civil law. For example, the difference between ownership and property. We do not know this distinction in French or in German. Many institutions of common law do not even exist in continental Europe, and vice versa. A trust is something that we hear often about, but it is not something that we know in civil law. The idea also that the land ultimately belongs to the King of England, such as is the case in countries of the Commonwealth, is very strange to us. Even concepts like the “bundle of rights” come from common law countries. It has been introduced now in civil law countries, but this understanding is not a civil law understanding.

My understanding of property is relational. Building on Daniel Bromley, I see property as a triadic social relation. It connects basically the user with the state and third parties. Bromley talks about property as “a benefit stream”, he also uses the word “income stream”. A property right is a claim to this benefit stream that some higher body, usually the state, protects against others who may interfere with it.

So with this definition, property is not an object, property is a relationship. It is not the relationship between the owner and the object; it is the (triadic) relationship between the user, the state and third parties.
I think this view is really interesting because it shows that understanding property relations is not limited to the owners. It includes a whole range of relationships. It concerns the relationship between the owner and the non-owner. I think this is a very important aspect.
But it is also the relationship between the owner and the state. And it is the relationship between the state and the non-owners. All of these relationships are part of the property relationship.