Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 8-1-2019

Publication Citation

26 Indiana J. Global Legal Studies 401 (2019)


While theory offers important insights into property's normative content, it sometimes fails to tell us about what people understand property to mean and how they interact with those things said to be owned by them. This has significant implications for some of the challenges facing humanity, including climate change, unequal distributions of wealth and resources, biodiversity loss, and innovation. In response, a growing body of literature is emerging that looks at property through a different lens; rather than theorizing property in an abstract way or attempting to craft a normative account of and justification for the institution, this new scholarship focuses on everyday people's views and experiences-what some call the psychology of property and what we call the idea of property. This article presents a comparative review of empirical research methods that the authors have recently used to study the idea (or psychology) of property and provides evidence drawn from the United States, Canada, and Australia: (i) Stenseth's work on behavioral economics and property law; (ii) Metcalf's empirical research drawing on social psychology and behavioral economics; and (iii) the small-scale, qualitative study conducted by Babie, Burdon, and da Rimini. All three studies suggest that individuals hold an idea of property that exists independently from the formal law found in the jurisdiction studied. Moreover, while individuals do appear willing to self-regulate with reference to the environment or for the public good, for the most part people's idea of property is one that allows for promoting individual desires. Whether this is innate, culturally determined, or both is beyond this article's scope, but we conclude that this is an important area for future research and investigation.

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