Accepted Paper:

Sharing, stealing and borrowing simultaneously*  


Marilyn Strathern (Cambridge University)

Paper short abstract:

Paper long abstract:

This Lecture takes the occasion of the ASA Conference to reflect on certain styles of anthropological reasoning. The crux is in the title: concepts do their work in relation to other concepts. Yet the terms themselves do not tell you about the relations between them – whether they are versions of or radically different from one another. I invert commonsense understanding that these three must refer to different actions, in order to make another difference, singling out one from the other two. Such analytical choices are at the heart of descriptive endeavour.

There could not be a better guide than the call for papers for the Conference. It asks anthropologists to look specifically at acts of owning and appropriating, and in so doing focus on activities typifying the everyday. And nothing could be more mundane than people standing in a queue or school children losing their things. That two lawyers (of English law) have in these acts discerned fundamental ideas about property, encourages the anthropologist to take equal liberty. The Lecture considers the ubiquitous activity of 'borrowing'. Very rapidly, however, it comes to seem a little less ubiquitous. Insofar as borrowing implies taking for a time someone else's property, far from blurring it reinforces the notion of property rights. So if there are situations in which it is not appropriate to talk about property regimes, then is it appropriate to talk about borrowing? It all depends, it seems, on the company that concepts find themselves in. An initial inspiration here is a particular Pacific Island invention that appears to circumvent the implications of thinking in terms of property; as we shall see, it circumvents consequences entailed in other conceptualisations as well.

*<i>With apologies to John Wendel in the issue of Anthropological Forum (2007) on possessive individualism edited by Karen Sykes, and to Bruno Latour's aphorism about the simultaneity of being real, social and narrated.</i>

Panel Plen1
Marilyn Strathern