Means and Ends

Annelise Riles, Cornell Law School


The reemergence of property as a core anthropological concern has created new opportunities for engagement with the law. Anthropologists now seek to describe the effects of legal reforms such as privatization; they engage with legal doctrines such as copyright; and in some cases they even make suggestions concerning how those doctrines should be interpreted or applied, as, for example, where indigenous people's property rights are concerned.

The renewed anthropological interest in property relations responds to a social fact: people across the world are increasingly making their creations into property so that these creations may become visible on the terrain of law, and hence the uses and effects of property as a contemporary legal category has consequences.

Property law matters in the anthropological understanding because as a result of people's encounter with the law, cultural creativity has become an instrument, a means to an end.