Doctoral Dissertation Research: Grabbatin: Land Ownership, Cultural Identity, and the Legal Displacement of Family Commons in the Southeastern United States

  • Zook, Matthew (PI)
  • Grabbatin, Brian (CoI)
  • Robertson, Morgan (Former PI)

Grants and Contracts Details


Heirs' property is an American legal category that describes land owned by family members as tenants in common. Legal scholars have raised concerns that this form of collective landownership is vulnerable to dispossession through partition sales, drawing parallels to the processes of enclosure, privatization, and the commodification of nature that are leading to the loss of communally owned land in the developing world. This study explores the practice of heirs' property ownership and use among African American families in South Carolina coast, where their rights as tenants in common are challenged by legal and economic practices that reinforce the dominant model of private-individual ownership. This case study resonates with global inquiries into the process of privatization, enclosure, and the commodification of nature, by uncovering the persistence and erasure of an alternative property regime within the context of advanced capitalism. Using a blend of ethnographic and archival methods, first hand accounts of landowners will be combined with descriptive and spatial documents to expose the consonance and dissonance between meanings and practices used in struggles over heirs' property. This project has intellectual merit because it is on the forefront of research that brings together critical property theory, legal geography, and political ecology in a First World context. Much of the research on enclosures and commons has focused on historical changes or the effects of privatization in Third World contexts. This project places the lessons of these literatures in a First World context where the power of law and advanced capitalism make it all the more surprising to find alternative forms of property ownership and tenure. This project will also illustrate that American property law has made it possible to create new forms of ownership and tenure, where bundles of rights can be separated and commodified through the use of formal legal instruments and agreements like LLCs, easements, and land trusts. These new forms of ownership challenge our understandings of property by presenting new varieties and degrees of enclosure and commons. This project will also inform debates about "dephysicalized" and "placeless" property law, where rights and social relationships between people has replaced relationships to the land. Bringing critical property theory and legal geography into dialog with political ecology brings place and material back into our understandings of ownership and tenure. This project will illustrate that property is a relationship between people, based on kinship and formal legal practices, but it is also fundamentally about how material livelihoods and identities are rooted in the land. The results of this work will also have broader impacts for understanding and combatting heirs land loss. Despite the odds against them, heirs' landowners are not waiting for policy changes to save them. They refuse to be passive victims, nor are they always willing, or able, to cash in on their land by selling to the highest bidder. The future of heirs' ownership will be shaped by how these landowners understand, combat, and harness a variety of legal, economic, and environmental processes that determine how land is valued and claimed. As I proceed with this project I am prepared to respond to possible participant needs like title and deed searches, and will raise awareness of organizations, programs, and grant opportunities in the communities where I work. All research findings will be disseminated to the communities where interviews are conducted and as my research unfolds it will open a dialog with individual landowners and community organizations attempting to find equitable and just solutions to heirs' property conflicts. Further, I will share my results with organizations working with heirs' property owners across the United States. Several of these organizations have conferences and community outreach programs where case studies, like the ones collected through this project, are used to create awareness and present options to heirs' landowners. By discussing my research with these organizations, I can contribute to their missions by transforming portions of my results into accessible documents that can be used to warn landowners of the potential for dispossession and present examples of creative solutions that other heirs have used to resolve disputes.
Effective start/end date9/1/122/28/14


  • National Science Foundation: $11,513.00


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