Guest editorial

publishedDate08 July 2019
Date08 July 2019
AuthorEmma Lees
Guest editorial
Regulation and the morphology of property
This special issue has arisen from a conference held in Cambridge in May 2018, hosted by
the Cambridge Centre for PropertyLaw, concerning regulation of property. This conference
drew together scholars from a wide range of perspectives, including property theorists,
black letter land lawyers, socio-legal specialists and environmental lawyers, as well as
practitioners. The topics under discussion ranged from explanations of the environmental
consequences of private and state-based water rights in Mono Lake in California (Ryan,
2019), to the technical rules of landlord and tenant law (Odinet, 2019) and of the mortgage
contract (Amodu, 2018). And yet underpinning all of these contributions was an
understanding that the topicunder consideration was property. This term, however, is one
which, fairly obviously, means different things to different people. Indeed, the idea that
when we speak of property we mean much more than the technical rules of land law was the
topic of a paper in the conferenceitself.
Any disagreement and contestationover the meaning of property is not simply a matter
of semantic quibbling,nor is it resolvable by moreproperty theory. Rather, it is in the very
nature of property itself for property, like ideology (Geertz, 1973;Freeden, 1998), like
democracy and like liberalism, is essentially contested (Gallie, 1956). There is no denition
of property which we can unearth through further argumentation and consideration, no
truemeaning if only we think harder and reason further: rather, property will always
mean different things to different people. This conclusion, though seemingly trite, is
essential to building a true commonality of understanding and acceptance across the
scholarly community. Such a vocabularyis necessary in developing approaches to property
which are sensitive and nuanced, varied andinteresting. To this end, it might be fruitful to
consider not the meaning of property, but the morphology of this term and how this
constellation of context shapes how we understand property, and therefore what we mean
by regulation ofproperty,and when and how such regulation is legitimate and warranted.
Morphology as a scholarly concept has its origins in linguistics (Freeden, 2013). In this
sense it is concerned with the structures by which words take on their meaning, and the
relationship between this meaningand the form of the word in question. In a wider sense, it
is a means by which we can understand how contested elements can combine to give
meaning to a single term: thus, property is madeup, one might imagine, of notions such as
ownership, power, rights, obligations, regulation and the like, each of which is itself an
essentially contested notion. Property, in invoking this disparate range of ideas, is
attempting to crystallisemeaning based on these, themselves contested, terms. Any xing
of the meaning of property, therefore,would be an attempt to x the meaning of these other
terms which are themselvesnot susceptible of being xed in this manner.
Edward Shepherd and myself have taken a similar analytical approach when exploring
the role of the ideology of rule of law in legaldiscourse (Lees and Shepherd, 2018). There, we
explained that, theconcepts comprising an ideology could mean subtlydifferent things and
relate to each other differently in different contexts and in different times(Lees and
Shepherd, 2018, p. 4). This statement could equally well apply to propertyas a concept.
This understanding of the term property, and more fundamentally of the notion of
property, has three important consequences. First, it means that whenever one scholar
suggests that another is not reallytalking about property, but rather is considering
something else, that criticism is as much two people talking at cross purposes rather than
Journalof Property, Planning and
Vol.11 No. 2, 2019
pp. 82-86
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/JPPEL-07-2019-044

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