Recognising that formal written rules only go so far, empirical socio-legal studies collect information about how people talk of and use property, aiming to understand what the concept means in daily lives, how it operates and affects others. Researchers emphasise that property rules and concepts are not neutral or natural but rest on specific ontologies of law and belief. Addressing these multiple and fragmented understandings of property, this review considers four aspects: property as an institution, property as practice, property as a socio-legal object and property as an idea. It shows that empirical socio-legal scholars have illustrated that property practices demonstrate belonging and caretaking, even without formal ownership. These practices matter even though, as institutional analyses remind us, social and spatial norms can develop into formal property only with decision-makers’ consent. We fail to acknowledge these institutional powers at our own risk.
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