The social politics of dispossession: Informal institutions and land expropriation in China

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16 Citations (Scopus)


Extant studies on land dispossession often focus on its economic and extra-economic aspects, with respective emphasis on the operation of market mechanisms and the deployment of state-led coercion in bringing about the separation of households from their land. This article draws attention to the under-examined role of informal institutions in the politics of dispossession. Social organisations such as lineages and clans pervade grassroots societies and are central to land control and configurations of property rights. In China, the reconsolidation of lineages as shareholding corporations that develop real estate and operate land transfers has rendered them prominent actors in the politics of land and urbanisation. Drawing on an empirical case study, this article argues that informal institutions play a crucial role in mediating both the economic and extra-economic processes of dispossession. It further shows how, by providing the networks necessary for collective mobilisation and supplying the normative framework through which rightful shares in land are claimed, social organisations are at the same time instrumental in the organisation of anti-dispossession struggles. By unravelling the social dynamics that underlie land expropriation, this article offers a nuanced perspective to the politics of dispossession that goes beyond narratives of state-led coercion and market compulsion.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3331-3346
Number of pages16
JournalUrban Studies
Issue number16
Publication statusPublished - 13 Feb 2020


  • China
  • dispossession
  • informal institutions
  • land expropriation
  • redevelopment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Urban Studies


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