Full text: Ownership as interpersonal dominance

Despite the extensive history of cross-cultural research on property, Murdock in 1949 and 
Levinson and Malone in 1980 have noted that there has been a dearth of recent holocultural 
studies of property. Certainly, since the 1930's (Beaglehole, 1932; Simmons, 1937), property and 
ownership variables have been coded in few cross-cultural studies. Murdock’s own 
Ethnographic Atlas (1967) carries the warning that his codings of property inheritance variables 
“have proved inadequate, and...should consequently be used only with great circumspection” 
(p- 59). 
However, two holocultural studies have examined property variables. Swanson (1960) 
randomly sampled 50 ethnographies for the coding of 39 variables pertaining to economic, 
political, and religious conditions, including whether or not property may be individually owned. 
Swanson argued that high gods served as Hobbesian authorities maintaining social order. More 
particularly, his data show that the presence of private ownership in a society was positively 
related to the presence of social classes. It would thus seem that property was a concomitant 
to systems of hierarchical social dominance. Webb (1977) coded 24 societies for the presence 
in their languages of a possessive transitive verb “have” and for property-based social 
organization. She found that “have” was absent in all six societies that did not have systems 
of private ownership of resources, but that it was present in ten of the eighteen societies that 
did practice private ownership. 
These two holocultural studies using coded ethnographic data address the relationship 
of ownership to dominance indirectly, at best. However, holocultural research need not be 
limited to coded ethnographies; property variables have appeared in other types of 
cross-cultural data bases. For example, based on semantic-differential scaling of the evaluative 
dimension (connotations of “good”) by high school boys, Tanaka (1972) calculated indices for 
(1) This study received the 15th C.S. Ford Cross-Cultural Research Award given by the Human 
Relations Areas Files, Inc. and the Society for Cross-Cultural Research. It is now in press 
in Behavior Science Research.

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