APLA at AAA 2018: The Uses of Trust

Law, Property, and Collective Purposes

Friday, November 16th 4:15 PM – 6:00 PM
San Jose Convention Center, LL 21 C
Co-sponsored by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology and the Society for Economic Anthropology


Mumbai Parsi Place, Colaba, Mumbai” by Ganuullu. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


The English legal historian Frederic Maitland argued (around 1900) that the trust was one of the great innovations of his country’s legal development: a flexible legal mechanism that protected property, fostered common purposes, and even served as a tool of collective resistance, resilience, and adaptation under the narrow conditions of feudal property law. Most importantly, the trust provided families, religious groups, associations, and communities of all kinds with a way of managing their worldly affairs without producing a corporate body with a fictive identity (a “personhood”) against which the “dead hand” of the state might fall, thus carving out room within a rigid legal formation for social experimentation and innovation. But the trust is not just a British, feudal, or even common law device—at the very moment that Maitland wrote, trusts were also being used across the colonial world to translate longstanding arrangements for collective property into the language of colonial law, allowing new charitable and communal purposes to emerge and be pursued within capitalist legal orders. Elsewhere, comparable institutions such as “waqf” and “patrimoine” have shaped and channeled the purposes of charity and the given form and power to both common wealth and private philanthropy. The trust deserves renewed ethnographic attention on just these terms: as it has provided legal form for collective purposes and the material basis of common existence; offered shelters for complex and often (but not always) marginalized kinds of communities; and helped separate personal interests from the intentions to which wealth is dedicated.

Moreover, the various instantiations of trusts offer a critical alternative to “incorporation” at a moment when both formerly personal rights and even quasi-individual identities are increasingly being credited to (business) corporations, individuals are encouraged to adopt techniques of incorporation to secure rights and recognition (Gershon 2014), and other public and private forms of social organization are delegitimized as a consequence. Incorporation is now often treated quite literally and singularly in law and political culture as the source of rights, legitimacy, and cognizable legal identity; in the words of the Comaroffs in Ethnicity, Inc. (2009), corporateness reappears in myriad ethnographic locations “less as a metaphor of social organization . . . than as a concrete legal reality”—and often the only available political reality for postcolonial groups. For ethnographers, property and law are thus urgent sites of exploration, as these become idioms of belonging or even a tangible “materialization of the social” (Greenhouse 2012), instituting neoliberal temporalities and durations (Maurer & Schwab 2006). This panel offers close examinations of the different configurations of property and of social time that have been enabled by trusts, as a way of thinking toward other materializations and alternative orderings of things and persons and mutual intentions. It gathers papers that examine the trust in places where it was elaborated as a technical legal device and political form, figuring responsibility, power, and freedom, including the US-occupied Philippines, austerity-era Britain and Ireland, and the contemporary United States and India.

Organizers: Leilah Vevaina (Max-Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity) and Leo Coleman (CUNY – Hunter College)

Chairs: Leo Coleman (CUNY – Hunter College) and Bill Maurer (University of California Irvine)

Trust Trouble: Public Challenges to Private Philanthropy in Hershey, USA” by Peter Kurie (Independent Scholar, Los Angeles)

Creative Dissolution: The Trust as a Model of Postcrash Politics in Ireland” by Nate Coben (University of California Irvine)

Charitable Ties: The Liquid and Solid Properties of the Trust” by Leilah S. Vevaina (Max-Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity)

The Enemy Corporation: Shock in the System and ‘Trusting’ the Corporate Cosmos” by Scott MacLochlainn (Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity)

“‘Nobody else is going to look after our interests’: The Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust in the context of neoliberal urbanism” by Christa B. Tooley (Wheaton College)

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