This post is to mark the passing, precisely one month ago, of Professor Emeritus Franz von Benda-Beckmann. As described in his online resume, Dr. von Benda-Beckmann defended his dissertation on legal pluralism on the year I was born and went on to produce a prodigious body of work in the field of social and legal anthropology, very much of it focused on property and tenure rights.
Our paths crossed briefly in 2004, as I set out to share Bosnia’s wisdom on property restitution with the world as a newly minted (and perhaps slightly brash) young consultant. One of my first jobs was with the International Peace Academy (now Institute), setting up an expert meeting on how housing, land and property (HLP) issues could be further mainstreamed into the UN’s rule of law agenda. Beyond a valuable early lesson in slightly sharp consultant-handling practices from the IPA, the assignment served to rapidly open my mind to the possibility that Bosnia was only one (and a recent) thread in a rich multidisciplinary tapestry of work on property issues and conflict.
Of all the experts who attended the conference, all of whom have remained tremendous influences on my subsequent thinking on these matters, von Benda-Beckmann stood out for his ability to reframe the rest of the participants’ frame of reference. While most of the rest of us were interrogating property from the perspective of law, in other words, he was using property as a lens to interrogate law and social norms. It was quite refreshing. I seem to recall him wryly wondering at the fact that he had engaged with all the legal stuff, why had we lawyers not taken the same trouble with the anthropological corpus? To my chagrin, I still haven’t properly – but I will.