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On the Codification of Land in Transnational Law: From the Colonial Encounter to Current Conflicts over Land Use

Course Level

intermediate - advanced / 3rd - 4th year

Course Language


Course Classification

This is a Themis course. It is also open to non-Themis students.

The course is open to students of politics and law.

Teaching Mode

We expect face-to-face teaching.

Contact Hours

2 hours per week


5 (if course has been attended regularly and exam has been passed)


This course will be taught at irregular intervals. It will be available in the winter term 2022/23.

Time Schedule and Class Room

This course is being taught at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science (OSI), not at the Law Department.

For information on the class schedule and the class room, please see the electronic course catalogue.

Course Content

Many of both violent and non-violent conflicts we can observe today involve the struggle over land (and its use). They become visible in protests against large scale land transactions or public demands for the restitution of land that was appropriated during colonialism or in the wake of violent conflict. The regulation of land transactions and land use has also become a subject of global governance.
Many people think of land as an existing piece of soil that can be owned, possessed, and exploited by individuals, companies or a state. In order to understand conflicts over land however, we need to acknowledge that there are and have been different ways to relate to land. Land represents a network of relationships that are held in a particular space and time, and which give meaning to it. From the colonial encounter to current societies, the legal codification of land has played a central role in mediating and shaping these relationships. The most salient example is maybe the creation of private property in land that resulted in the enclosure of the commons in European countries, a precondition for a capitalist exploitation of land (Pistor 2019). We can also think of the concept of “terra nullius” in International Law, through which European colonizers legalized violent land seizures in the colonies (Anghi 2005). The workings of law have consequently translated, configured, produced, and reproduced land in different ways.
In this course we want to comprehend how law has codified land and changed the way we relate to it across time. We analyze the link between the legal codification of law and social, economic, and political processes in different contexts. We ask: how is land understood in different, situated moments? What is the role of law in shaping these conceptions and how do they affect social relations? Who is given access to land and who is being excluded, on what grounds and by which means?

Teaching Methods

This course combines conceptual work and empirical case studies. We will work both in plenary sessions and in small groups. Students will be expected to engage with theoretical literature and will be asked to carry out research on current land conflicts. Law students should bring an interest in socio-legal approaches to law.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of the course, you will have an overview over the multiple ways in which the legal codification of land has shaped social, economic, and political relations, thereby organizing access to land as well as contemporary dynamics of possession and dispossession. You will have an understanding of existing approaches to analyzing the role of law in society, which you will be able to transfer to other research areas of your interest.

Selection of Relevant Literature

Anghi, Antony (2005): Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bastias Saavedra, Manuel (2018): The Lived Space: Possession, Ownership, and Land Sales on the Chilean Frontier (Valdivia, 1790-1830). In: Hist. Crit. (67), S. 3–21.

Bhandar, Brenna (2018): Colonial lives of property. Law, land, and racial regimes of ownership. Durham: Duke University Press (Global and insurgent legalities).

Dugard, Jackie; Ngwenya, Makale (2019): Property in a time of transition: An examination of perceptions, navigations and constructions of property relations among unlawful occupiers in Johannesburg’s inner city. In: Urban Studies 56 (6), S. 1165–1181.

Ince, Onur Ulas (2018): Colonial capitalism and the Dilemmas of Liberalism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

John Locke (2015): The Second Treatise of Government: (An Essay Concerning the true original, extent and end of civil government), and, a letter concerning toleration (1690): Broadview Press.

Karl Marx (1867): Capital: A critique of political economy. Volume 1 (Chapter 27). New York: Cosimo (1).

Keenan, Sarah (2010): Subversive Property: Reshaping Malleable Spaces of Belonging. In: Social & Legal Studies 19 (4), S. 423–439.

Nichols, Robert (2020): Theft Is Property! Dispossession and Critical Theory. Durham: Duke University Press.

Pistor, Katharina (2019): The code of capital. How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Tania Murray Li (2014): What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment. In: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39 (4), S. 589–602.

Restricted Enrollment

yes (that means that the number of participants is limited and that you might not get a place in this course)

Course Registration

via Campus Management

Please sign up for this course either under the module "Fremdsprachenfachkompetenz A" or under the module "Fremdsprachenfachkompetenz B". ("Fremdsprachenfachkompetenz" means "foreign legal language skills".)

registration period: 4 October 2022, 9 a.m. - 14 October 2022, 12 p.m. (noon)

In order to know if you have obtained a place in this course, please check out your course plan on Campus Management (tab "Stundenplan") from 15 October 2022.

As long as there are still seats available after the registration period has expired, they will be allocated according to the principle "first come, first served" if you sign up by 4 November 2022.

De-Registration from this Course

via Campus Management

regular drop period: 4 October 2022, 9 a.m. - 4 November 2022

After the regular drop period you can only drop this course with a valid cause until 14 days prior to the exam. Please contact the International Office at the Law Department if you have to use this option.

Type of Exam and Exam Period

During term time, we expect students to engage deeply with the reading materials through active reading which requires being attentive and reflective. Students will be asked to come to the class with questions that are prompted by the course materials. In addition to the text-based discussions there will be group work over a series of sessions.  For the final assessment law students will have to write an essay of 3000 words over term break, on which they will get a mark and detailed feedback.

Registration for the Exam

International exchange students will automatically be registered for the exam when they sign up for this course.

De-Registration from the Exam

Students who drop this course via Campus Management are automatically de-registered from the exam. Students who do not drop this course via Campus Management and do not take part any longer, are going to finish this course with a non-passing grade (0 points).

Grade Release

via Campus Management