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Coming back to land?

Revenir à la terre ?

"Tracés", an interdisciplinary journal, vol. 33

Revue « Tracés » n°33

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Published on Tuesday, August 16, 2016


The French-language, interdisciplinary journal Tracés invite contributions from all the social sciences and humanities for its 33rd volume, which is due to be published in 2017. This themed collection will engage with land and its uses as social issues. From colonial expansion to new migrants in rural areas, from carbon offsetting to landless peasant movements, the collective relationship to space and its productive uses seems to be a rather diverse collection of problems. However, all of them point towards the legal, technical and economic framing of land and they call for interdisciplinary modes of intellection that are not averse to geographical and ecological aspects and insights. This issue will assemble studies that seek to shed light on the past and contemporary politicization of land and land resources. Contributions in English are welcome, although publication will be in French.



A very polysemic term with many uses and connotations, “land” is a difficult concept for the social sciences to put to work. In this issue, Tracés are looking to create a conversation between various contemporary approaches of land and illuminate their intellectual depth, be it social, political, economic or aesthetical. For the purpose of this issue, we define land as any productive subset of space that can be appropriated and/or subjected to social interventions (e.g. sale or protection).

In order to flesh out land socially and historically, two pitfalls should be avoided. One is to see in land a mere substrate defined by its pedological and biological properties. The other is to make land the subject of a metaphysical invocation, a grandiose entity that would constitute the primeval attachment of Man. Rather, we posit that land should be conceived of as the productive space in which collective activities take place, a common world inhabited by those who share its fruit. From this point of view, land is at the same time an elementary condition of societies’ material livelihoods, and a reality to be instituted: land use, the development of agricultural practices and knowledge, the rules that define resource allocation – all such aspects testify to the land-based quality of human sociality.

However, such an argument is not without creating a kind of malaise, especially for those who claim their attachment to modernity. Is land truly the ultimate reference of our practices and values? Should we locate in land a fundamental limitation of our political horizon? To paraphrase Norbert Elias, the civilization process has often been conceived as an ever increasing drive towards urbanity, hence, as a symmetrical detachment from land, whose role in the common culture needs to be relativized. When more than half the earth’s population (over 75% in Europe) now lives in cities, how are we to understand the nostalgic, even conservative, undertones that the idea of “coming back to land” takes in the mouth of modernity’s most virulent critics? Is it not a sign of the profound ambiguity of the land-based condition of society? Or should we see in land a rather obsolete reference, fully inadequate to understand those social phenomena that have been historically defined by their increasing distancing from land issues?

The themed issue advertised in this call seeks precisely to dismiss such an alternative. For the social sciences, land is an issue that transcends both the conservative illusion of an ancestral, normative relationship to it, and the modernist interpretation of history as an ever stronger distancing from land. Such a dismissal is all the more legitimate that the tension between being grounded and being modern is probably a very European affair: not all contemporary societies partake in this divide and other forms of relationships to land exist, especially in those parts of the world that were colonized. Land is thus not an object invariant across time and context: rather, it calls for a renewed analysis of the role of space and spatial entities in how societies work.

It is precisely with such a “coming back” that this issue seeks to engage: how may contemporary research across the social sciences help illuminate the social role of land? How do legal, technical, economic procedures perform land itself? What social and spatial forms does the contemporary “coming back” of land take? What are the history and the productivity of such forms? What is their significance? What methods are to be used to best describe and analyse them, in all their elusiveness and complexity?

We offer below a few suggestions to help frame submissions.

Who owns land?

The issue of ownership and the commons is a classic entry point for the analysis of social relationships to land. For modern philosophy, ownership is the expression of an individual’s natural right to exercise sovereignty over a piece of land: that modern law sometimes terms such a sovereignty “despotic” is a strong indication of the complete mastery of the person over the thing. However, the histories of law and of land practices have called for a re-assessment of such a grand narrative: they show that the regulation of the relationships between individuals, communities, spaces and resources varies across legal systems and modes of organization.

Indeed, historiographical debates have questioned the dominant idea that land tenure in Europe slowly evolved from custom-based, local modes of tenure to large-scale, private ownership property regimes. This issue of Tracés seeks to unpack the variety of constructions of land as property – be those constructions aesthetic, scientific or activist ­– and the devices used for that purpose: land registers, maps, legal procedures… It welcomes insights from various contexts and situations, for example the capitalist takeover of colonial spaces, the current dynamics of land grabbing and “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey) or the resurgence of the question of the commons.

Protecting land, protecting communities

Communities are politically aware of all the operations that affect land – uses and practices, legal qualification, economic exploitation – because they bear strong consequences on communities’ livelihoods and ways of life. In other words, land is a political object because communities do not treat it as purely instrumental, neutral reality.

The politicization of individuals’ and communities’ relationship to land in our societies and in more remote ones expresses the contribution of land to value systems, to attachments and maybe, to identities. How then are we to understand the critical relationship between livelihood and politics? How does protecting land contribute to the protection of one’s community? What can be learned from migrations of urban citizens to rural areas, when farming is embraced as a lifestyle but also a political act? From social protests, often led by women, against land encroachment, privatization or biopiracy? From the ambiguous contribution of international organizations to economic dynamics that run counter some of the basic tenets of sustainable development?

Such examples are not restrictive: contributions are welcome that engage with the highly diverse forms of land politicization today.

 A space for politics

This issue of Tracés places land ownership and politicization at the focal point of its concerns. However, agrarian and property issues are not the only ones that land is fraught with and we will welcome consideration of forms of land enrolment that speak more directly to its spatial dimension. For example, some techno-political devices enrol land as space: the energy transition and the increasing use of renewables consume more space than more concentrated forms of energy. Some countries with very high biodiversity have started to use their land as an asset in international negotiations about carbon compensation. These two examples illustrate the incipient political, economic and geopolitical dimensions of spatial or metabolic constraints located in land. How, more generally, do resource exhaustion and climate change impinge on or influence the re-politicization of land? Other themes of course could be broached upon – ecosystem services, land conversion from agricultural to urban uses, etc. In other words, we welcome contributions that will show that some political or economic procedures and phenomena have an underlying relationship to land and space that is not necessarily made explicit.

Altogether, this themed issue seeks to eschew considering land as a specific, well-delimited object and instead, use land as a theoretical incentive to approach and critically engage with various forms of relationship to spatiality, politics and sociality. Land, we posit, is less an object than a problem, and as such, it contains a great analytical potential.


  • Blomley, Nick, « Law, Property, and the Geography of Violence: The Frontier, the Survey, and the Grid », Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 93, n°1, 2003.
  • Cadena, Marisol de la, « Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes : Conceptual Reflections Beyond “Politics” », Cultural Anthropology vol. 25, no 2, 2012.
  • Escobar, Arturo, Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes. Duke University Press, 2008.
  • Etudes Rurales, « Les agricultures de firme », n°190 et 191, 2012-2013.
  • Fairhead, James, Melissa Leach, et Ian Scoones, « Green Grabbing: a new appropriation of nature ? », Journal of Peasant Studies vol. 39, no 2, 2012, p. 237-61.
  • Guha, Ramachandra, The unquiet woods: ecological change and peasant resistance in the Himalaya, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1989.
  • Harvey, David, Le nouvel impérialisme. Paris, Les Prairies ordinaires, 2010.
  • Latour, Bruno, Face à Gaïa: huit conférences sur le nouveau régime climatique, Paris, La Découverte, 2015.
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  • Martinez Alier, Joan, L’écologisme des pauvres. Une étude des conflits environnementaux dans le monde. Paris, Les petits matins 2014.
  • Mintz, Sidney, Sucre blanc, misère noire, Paris, Nathan, 1991.
  • Mitchell, Timothy, Colonizing Egypt, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1991.
  • Napoli, Paolo, « Indisponibilité, service public, usage. Trois concepts fondamentaux pour le «commun» et les «biens communs» », Tracés, no 27, 2014, p. 211-33.
  • Polanyi, Karl, La grande transformation: aux origines politiques et économiques de notre temps. Paris, Gallimard, 1983.
  • Pomeranz, Kenneth, Une grande divergence: la Chine, l’Europe et la construction de l’économie mondiale. Paris, Albin Michel, Éd. de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2010.
  • Shiva, Vandana, Stolen Harvest. The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, Kentucky Univ. Press, 2015.
  • Schmitt, Carl, Le nomos de la Terre, Paris, PUF, 2012.
  • Sieferle, Rolf, The subterranean forest: energy systems and the Industrial Revolution. Cambridge, The White Horse Press, 2001.

Submission instructions

Contributors can submit long papers (45 000 characters at the most) or shorter notes (30 000 characters at the most). Contributors are invited to contact the editors of the issue as soon as they start working on their paper or note, with a short description of the paper project.
Papers are expected to consist in first-hand original research. Notes can consist in book reviews or critical remarks on ongoing debates. Interviews can also be suggested to the editors.
Papers will be evaluated using a double-blind review process.

The deadline for contributions is

1st October 2016.

Contributions should be emailed to the following address: redactraces [a] groupes.renater.fr


  • Pierre Charbonnier (pierre.charbonnier [a] ehess.fr),
  • Romain j. Garcier (ENS Lyon : romain.garcier [a] ens-lyon.fr)
  • Camille Rivière (EHESS : camille.riviere [a] ehess.fr)


  • Saturday, October 01, 2016
  • Thursday, December 01, 2016


  • terre, sol, subsistance, environnement, propriété


  • Pierre Charbonnier
    courriel : pierre [dot] charbonnier [at] ehess [dot] fr
  • Romain Garcier
    courriel : romain [dot] garcier [at] ens-lyon [dot] fr
  • Camille Rivière
    courriel : camille [dot] riviere [at] univ-bpclermont [dot] fr

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Romain Garcier
    courriel : romain [dot] garcier [at] ens-lyon [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Coming back to land? », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Tuesday, August 16, 2016, https://doi.org/10.58079/vm4

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