Contesting the Commons

Privatizing Pastoral Lands in Kenya
Carolyn K. Lesorogol
Examines the highly disputed idea of privatizing communal land through one Samburu community


Over centuries, African pastoralist societies have crafted institutions that enable them to survive in their harsh, semi-arid environment. Effectively managing communally held land has been one key to their success and a cornerstone of their social organization. Over the last two decades, however, a number of pastoralist communities have sought to transform their land tenure systems from communal to private ownership. In Contesting the Commons, Carolyn K. Lesorogol draws on eighteen months of fieldwork and ten previous years of work and residence among the Samburu to ask: What accounts for this challenge to an important, well-adapted, and seemingly highly functional institution? What are the effects of privatization of land on household well-being, individual behavior, and social relations? How can understanding the trajectory of institutional change in this case help us comprehend the dynamic processes of social transformation in general?

"Contesting the Commons is one of the best books that I have read on the politics of land and social order in Africa. Lesorogol offers a creative and nuanced approach to questions of property rights and social norms. This is a very impressive addition to the general literature on institutional change."
---Jack Knight, Sidney W. Soeurs Professor of Government, Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis

Carolyn K. Lesorogol is Assistant Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University in St. Louis. She was a consultant for the National Science Foundation project, "The Roots of Human Sociality: An Ethno-Experimental Exploration of Economic Norms in 16 Small-Scale Societies," from 2001-2004, and she has also received a National Science Foundation grant and a Fulbright-Hays grant.

Praise / Awards

  • "Lesorogol's use of experimental economics in this book is exciting and important. The best feature of the book is the theoretical question being addressed combined with really good ethnographic materials placed in a theoretical context and complemented by the experimental work. It is the only book that I know of that really examines the causes, processes, and outcomes of institutional change with using a full complement of these methods. A book that genuinely integrates multiple methods makes a strong theoretical argument even more believable and much stronger because of the diverse data sets and multiple methods drawn on."
    —Elinor Ostrom, Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science; Co-Director, Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis; Co-Director, Center for the Study of Institutions, Population and Environmental Change (CIPEC), Indiana University

  • "In this well written and insightful book Carolyn Lesorogol uses classic ethnographic methods, coupled with methods derived from experimental economics, to address the causes and consequences of institutional change related to the privatization of communal lands in northern Kenya."
    —J. Terrence McCabe, Professor of Anthropology and Faculty Research Associate, Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of Cattle Bring Us to Our Enemies: Turkana Ecology, History, and Raiding in a Disequilibrium System

  • finalist, Society for Economic Anthropology Book Prize, 2008

Classroom Resources

Discussion Questions | Word doc

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 264pp.
  • 14 figures, 15 tables, 1 map.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2008
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05024-6

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  • $36.95 U.S.



  • Anthropology, Economics, African Politics and Social Order, African Society, Pastoral Lands,, Privatization of Land, Property Rights, Kenya