The Moral Economy of Land: From Land Reform to Ownership Society, 1880–2018

Alexander Dobeson*, Sebastian Kohl

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


This article offers a comparative-historical perspective on the moral economy of land. We reconstruct the moral economy of the popular land reform movement that opposed the illegitimate income streams of rentiers and speculators in the early 20th century, tracing the movement’s legacy through a long-run analysis of political party platforms since 1880 in the USA, the UK, Germany and Sweden. We find that the land reformers’ conceptualization of land as a moral good was a key topic in early 20th-century party politics. Parties across the political spectrum called for wide-ranging interventions in unregulated land markets. But despite the movement’s relative success, the new ideal of the ownership society soon gained ground as an alternative to the more radical politics of land decommodification. We find growing multipartisan support for small property owners over time, culminating in the rise of a new moral conceptualization of land as capital. With the recent comeback of the land question, both rural and urban, we conclude that an understanding of historical land reform debates should inform future research toward a much-needed sociology of land.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSocio-Economic Review
Number of pages28
Publication statusPublished - 22 Aug 2023

Bibliographical note

Epub ahead of print. Published online: 22 August 2023


  • Commodification
  • Social movements
  • Moral norms
  • Property rights
  • Values
  • Land reform

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