The following is how Mattias Nordqvist introduces socio-symbolic ownership in his PhD thesis.
Introducing Socio-Symbolic Ownership
Grunebaum (1987) theorizes the concept of ownership and argues that there is an important difference between ownership and property, where the latter connotes “something in the thing or object rather than the idea that ownership is a relation between persons with respects to things” (p.3). He defines ownership as a set of relations constituted by rights and responsibilities among persons with respect to things, with the argument that there is nothing in the object owned which “marks it off as mine, yours, or ours” (Grunebaum, 1987:4). He also suggests that ownership has a broader connotation than property in the sense that it does not only refer to land or real estate, which the concept of property often is used to refer to.
The rights and responsibilities of ownership are related to both moral and legal rules set within a specific society and also acknowledged by the members of this society. This means that owning something implies that the owners have rights over what they own, which non-owners lack, but also responsibilities according to the specific social and cultural context. As pointed out by Grunebaum (1987), this is in line with Hobbes’s claim that “there is no ownership, no mine and thine, in a state of nature”. If the members of a society do not acknowledge the same set of ownership rules, ownership will make no sense and it must thus be based on a sanctioned, accepted form of ownership (Grunebaum, 1987).
Grunebaum (1987) further suggests that ownership refers to the relationship between individuals and their surrounding things and objects. This means that ownership is a broader concept than merely the legal, physical and status-related aspects around which the traditional notion is built. His view allows seeing ownership as connected with individuals rather than being a non-personified state. From this perspective, Mattila and Ikävalko (2003:3) identify four ‘ontological’ bases of ownership’:
a) Ownership at a social level
b) Ownership at a legal level
c) Ownership at an action, influence and outcome level
d) Ownership at a personal, psychological level.
The first level of ownership (a) includes communication and interaction between people with the outcome of understanding and acting as a certain group. The second level (b) is a social construct as well, but typically more static and more or less intentionally developed and maintained by society. This is the most easily definable form of ownership and often used as the meaning of the concept. The third level of ownership (c) refers to the process of generating a certain outcome using power and action with regard to the object of owning, and the last level (d) “includes goals, ambitions, motivations, commitments, responsibilities and other things in the mind of an owner that link him to the target of owning” (Mattila and Ikävalko, 2003:3).
The duration of ownership differs between the four levels, even if ownership typically lasts for long. As a social construct and at a personal level, ownership may last for a certain period of time even if it rarely appears or disappears suddenly (Mattila and Ikävalko, 2003). For instance, at the third and fourth levels, ownership is in action, a time-specific phenomenon and a state of being in terms of goals, actions, influences, and outcomes at a certain moment and after a certain action: The reality of the phenomenon of ownership is filtered through human perception and there are often numerous actions and several factors interacting constantly at all these four different levels in ongoing processes. Examining ownership at one level requires consideration at the other levels too. (Mattila and Ikävalko, 2003:3)
The authors thus suggest that ownership is a complex and multifaceted notion which includes socially constructed meanings of the concept created in social interaction and in a culture, or defined in a more tangible legal framework. This means, for instance, that in a specific empirical context, it is not simply ownership as property in a legal sense that is relevant to observe. The other meanings and levels of ownership are also likely to surface and be important in terms of how ownership is channeled in a specific organizational context. This also indicates that notions of ownership include views that attach more than simply ‘materialistic’ meanings to the concept. It is well-established that ownership can also have symbolic meanings that extend beyond the mere physical qualities of what is owned and the specific state of de facto owning (Dittmar, 1992).
Philosophers such as Kant and Hegel were occupied with these more ‘subjective’ meanings of ownership. Hegel, for instance, focused on the importance of the mind and mental products rather than the material world. He argued that it is the social definition of the physical and material world that matters most, not that world itself. Hegel observed a contradiction between what people were and what they felt they could be. The resolution of this contradiction lies, he argues, in individuals’ awareness of their place in the ‘larger spirit of society’ (Ritzer, 2000:20). In terms of ownership, this is the origin of the idea that possessions can play such a dominant role in the identity of owners that they become part of the extended self (Dittmar, 1992). Or as Pierce et al. (2001:299) observe:
Sartre, in his treatise on ‘being and nothingness’, notes that ‘to have’ (along with ‘to do’ and ‘to be’) is one of the three categories of human existence and that the ‘totality of my possessions reflects the totality of my being…I am what I have…What is mine is myself (1969:591-592)”.
In a similar vein, Etzioni (1991:466) notices that ownership is a “dual creation, part attitude, part object, part in the mind, part real”, thus underlining psychological and social aspects of ownership. Dittmar (1992) argues that this means that there is an important symbolic significance of ownership that often manifests itself in everyday life. Most work in this area has been done in the field of employee ownership (e.g. Pierce et al., 2001) or the social psychology of material possessions (e.g. Dittmar, 1992) and typical focus is on the symbolic and psychological extension of legal ownership. However, as Mattila and Ikävalko (2003) point out, this notion of ownership does not require legal ownership, meaning that even non-owners can be included in (psychological and social) ownership. This means that the relation between the individuals and ownable objects is in focus with no demand for these individuals to actually own the object in a legal sense.
Pierce et al. (2001) present three routes through which individuals come to experience ownership, regardless of their legal status as owners. The routes are a) controlling the target, which means that the feeling of being able to control an object gives rise to feelings of ownership towards that object, at the same time as the controlled object becomes a part of one’s self, b) coming intimately to know the target. This means that the more information and the better knowledge a person has of an object, the deeper the relation between them and, consequently, the stronger the feeling of ownership toward it. Here, a long association with the target supports the development. Finally, c) investing self into the target, means that the investment in objects that an individual makes in terms of energy, time, effort and attention affects the self to become ‘one with the object’ and develop feelings of ownership. Hence, ownership as a phenomenon is closely linked to human action in a social context (Mattila and Ikävalko, 2003).
These theoretical considerations about ownership are important ingredients in the further development of a socio-symbolic understanding of ownership which builds on symbolic interactionism and which is consistent with the conceptualization of strategizing adopted in this study. Socio-symbolic ownership focuses more on social and symbolic aspects of ownership in addition to more traditional legal, financial and structural rights and responsibilities. It is also a notion that emphasizes ownership as a wider social phenomenon that is interpreted and potentially acted on by actors involved in social interaction on different arenas as they engage in everyday activities related to strategizing.
Insights from psychological ownership as discussed above also indicate the possibility that feelings and actions of ownership may be developed by actors who are not owners in a traditional structural and legal meaning. Psychological ownership focuses on the individual level. The socio-symbolic notion includes this, as will be clear later on, but adds an emphasis on social interaction and symbolic relations. This means that ownership is seen as a phenomenon that stretches beyond the actors as legal and structural owners and that this potentially evolves and changes over time. In terms of strategizing, this further means that it is important to track and interpret different actors and arenas to capture how they are linked to ownership as a social, symbolic phenomenon. In other words, ownership can be channeled through different actors and arenas in strategizing and this may change over time. This is what I refer to as socio-symbolic ownership.
Source: Mattias Nordqvist (2005) - Understanding the role of ownership in strategizing