The Study of Enclosure
As well as dealing with issues of music, copyright, and performing rights, This
website also provides access to resources relating
to the critique and analysis of the broader
theme of 'enclosure'. As far as theoretical
soundbites are concerned,
enclosure is here understood as a particular character of
power relations in social interaction that
arises in and through a general tendency
to eliminate uncertainty.
One of the purposes of the site is to move towards the
development of a detailed social theory of the process and practices of enclosure
as they effect our negotiations of social interaction.
and the Politics of Gentleness (real media)
This is a guest lecture given by Anthony McCann at the Dept. of
Folklore and Ethnology of University College, Cork, in February 2007. It last for about 57 minutes, including some open discussion at the end.
2005 Article on Enclosure and the "Information Commons"(pdf)
available in the journal Information and Communications Technology Law
Selected Enclosure Bibliography (pdf)
The Ph.D. Dissertation
"A wonderful and delightful combination of research and theoretical
speculation, this is one of the most original dissertations
it has been my pleasure to read in 35 years." Prof. Anthony Seeger, UCLA
You can get to Anthony McCann's Ph.D. dissertation,
"Beyond the Commons: The Expansion of the
Irish Music Rights Organisation, the Elimination of Uncertainty,
and the Politics of Enclosure",
if you follow the link above. The dissertation offers Anthony's first attempt at
identifying the features of the process and practices of enclosure in and through
an analysis of the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation from 1995-2000.
As well as there being chapter summaries on the site,
you can also read the chapters full-text in .PDF format.
may be read using the Adobe Acrobat Reader,
which can be obtained for free
by following the Acrobat Reader button to the left of the screen.
I also have some of the files available as MSWord documents. The dissertation was awarded by the University of Limerick,
Ireland, in February 2002, and is written in English.
The "Beyond the Commons" dissertation could once be ordered from the
beyondthecommons Shop but it has sold out. Time will tell what I will do with regards
to a reprint, but in the meantime you can read it all on the site.
The section below will give you a brief overview of the approach to enclosure that I promote on this site.
“Enclosure” is frequently used as a label to speak of broad social processes and pervasive social change, and variously
equated with commodification, privatization, commercialization, and the marketization of everyday life. In this way,
“enclosure” has become very much about the identification of
the threat of unwelcome social changes, driven by often anonymous corporate agents, fueled by the expansionary
logic of free-market capitalism. However, it has been noted that the term “enclosure” is “an arena for the
criss-crossing of disputed and competing values and orientations” (Siemon 1994:23). The relationship between
“enclosure” and the “commons” has been, if nothing else, an invitation to take sides. Depending on which side
you take, the term ‘enclosure’ can have either negative or positive connotations. For some, enclosure is undoubtedly
a synonym for increased productivity or profitability (Thirsk 1958:4), for others enclosure refers starkly to
“expropriation, exclusion, denial and dispossession” (Goldsmith et al. 1992:131).
In simple terms, it can safely be said that study of parliamentary enclosure concerns land, property,
and “the commons” (see Thirsk 1958; Mingay 1968; Yelling 1977; Turner 1984; Allen 1992). “Enclosure”,
in this sense, refers primarily to a series of changes to the English landscape from the fifteenth to
the nineteenth centuries. It often entailed the changing of agricultural practices from communally
administered landholdings, usually in fields without physically defined territorial boundaries, to
agricultural holdings which were non-communal. Common lands were “enclosed” by man-made boundaries that
separated one farm from another. Slater identifies three generic features of “enclosure” in this regard:
(1) the laying together of scattered properties and consequent abolition of intermixture of properties and holdings;
(2) the abolition of common rights;
(3) the hedging and ditching of the separate properties.
The third process is the actual “enclosing” which gives its name to a series of processes which it completes (1907:85).
For many people, this “enclosure” was undoubtedly negative. William Carroll (1994) has noted that during the
Tudor-Stuart period (1485-1714) the term “enclosure” is unstable, to the point where it is used as “an all-purpose
signifier for virtually every negative socioagricultural development” (1994:36). This didn’t make the designation
any less meaningful for those who resisted enclosure. As the works of E.P. Thompson (1968, 1993), Jeanette
Neeson (1993), Kevin Robins and Frank Webster (1999), and Iain Boal (interview), among others,
have made clear, changes to the English landscape were symptomatic of a broad programme of expansionary
social changes. Profound changes to people’s everyday lives were driven by the burgeoning popularity of a
capitalist ethos. Resistance to these changes, such as that offered by the Luddites, was often stereotyped as
anti-progressive and backward:
“Luddism was a response to deep-seated changes in ways of life, changes in which technology was undeniably implicated,
but which were about much more than mere technical matters. What the Luddites were fighting against, more broadly,
was the unfolding logic of the Enclosures movements. The Enclosures ... were fundamentally about bringing realms
that had hitherto been exempted into the new and expanding commercial relationships that marked the growth of capitalism.
Former ways of providing food and sustenance - strip farming, labour relationships based on obligation and deference,
widespread access to, and availability of, common land for grazing, hunting and collection of fuel - were
denuded and done away with in the name of efficiency, progress and private property rights” (Robins and Webster 1999:7).
There are others, however, for whom “parliamentary enclosure” carries positive connotations. Allen notes that
“Few ideas have commanded as much assent amongst historians as the claim that enclosures and large farms were
responsible for the growth in productivity” (1992:2). Thirsk, for example, defines enclosure as “a method of
increasing the productivity or profitability of land. This definition would apply accurately to all forms of
enclosure” (1958:4). In a more recent commentary, Boyle agrees: “The big point about the enclosure movement
was that it worked; this innovation in property systems allowed an unparalleled expansion of productive
Whether people are referring to the parliamentary enclosures in England from the fifteenth to the nineteenth
centuries or to the more recent critiques of “corporate enclosure”, there have tended to be two dominant
characterizations of “the commons”.
In the first, people have conceived of “the commons” as a particular character of uncommodifying social
relations in a localized context of community. It is important to note that, in the literature on the parliamentary
enclosures, this has tended to be the characterization of “the commons” adopted by critics of the broad social changes
that enclosure brought about. This can primarily be characterised as a relationship-centred approach to “the commons”,
whereby “the commons” is understood to refer to a particular character of social relations that are constituted, at
least in part, by an ethic of interdependence and cooperation (see, for example, E. P. Thompson 1968, 1993; Neeson 1993).
The key point has been, however, that the relations in question are of a peculiarly uncommodifying character.
As the editors of The Ecologist note: “[The commons] provides sustenance, security and independence, yet …
typically does not produce commodities. Unlike most things in modern industrial society, moreover, it is neither
private nor public” (Goldsmith et al. 1992:7-8).
The second dominant characterization of “the commons” is as a resource-pool to be managed. Within the literature on
parliamentary enclosure, this has tended to be the characterization of “the commons” adopted by those very much in
favour of enclosure as a means of enacting economic progress and the capitalist ethos. The term “commons”,
in this sense, refers to resources “held in common” or managed in such a way as to allow common access.
Again, “the commons” is often considered within a context of community, but the community does not need to be
localized or situated. As there is no necessity for a resource management model of “the commons” to consider
experiential or broader social psychological elements, the community in question may have the character of
an “imagined community” or a simplistic and reductionist abstraction.
Enclosure Revisited, Without “the Commons”
Resource-management understandings of "the commons" have come to assume considerable rhetoric weight
(see McCann 2005).
Some time ago I would have been very inclined to go along with the persuasiveness of "resource-commons" language.
Like most "commons" theorists, I, too, have become, in spite of myself, a theorist and critic of enclosure.
However, my analysis of “enclosure” differs in significant ways from that offered by most apologists of the “commons”,
not least because I seek to extricate my analysis of expansionary social dynamics from notions of “the commons”.
I have found in my own analysis of the process and practices of enclosure that resource management
discourse tends to be both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dynamics of enclosure. This is, of course,
quite obvious in the case of the discourses and practices of apologists of parliamentary enclosure. Where it is
perhaps not quite as obvious, and where we might indeed think it counterintuitive, is in the discourses and
practices of apologists of the “information commons”, the "cultural commons", or the "global commons".
Over the last number of years my research has focused on the identification and analysis of expansionary social
dynamics. Of particular interest to me have been the increasingly influential discourses and practices of
law, copyright, and intellectual property. My doctoral dissertation,
for example, examined the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) during the period 1995-2000.
IMRO administers licences for performing rights in Ireland. As IMRO representatives intensified their efforts
to increase the number of licences contracted with the company, a series of controversies resulted during the
second half of the 1990s, allowing for an eruption of suspicion, if not paranoia, about their operations.
Representatives of IMRO encountered fierce resistance as certain groups refused to comply with the purported need
for IMRO licences, in particular, primary schools, publicans, and supporters of ‘Irish traditional music’
(see McCann, 2001, 2003, forthcoming).
In the space of five years, however, the organization went from being one of the most hated in Ireland to
being one of the most accepted, with full government support and full legal sanction for their monopoly operations.
The representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation are now allowed to assert absolute authority to undertake
their favoured activities and deploy their favoured strategies in all domains within the Irish state.
The hegemonic dynamics of IMRO’s operations effectively sustain ‘the end of debate’; resistance to the
foundation of IMRO’s authority is consistently rendered ineffective, politically irrelevant, and, especially now,
discursively invisible. I was interested in how this public relations miracle had been achieved.
I read the rapid expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation’s authority across the Irish jurisdiction
as an example of “enclosure”. Enclosure, as I understand it, is a process that is not helpfully identified with
specific historical periods or associated solely with identifiable “movements”. I believe enclosure is more
helpfully understood not as one side of a binary opposition in relation to notions of “the commons”, but,
rather, as a character or mode of power relations. There is not, then, any a priori assessment of enclosure
as positive or negative, with associated tendencies to judgment and blame. Rather, in a Foucauldian move,
my focus is on enclosure as a particular mode or character of the exercise of power, with characteristic consequences.
I understand enclosure to be a social psychological, and deeply political, process which operates in and through the
very particular practices of very particular people in very particular circumstances. I am, as it happens, no fan of
invisible hand solutions to sociological analysis. Any analysis of enclosure as a characteristic set of
power relations is faced with the challenge of achieving what Yelling refers to as “an appropriate set of generalisations”,
the derivation of which “is the crux of the matter, and it is on the solution of this problem that any
general work on enclosure must depend” (1977:4).
The aim of my research, then, has been, in my dissertation of 2002 and since, to identify the features of
enclosure as a process , to identify family resemblances across various contexts.
From my work since my dissertation, two elements stand out as characteristic in my analysis of the process,
discourses, and practices of enclosure. The first is the experience of commodification. The second is the extension
of authority-as-certitude, which could be otherwise generally (but not exclusively) understood as ‘doctrinal expansion.’
Both of these elements I take to be symptomatic and constitutive of enclosure.
Here, I will address the first of these, commodification.
Commodification is, for me, the first element of enclosure. Commodification (also commoditization) is a popular
word among mainly left-wing thinkers, due to Karl Marx’s enthusiasm for the term “commodity” as part of his
anti-capitalist arsenal in Das Capital. It surprised me recently that the term “commodification” itself
has only become a presence in the academic lexicons since the mid-1970s (see Strasser, ed. 2003). It is
interesting to me that people who write about the process of commodification concern themselves almost exclusively
with attempts to quantify or define the qualities of “commodities” (e.g. Appadurai et al. 1986). This seems to
me a somewhat counterproductive strategy. To focus on commodities-as-things, to focus on access to, and the
exchange, movement, allocation, control, ownership, and protection of commodities in these discussions is
ironically to adopt a peculiarly commodifying approach, as I argue below. I would further suggest that to
consider commodification as primarily or solely an economic issue, which most scholars do, is further to
diminish its usefulness as a concept in analysis by making commodification in apparently non-commercial
contexts invisible. I don’t accept that commodification is a primarily or peculiarly economic process, or
that it necessarily concerns the abstract exchange and movement of commodities.
In my own work, I understand commodification as a primarily dispositional and discursive process
(with very particular political consequences). I suggest that it arises from a dominance of an expectation that
uncertainty can be or should be “eliminated”. In this, I make a key assumption, that uncertainty (affect) is a
constant and variable aspect of our experience. If this is the case, and my own experience would suggest to me
that it is, then it would follow that the “elimination” of uncertainty can only ever be a rhetorical assertion.
Therefore, it would seem, the more we participate in the discursive “elimination” of uncertainty, the more
we are likely to become alienated from what is happening. The more our discursive renderings of what happens
are suffused with the dispositional expectation that uncertainty can be or should be “eliminated”,
the more misrepresentative are likely to be our renderings of our experience and of whatever we
might refer to as reality. The more we seek to “eliminate” uncertainty, then, the more likely we
are to become structurally blind to how we ourselves are participating in our own political realities.
For a broad discussion of the theme of the elimination of uncertainty in science and philosophy
take a look at F. David Peat's From Certainty to Uncertainty.
I have found that the more we dispositionally tend towards the discursive “elimination” of uncertainty,
the more we are likely to engage in discursive strategies of “closure” and “separation” in the way that
we make sense of our experience. Closure is here understood as the discursive “elimination” of variables,
and separation as the discursive “equation” of difference as separateness. A discursive dominance of
“closure” and “separation” within a particular context is what I mean by commodification. As strategies,
they both rely on the assumption that we can achieve an exact equivalence between what we say and think
about what happens, and what actually happens. In my dissertation of 2002 I outline how the discourses
of the Irish Music Rights Organisation are suffused by such assumptions.
As a consequence of thinking that the commodifying strategies of closure and separation are okay ways
to make sense of experience, it is often the case that we think “things” (“commodities”, “resources”, etc.)
are more important than people and how they treat each other. At the very least, we often naturalize or
reify these “things” so that we assume that they maintain an existence independent of ourselves.
It is easy then to assume that our reifications (and our responses to them) are natural, and often
therefore inevitable and necessary, “the way things are”. Little wonder, then, that I have found various
versions of resource management discourse (access, control, allocation, protection, and ownership) have provided
crucial structural support for the dynamics of enclosure. In my work I now take a dominance of resource
management discourse to be both symptomatic of and constitutive of the commodifying dynamics of enclosure.
I say “commodifying” instead of “commodified” to underline that commodification as I understand it
is a dispositional and discursive process in which we engage and participate.
Karl Marx suggested that a key characteristic of “commodity relations” was that social relations between
people come to assume, it would seem, “the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Kamenka, ed. 1983:446-447).
When resource management models become the central concern of a discourse, as happens in the dynamics of enclosure,
it is very easy to see how people’s lives can become formalistically reduced to involving little more than the exchange,
transaction, and circulation of things/ resources/units/commodities. This frequently allows for the erasure, in C. Wright
Mills’ terms (1959), of both biography and history. This is an obvious way in which uncertainty (affect) can be
“eliminated”, the experiential and affectual aspects of social life excluded from analysis. All too easily
the internal dynamics of a posited resource system become subject to analytic closure, whereby social, political,
and cultural variables get left out of analysis in favour of the aesthetically-charged complexities of resource flow.
In addition, resource management models are premised on the assumption that our experience is always-already commodified.
The very construction of any resources as resources often involves discursive practices of commodification,
as I understand the process. When this is the case, resource management discourses leave it very difficult for those
of us concerned about the accelerative commodification of everyday life to explain the intensifications and
encroachments of commodification. Such concern tends to be not only rendered politically irrelevant, but politically
invisible. Such concern is further sidelined when commodification is corralled as solely an economic concern.
It has already been suggested both that discourses of “the commons” tend to be dominated
by resource management models of “the commons”. It has also been suggested that a discursive dominance of
resource management models tends to be symptomatic and constitutive of commodification and the process
and practices of enclosure. If this is the case, then it makes sense that any dominance of resource
management models in a particular discourse serves as an invitation to further investigation.
A dominance of resource management models may be indicative not only of commodifying discourse, but of the
extensions of absolute authorities and the presence of doctrine, and of the accelerative and intensifying
impetus of enclosing dynamics. This is not necessarily so, but is worth checking for. It is also worth
checking whether the discursive dominance of resource management notions foster and facilitate the
profoundly impactful structural blindnesses to the implications of our own participation that also
tend to be symptomatic of enclosure.
It is not inevitable that resource management models be used to speak of “the commons”. My critique of
commodification and enclosure is also, then, a critique of the use of resource management discourse as an
analytic framework for the study and critique of enclosure. This brings me to an interesting place,
for, as it happens, resource management models have become the dominant models both for the study of
enclosure and for the promotion of notions of “the commons” or “the commons”. I would suggest that this is not
a coincidence, but rather a deepening of the enclosing dynamics that are and have been at work in these
discourses, as new orthodoxies take root and old ones are given new life through the novelties of renaming.
Foucault (1972) cautioned against academic circularity, noting that our scholarly discourses and
practices may well be systematically forming the objects of which we speak. In and through the
“discursive feedback” identified here, I would suggest that we may, through the current orthodoxies of "commons" discourse,
systematically participate in the dynamics that we critique.
What’s of greatest concern to me is “enclosure” (commodification, privatization, marketization,
the spread of economic values etc.) that happens not due to coercion, but on account of acquiescence and
(often enthusiastic) participation. Coercive enclosure is easy to identify, and likely to be met with,
one would hope, high-profile resistance. It’s the creeping commodification of everyday life that I would
think is of greatest concern, and this tends to happen because either we don’t realise that resistance
is even an option or we don’t care to resist. The championing of a “commons” (or even a “public domain”) might
often be interpreted as a series of concerted efforts to carve out a space of what Marcuse (1965) might
have referred to as “repressive tolerance”: “within a repressive society, even progressive movements
threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game.”
It would seem to be a decent enough first step as a defensive measure, but the rhetoric tends to
freeze beyond the aspiration of an efficiently utopian “commons”, and, at any rate, appearances can
be deceptive. Such efforts tend to succeed admirably in inverse proportion to the challenge they offer
to the hegemonic assumptions upon which they are built and in which they nestle, or, to ground it a
little more in day to day realities, in inverse proportion to the radically political challenges that
people offer themselves or others. “Success” of the "commons", then, is not necessarily to be welcomed.
Be careful what you wish for.
If there are fundamental paradoxes, if not outright contradictions within “commons” theory, then a
re-evaluation of “commons” developments is called for. I would suggest that the enthusiasm with which
notions of the “information commons” have been greeted is misplaced. It would be more helpful, I would suggest,
to keep an eye to the critique, concentrating on the implications of enclosure and commodification for the
ways in which we relate to each other. Taking the focus away from resource management will leave us not only
with less misrepresentative analyses. We will have less limiting theoretical perspectives with which to
undertake assessments of our own engagement as discursive participants in the very fields of our inquiry,
that is, with which to undertake more helpful participatory analysis to supplement and inform other
descriptive and explanatory explorations.
Why is this important? We do well to focus again on the critique offered by apologists of the “information commons”.
It’s important because of the expansionary dynamic of enclosure, because of the accelerative dynamics of commodification.
If we aren’t more aware of how we may or may not be helping with relation to such expansion and commodification,
then we are likely to contribute to a long-term worsening of the enclosing dynamics we are often seeking to
ameliorate, even if our short term intentions may frequently seem to be realized. The more appropriate,
sensitive, fluid, dynamic, and flexible the methodologies we employ and deploy, the more appropriate,
sensitive, fluid, dynamic, and flexible will be our participation as scholars and activists. My work, then,
is an invitation to less partial renderings of what happens, more analysis of the consequences of our own
participation, and more adequate understandings of power, agency, expansion, and commodification as they relate
to discourses of the “commons” and "enclosure".
Enclosing characters of social change don’t happen by way of humungous invisible hands that sweep us into
an inevitable further stage of commodifying existence. Enclosure happens when people interact with people,
when attitudes have consequences, as they only ever do, when the smallest rhetorical layerings of absolutism,
domination, oppression, coercion, and violence are anointed with stealth and blessed with the silent pull
of gravity on account of their banal humanity. What in the long term will be a pretty big deal is often
in the short term left unnoticed. Such ways of thinking are not better or Darwinistically superior.
For those of us who are uneasy about them they can be simply different, but the consequences of that
difference are where the possibilities of critique and transformation lie. Whether or not such ideas
become more influential depends on politics, on how energetic, persuasive, or coercive people are with
regard to their propagation, with how acquiescent or participatory we are with regard to their acceptance.
Enclosure tends to be a process in which we ourselves often engage and participate, often regardless of or
on account of our oppositional rhetoric. As such, our greatest contribution in our encounters with the
dynamics of enclosure may well be to consider that there is nothing more political, personal, or
relevant than the character of our own attitude. This would implicate us in the continual clarification
of our own priorities of importance with regard to what we value, and evaluation of the dissonances between
our values and what we find ourselves being expected to concede to, or, often, what we find ourselves conceding to.
Visual representation of Anthony
McCann's theory of enclosure (pdf)
Be warned! These diagrams may not make much sense without reading my work in detail, or without me beside you
to explain what they refer to, but feel free to try and make sense of them. They represent the operating dynamics of
the process and particular practices of enclosure.
Gloss, which I should really put on the diagrams!:
the more the 'influence'
variable ascends the pyramid,
the more directive the influencing of structuring of expectation ...
the more the 'affect' variable ascends the pyramid the more intense the affective experience ...
the more the 'meaning' variable ascends the pyramid
the more the discursive quality of the meaning
is associated with the '"elimination" of uncertainty'.