Religious Land as Commons: Buddhist Temples, Monastic Landlordism, and the Urban Poor in Thailand

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Recent critical scholarship has theorized the urban commons in terms of value regimes and practices not reducible to market logic. Specifically, it views the urban commons as a counter force to greediness, poverty, and other ills of the neoliberal urban era, but it neglects the centrality of “land.” We offer a corrective. Based on a study of the commons that is embedded in religious land, this article interrogates the tradition-rooted ethical maintenance and mundane uses of religious land in the context of urban Thailand. Buddhist temples (wats) show that monastic landlords are aware of religious land’s revenue-generating possibilities, but they resist the temptation to treat it speculatively. Instead, religious land is leased for housing, vending, and farming at a nominal rent, alongside its use for a range of religious and communal purposes. As a faith-based, non-Western, and pro-poor form of urban commons, the wats provide an understudied type of flourishing alternative to the privatized commodification and financialization of urban land. We discuss the advantages (related to the wats' stability and popular, but anti-radical, appeal) and problems (perils of repressiveness, otherworldliness, instances of corruption, and quasi-sovereignty from state power) in conceptualizing the land of faith-based organizations and their ownership and leasing practices as instances of the urban commons.
Original languageEnglish
JournalAmerican Journal of Economics and Sociology
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)585-636
Number of pages52
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

Fields of Science

  • 5142 Social policy
  • 5203 Global Development Studies
  • 5200 Other social sciences
  • Religious land
  • Thai Buddhist temples
  • Monastic landlordism
  • Urban commons
  • Tradition-rootedness
  • Urban poor

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