Land and Legibility: When Do Citizens Expect Secure Property Rights in Weak States?


Legibility and political authority are often conflated in debates over formalization processes, including land titling. This can lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is that citizens anticipate would strengthen their property rights. This study examines the effects of legibility on citizens’ evaluations of property rights in Malawi, a country with limited but increasing land titling. We argue that legibility is a strategic resource for citizens, which has value in itself. To disentangle the effects of legibility and authority on tenure security, we employ a survey experiment. Our findings show that respondents perceived land with written property rights to be more secure and more desirable regardless of whether a state or customary authority granted these land rights. In contrast to scholarship that examines legibility as a technology of state control, this research suggests that legibility can help citizens advance their interests.

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License CC BY
Type Journal Articles
C-ID POLS 130 - Comparative