The Myth of Ownership: An Anthropologist Looks at the Corporate Share

Ira Bashkow
Associate Professor of Anthropology
University of Virginia
August 31, 2012
Brooks Hall 2nd Floor Conference Room
1:00 P.M.-3:00 P.M.
Reception to follow in Brooks Hall Commons

Given the scale of attention paid to the stock market and the importance of stock investment in the economy, it is surprising how much mystification attaches to the question of what corporate stock is. The predominant view is that companies are owned collectively by the owners of the shares of their stock, and this principle forms the foundation of norms of corporate purpose that are widely taken for granted. But there is in fact no strong legal case for this view, and the evidence from the economicstructure of corporations is drawn solely from early stage firms and is contradicted in the case of the later stage public companies whose shares are traded on the main stock exchanges.
In this talk I explain the significance of our society's "mythic" construction of corporate share ownership. Its academic support comes from finance economics and reflects flawed, individualistic presuppositions regarding property ownership and the nature of corporate entities. An anthropological perspective, attuned to the specifics of social form and the historicity and reality of social formations, is needed to demystify the nature of corporate equity as a form of property, and to reveal the essentially political construction of its role in contemporary capitalism.