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Dignity Taking

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The legal scholar Bernadette Atuahene introduced the concept of a "dignity taking" into the sociolegal lexicon in her seminal work We Want What's Ours.[1] A dignity taking is defined as property loss accompanied by dehumanization or infantilization.[2] It can be found “when a state directly or indirectly destroys or confiscates property rights from owners or occupiers whom it deems to be sub persons without paying just compensation and without a legitimate public purpose.”[3] Dehumanization occurs when a person is treated as if they were incapable of caring for themselves and deprived of his or her autonomy, denying them their human nature.[4][5]

The concept of a "taking" has deep roots in American legal culture, even as deep as to be enshrined within the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, this sort of taking, typically found in the context of eminent domain, includes the concept of "just compensation," which recognizes that the original property owners are entitled to some sort of recognition of their ownership,[6] while a dignity taking occurs by directly or indirectly destroying any sort of right that the original owner ever had.[4]

In order for a taking to be categorized as a dignity taking, it must include involuntary property loss and dehumanization or infantilization.[4] In this context, dignity is defined as “the notion that people have equal worth, which gives them the right to live as autonomous beings not under the authority of another.”[4] Additionally, human dignity is defined as "the notion that people have equal worth, which gives them the right to live as autonomous beings not under the authority of another."[4]

Also see Humiliation. For a discussion of what it takes to repair the harm caused by a dignity taking, see Dignity Restoration.

Dignity Takings in Context[edit]

Dignity takings are premised on the idea that property is more than mere economic value and commodity. In reality it has economic as well as social, emotional, political, and cultural value.[7] In fact, a home “is more than a physical structure; it is a claim to a specific space that places a person in proximity to particular people with whom they are likely to form positive or negative relationships.”[7] Additionally, one piece of property can have different meanings to various people and those meanings can have multiple layers of importance.[7]

Takings differ by context depending on who is doing the taking, what and how property rights are taken, what determines consent for the taking, and the rights of the person or community experiencing the taking.[7] In essence, in order to adequately understand dignity takings, it is vital to reach beyond the economic value of property to investigate the role of dignity.[7]

In this respect, dignity takings differ from constitutional takings. Constitutional takings (see also eminent domain) occur when “a state confiscates property against an owner’s will, but it is for a public use or purpose and just, fair, or adequate compensation is paid.”[4] In this realm, the common debate revolves around what determines a public purpose and what factors should be weighed in calculating adequate compensation.[7][6]

Dignity Takings Framework[edit]

The dignity takings framework addresses four objectives: (a) it moves beyond the dominant yet narrow dialogue around constitutional takings and provides a vocabulary to describe and analyze the more egregious takings that vulnerable populations have routinely been subjected across the globe and in different historical periods; (b) it stitches together events of property dispossession that were previously thought unrelated; (c) it allows people who do not consider themselves property scholars to participate in a generative conversation about involuntary property loss; and (d) it captures the material impacts of property confiscation as well as the  intangible ones that, in public discourse, have become invisible.[7] Figure 1 shows the takings spectrum and how dignity takings are different from constitutional takings.

Figure 1: Dignity Takings Framework
Figure 1: Dignity Takings Framework

However, there are limits of the dignity takings framework.[7] Because the two necessary elements of a dignity taking are: (a) loss of property and (b) loss of dignity (through dehumanization or infantilization), they only apply to the confiscation of property and not to the taking of an opportunity to acquire property, such as in the case of racially restrictive covenants.[7] Thus, although dignity takings offer remedy to unjust deprivation of property, they do not offer prevention for unjust treatment before the harm occurs.

John Locke[edit]

The theoretical framework for dignity takings comes from an assertion and critique by John Locke. Locke asserted that property is the basis of dignified membership in a political community, and thus there are deep seated consequences of state sanctioned property confiscation.[8] Locke argued that the social contract arose when men surrendered their God-given individual sovereignty and vested it in the state in exchange for the protection of their life, liberty, and estates.[8] All men are bound by the social contract and are not allowed to exit unless the state’s unjust actions annul their equal standing in society.[8] Most importantly, the illegitimate confiscation of property is sufficient to rescind the social contract because it is an act that subordinates the dispossessed and prevents them from being full and equal members of the polity.

Contemporary Scholars[edit]

The idea of a dignity taking is premised upon Locke’s observations and builds upon the work of modern scholars. For example, Carole Pateman critiques Locke’s observations for failing to observe that only white men entered the social contract as full and equal partners,[9] and Charles Mills observed that through conquest and colonialism, European powers legally and socially ossified non-whites' status as inferior, and thus they were systemically subordinated within the social contract and denied their dignity.[10] Taken together, these theories highlighted two very particular ways to subordinate or exclude individuals or communities from the social contract. First, the state can unjustly deprive people of their property. Second, through acts that dehumanize or infantilize people, the state can deprive them of their dignity. A dignity taking occurs when these two strands intersect and a state directly or indirectly deprives people of both their property and their dignity.

Several other scholars have identified contemporary or modern dignity takings and explored their implications in the context of larger social justice issues. Alexandre Kedar, for example, proffered the concept of unintentional dehumanization through property takings in his exploration of the experience of the Ikrit villagers, who were evacuated while the Israeli military destroyed their homes.[11] Wouter Veraart describes the experience of European Jews during The Holocaust as an emblematic dignity taking.[12] Mindy Thompson Fullilove describes the impact of dignity takings on displaced and dispossessed populations as "root shock," arguing that the damage suffered from a dignity taking extends beyond the taking itself but includes psychological and emotional trauma.[13]

In contrast to the dignity takings described above, Daniel Hulseboch, a legal historian at New York University School of Law, discusses the experience of American Loyalists, and argues that, although they suffered loss of property and civil rights, they did not suffer dignity takings, since the deprivation occurred as a result of individual political choice.[14]

See Dignity Restoration for more examples of dignity takings and dignity restorations.


  1. The book was later transformed into a short film, Sifuna Okwethu
  2. Atuahene, Bernadette (2014). We Want What's Ours. Oxford University Press. Search this book on
  3. Atuahene, Bernadette (2016). We want what's ours : learning from South Africa's land restitution program. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198783350. OCLC 982256694. Search this book on
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Atuahene, Bernadette (2016). "Dignity Takings and Dignity Restoration: Creating a New Theoretical Framework for Understanding Involuntary Property Loss and the Remedies Required". Law & Social Inquiry. 41 (4): 796–823. doi:10.1111/lsi.12249. ISSN 0897-6546.
  5. Haslam, Nick (August 2006). "Dehumanization: An Integrative Review". Personality and Social Psychology Review. 10 (3): 252–264. doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr1003_4. ISSN 1088-8683. PMID 16859440.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Epstein, Richard (2009). Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain. Harvard University Press. Search this book on
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 Atuahene, Bernadette (2016-10-27). "Takings as a Sociolegal Concept: An Interdisciplinary Examination of Involuntary Property Loss". Annual Review of Law and Social Science. 12 (1): 171–197. doi:10.1146/annurev-lawsocsci-110615-084457. ISSN 1550-3585.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 John., Locke (2016). Two Treatises of Government. Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated. ISBN 9781585107988. OCLC 988174488. Search this book on
  9. Pateman, Carole (2018). The Sexual Contract. Stanford University Press. ISBN 9781503608276. Search this book on
  10. Mills, Charles W. (2019-12-31). The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. doi:10.7591/9780801471353. ISBN 9780801471353. Search this book on
  11. Kedar, Alexandre (Sandy) (2016). "Dignity Takings and Dispossession in Israel". Law & Social Inquiry. 41 (4): 866–887. doi:10.1111/lsi.12208. ISSN 0897-6546.
  12. Veraart, Wouter (2016). "Two Rounds of Postwar Restitution and Dignity Restoration in the Netherlands and France". Law & Social Inquiry. 41 (4): 956–972. doi:10.1111/lsi.12212. ISSN 0897-6546.
  13. Fullilove, Mindy Thompson (November 2016). Root shock : how tearing up city neighborhoods hurts America, and what we can do about it (New Village Press ed.). New York. ISBN 978-1-61332-019-8. OCLC 945949147. Search this book on
  14. Hulsebosch, Daniel J. (2016). "Exile, Choice, and Loyalism: Taking and Restoring Dignity in the American Revolution". Law & Social Inquiry. 41 (4): 841–865. doi:10.1111/lsi.12215. ISSN 0897-6546.

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