Debbie Becher

Debbie Becher

Associate Professor of Sociology


Sociology, Urban Studies


329 Milbank Hall
Tuesday 2 - 3:30 pm

Debbie researches what it has meant for land to be treated as private property. Her studies of private property sit at the intersection of economic sociology, the sociology of law, and urban and rural sociology.

Her first book, Private Property and Public Power: Eminent Domain in Philadelphia (Oxford University Press, 2014) co-won the 2016 Zelizer Award for Best Book in Economic Sociology from the American Sociological Association and won the 2015 Harrt Socio-Legal Prize for Early Career Academics from the Socio-Legal Studies Association. The book analyzes the legitimacy of government involvement in private property with the first comprehensive study of a city’s eminent-domain acquisitions. The exceptional step of taking property exposes a logic operating in many other situations. Debbie argues that a logic of real property -- which attempts to match returns to investments -- guides individual and organizational action in the contemporary urban United States. Property-governing institutions enforce a logic trying to value and reward property investment – including emotional, financial, temporal, and cognitive investment. Dissatisfaction and claims of public wrongs arise not when or because government threatens property titles. They arise instead when property-governing institutions fail to meet the task of enforcing this more complex and evasive logic. The conception of property as investment offers progressive possibilities because it draws attention to the socially produced, changing value of land and buildings and demands a respect for multiple kinds of value.Until now, it has not been described by legal, political, and economic scholarship. This book reveals how institutions and individuals employ the idea of investment to resolve tensions between public and private interests.

Debbie is now writing a book A Fractured Nation, under contract with Oxford University Press, based on her investigation of property-rights tranfers necessary for oil extraction in the Northern Plains.  With this project, Debbie is shedding more light on the value of private property in highly uncertain environments and across power differences. Many places in the United States are witnessing a monumental land rush, as oil and gas companies try to capitalize on fairly new technology, knowledge, regulations, and prices. Scholarly attention to the issue is booming as well, but most studies focus on environmental, health, and community impacts and activism; few scholars are investigating the property rights that make gas production possible (or prevent it).  Debbie is studying how energy companies and surface- and mineral-rights owners make deals for the property rights to do the drilling, including how the rights are valued financially. 

  • Social Justice: Connecting Academics to Action
  • Law and Society
  • Urban Inequality
  • Social Theory
  • Sociology of Law (graduate)
  • Eminent Domain and Neighborhood Change
  • Senior thesis

  • 2015 National Science Foundation Grant, Law and Social Sciences Program
  • 2009-10 Visiting Scholar, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 2008-09 Research Fellow, The Brookings Institution, Metropolitan Policy Program
  • 2008-09 American Fellow, American Association of University Women (AAUW)
  • 2007-08 Graduate Prize, American Studies, Princeton University
  • 2006-08 Fellow, Society of Woodrow Wilson Scholars, Princeton University
  • 2006-07 Graduate Prize Fellowship, Center for Human Values, Princeton University
  • 2006 Arthur Liman Fellowship, Yale Law School/Princeton University


Becher, Debbie. Private Property and Public Power: Eminent Domain in Philadelphia, 2014. Oxford University Press.

Co-Winner, Zelizer Award for Best Book in Economic Sociology, American Sociological Association, 2016
Winner, Hart Socio-Legal Prize for Early Career Academics, Socio-Legal Studies Association, 2015

Interview in Accounts, the Newsletter of ASA's Economic Sociology Section, 2017

Becher, Debbie. A Fractured Nation (In progress). Under Contract with Oxford University Press.

Becher, Debbie. 2015. “Race as a Set of Symbolic Resources: Mobilization in the politics of eminent domain,” in Race and Real Estate. Eds. Adrienne Brown, Kim Lane Scheppele, and Valerie Smith. Oxford University Press. pp. 125-144. pdf

Becher, Debbie. 2012. "Political Moments with Long-term Consequences” in Remaking Urban Citizenship: Organizations, Institutions, and a Right to the City. Eds. Michael Peter Smith and Michael McQuarrie.  Volume 10 in Comparative Urban and Community Research. New Brunswick (U.S.A.) and London (U.K.): Transaction Publishers. pp. 203-220. pdf

Becher, Debbie. September 2010. "The Participant's Dilemma: Bringing Conflict and Representation Back In" International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 34(3) 496-511. pdf

Becher, Debbie. 2010“The Rights behind Eminent Domain Fights:  A Little Property and a Lot of Home” in Property Rights and Neo-liberalism: Cultural Demands and Legal Actions. Eds.  Wayne McIntosh and Laura Hatcher.  Ashgate Press. 75-93. pdf

Becher, Debbie. 2008. “Narrating and Naming Positive Agents: Storytelling by Philadelphia Postwar Political Elite.” Poetics. 36(1) 72-93. pdf

“The (Valuation) Politics of Privatization,” Forthcoming. A Book Review Essay of Caring Capitalism: The Meaning and Measure of Social Value, by Emily Barman, 2016, Cambridge University Press. Contemporary Sociology. pdf

Book Review. 2015. Black Citymakers, by Marcus Hunter. 2013. Oxford University Press. Contemporary Sociology. 44(4) 519-21. pdf

Becher, Debbie, 2015.  “The Public Nature of Private Property,” in Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Science, Eds. Robert Scott and Steven Kosslyn. Online resource first published May 2015. John Wiley and Sons. pdf

Book Review. Everyday Law on the Street, by Mariana Valverde. 2012. University of Chicago Press. 2013. City and Community. 12(4) 410-12pdf

Erika Nesvold. 2017. Debbie Becher featured in podcast “Who Owns Mars: Property Rights in Outer Space,” Episode 3 of Making New Worlds: Exploring the Ethics of Human Settlement in Space. November 29.

Ferhunde Dilara Demir, 2017. Interview with Debbie Becher in AccountsNewsletter of the Economic Sociology section of the American Sociological Association. 16(2) 9-16.