Debbie Becher

Assistant Professor

Debbie's book, Private Property and Public Power: Eminent Domain in Philadelphia (Oxford University Press, 2014), analyzes the legitimacy of government involvement in private economic actions. The exceptional step of taking property exposes a logic operating in many other situations. This logic of real property, which attempts to match returns to investments, guides individual and organizational action in the contemporary urban United States, but it is not yet described by legal, political, and economic scholarship. This project reveals how institutions and individuals employ this logic to resolve tensions between public and private interests.

In the first comprehensive study of a city’s eminent-domain acquisitions, Debbie explores which properties the city pursues for private redevelopment and how stakeholders decide that government actions are either a use or abuse of power. A quantitative overview of citywide practice combines originally collected data on eminent domain with City of Philadelphia and U.S. Census data on properties and neighborhoods, showing that eminent domain has been largely uncontroversial though fairly common (approximately 7,000 properties and 400 development projects pursued from 1992 to 2007). Case studies of two controversial development projects probe more deeply into the porous and shifting boundary between desirable and undesirable government action. Readers follow these projects through planning and implementation, with evidence from public records, documents on file in offices of the Mayor and the Redevelopment Authority, and interviews with residents, business owners, community leaders, government representatives, attorneys, and appraisers. Though in moments of conflict those opposing eminent domain employ an idea of property security as possession (“what’s mine is mine and what’s your is yours”), more flexible approaches to property governance are more common.

Property-governing institutions enforce a logic trying to value and reward property investment – including emotional, financial, temporal, and cognitive investment. Written rules, public claims, and individual practices aim to ensure that the social environment provides returns to investments of all kinds in a fairly equitable manner. 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.

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. 


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

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

Becher, Debbie, 2015.  “Private Property and Public Responsibility,” 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.

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


Academic Focus: 



Social Theory

Law and Society (Lecture and Advanced Undergraduate Seminar)

Urban Inequality

Senior Thesis

Eminent Domain and Neighborhood Change

Sociology of Law (Graduate)

Awards & Honors: 

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


329 Milbank


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