Immediate Return vs. Delayed Return Societies

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Jerome Lewis:

"This characterisation is based on an analytical distinction between an ‘immediate-return’ hunter-gatherer economy and agricultural, herding or capitalist ‘delayed-return’ economies that is helpful for understanding the differences in approach to resource management and the environment.

In delayed-return societies work is invested over extended periods of time before a yield is produced or consumed. This delay between labour investment and consumption results in political inequality because it becomes necessary to establish hierarchical structures of authority to distribute work, yields and control vital assets as labour matures into a yield. The majority of contemporary human societies are based upon delayed-return economies. Efforts by communist states to develop more egalitarian structures inevitably yielded to these fundamental forces, reasserting new types of hierarchies and inequalities to manage the delay between labour and yield.

‘Immediate-return’ hunter-gatherers such as the Yaka are strongly orientated to the present. People like to obtain a direct and immediate return for their labour – eating most of their production on the day they obtain it, as hunters, gatherers and sometimes as day labourers paid in food. They value consumption over accumulation and will share their food with all present on the day they acquire it. Without the authority and power derived from the ability to withhold vital resources, hierarchy has great difficulty establishing itself. Thus societies whose economies are based on immediate returns tend to be egalitarian societies." (


James Woodburn:

"In a number of recent papers (Woodburn 1978; 1979; 1980), I have sought to classify hunting and gathering societies-that is societies in which people obtain their food from wild products by hunting wild animals, by fishing and by gathering wild roots, fruits and the honey of wild bees2-into two major categories, those with immediate-return systems and those with delayedreturn systems.

Immediate-return systems have the following basic characteristics. People obtain a direct and immediate return from their labour. They go out hunting or gathering and eat the food obtained the same day or casually over the days that follow. Food is neither elaborately processed nor stored. They use relatively simple, portable, utilitarian, easily acquired, replaceable tools and weapons made with real skill but not involving a great deal of labour.


The characteristics of these immediate-return systems I have spelt out in some detail elsewhere. Here all I intend is an outline sufficient to provide a background for my discussion of how these societies promote equality. The social organisation of these societies has the following basic characteristics:

(I) Social groupings are flexible and constantly changing in composition.

(2)Individuals have a choice of whom they associate with in residence, in the food quest, in trade and exchange, in ritual contexts.

(3) People are not dependent on spec$c other people for access to basic requirements.

(4) Relationships between people, whether relationships of kinship or other relationships, stress sharing and mutuality but do not involve long-term binding commitments and dependencies of the sort that are so familiar in delayed-return systems.


Delayed-return systems, in contrast, have the following characteristics. People hold rights over valued assets of some sort, which either represent a yield, a return for labour applied over time or, if not, are held and managed in a way which resembles and has similar social implications to delayed yields on labour.

In delayed-return hunting and gathering systems these assets are of four main types, which may occur separately but are more commonly found in combination with one another and are mutually reinforcing:

(I) Valuable technical facilities used in production: boats, nets, artificial weirs, stockades, pit-traps, beehives and other such artefacts which are a

product of considerable labour and from which a food yield is obtained gradually over a period of months or years.

(2) Processed and stored food or materials usually in fixed dwellings.

(3) Wild products which have themselves been improved or increased by human labour: wild herds which are culled selectively, wild food-producing plants which have been tended and so on.

(4) Assets in the form of rights held by men over their female kin who are then bestowed in marriage on other men.

In principle all farming systems, unless based on wage or slave labour, must be delayed-return for those doing the work, since the yield on the labour put into crop-growing or herding domestic animals is only obtained months or years later. Of course in all delayed-return systems there is some immediate-return activity, but it is usually rather restricted and may be treated as low-status activity. Among hunting and gathering societies, the available information suggests that both immediate-return systems and delayed-return systems are common. Most are surprisingly easily classified into one or the other category, but there are some which cause difficulties, as is inevitable with any simple binary distinction.

Delayed-return systems in all their variety (for almost all human societies are of this type) have basic implications for social relationships and social groupings:

they depend for their effective operation on a set of ordered, differentiated, jurally-defined relationships through which crucial goods and services are transmitted. They imply binding commitments and dependencies between people. For an individual to secure the yield from his labour or to manage his assets, he depends on others. The farmer, for example, will almost invariably pool his labour with others-at least with a spouse and usually during the labour peaks of the agricultural cycle with several others-but, equally important, he depends on others for the protection of his growing crops, of his use rights to the land on which they are growing and of the yield when he obtains and stores it. While it would, in principle, be possible to imagine situations in which individuals on their own, invested substantial amounts of labour over time on their own, protected the asset in which the labour was invested on their own, and then secured and managed the yields on their own, in practice this seems almost never to occur." (

The Egalitarian practices of immediate return societies

James Woodburn:

"What is perhaps surprising is that these societies systematically eliminate distinctions-other than those between the sexes-of wealth, of power and of status. There is here no disconnection between wealth, power and status, no tolerance of inequalities in one of these dimensions any more than in the others. I have exempted relations between men and women from this sweeping assertion. In fact formal relationships between men and women are quite variable in these societies, although in all of them women have far more independence than is usual in delayed-return systems. But since I have talked specifically about male-female relations (1978), I have decided to leave them out of the discussion today. In the present article, all the general statements I make about relationships should be taken unless otherwise stated as referring only to adult males.

Let us now see how these systems operate in practice.

Mobility and flexibility

In all these six societies nomadism is fundamental. There are no fixed dwellings, fixed base camps, fixed stores, fixed hunting or fishing apparatus-such as stockades or weirs-or fixed ritual sites to constrain movements. People live in small camp units containing usually a dozen or two people and moving frequently.

These small nomadic camp units are associated with particular areas, usually described in the literature as territories, large enough to provide for subsistence requirements during the annual cycle. Each area at any one time will usually contain one or more camps: camp size and the number of camps vary seasonally. In some cases rights are asserted over its natural resources by the people most closely associated with the area. There is variation between these societies in the extent to which such rights are asserted, but what seems clear is that in every case individuals have full rights of access to camps in several of these areas and there is no question of tightly defined groups monopolising the resources of their areas and excluding outsiders. People can and do move from one camp to another and from one area to another, either temporarily or permanently and without economic penalty. Lee describes how the composition of !Kung camps which usually contain between ten and thirty individuals changes from day to day. Intercamp visiting is, he says, the main source of this fluctuation, but each year about 13 per cent. of the population makes a permanent residential shift from one camp to another. Another 35 per cent. divides its period of residence equally among two or three different camps which may or may not be within the same area (1979: 54).

Access to means of coercion

Another important factor in this context is the access which all males have to weapons among the !Kung, Hadza, Mbuti and Batek. Hunting weapons are lethal not just for game animals but also for people.

There are serious dangers in antagonising someone: he might choose simply to move away but if he feels a strong sense of grievance that his rights have been encroached upon he could respond with violence. Lee gives a number of important case histories of !Kung murders showing clearly that there are contexts in which individuals are prepared to use their poisoned arrows (1979: 370-400). Hadza recognise not just the danger of open public violence, where at least retaliation may be possible, but also the hazard of being shot when asleep in camp at night or being ambushed when out hunting alone in the bush (Woodburn 1979: 2 ~ 2 ) Effective protection against ambush is impossible.

Access to food and other resources

I have already discussed how, within the general pattern of nomadic movement, individuals are able to avoid constraint by their freedom to detach themselves from others at a moment's notice without economic or other penalty. But let us now look more closely at the rights which individuals enjoy without which such action would not be practicable. What are an individual's entitlements to food and other resources and how are these entitlements taken up?

In all these societies individuals have direct access, limited by the division of labour between the sexes, to the ungarnered resources of their country. Whatever the system of territorial rights, in practice in their own areas and in other areas with which they have ties, people have free and equal access to wild foods and water; to all the various raw materials they need for making shelters, tools, weapons and ornaments; to whatever wild resources they use, processed or unprocessed, for trade.

Among the !Kung each area and its resources are used both by a core of men and women with long-standing associations with the area, who identify with it rather than with other areas, and by a wide range of other people who have come from other areas, some temporarily and some more permanently, and who are in most cases linked to one or more of the core members or other residents by a kinship or affinal tie (Marshall 1976; Lee 1979). Anyone with such a link who comes to live with the people of the area cannot, in practice, be refused full access to its resources provided that he or she observes certain minimal rules of politeness. As Marshall explains, newcomers share equally while they live there. No core member or anyone else has the right to withhold resources from the newcomer or to take a larger share (1976: 189).

Among the !Kung, this relative freedom of access operates in spite of the fact that people long associated with an area claim to be 'owners' (k"ausi) of it and in particular of its plant and water resources. The !Kung notion of 'ownership' is clearly a broad one and seems here to mean association with, involvement in, identification with the area rather than narrow possession of it.


The genuine equality of opportunity that individuals enjoy in their access to resources, limited only by the division of labour between the sexes, does not, of course, ensure equality of yield. The quantities of all the various items which individuals obtain, either on their own or jointly with other people, vary greatly depending on skill, on luck, on persistence, on capacity to work and on other factors. It is at this point that the most crucial controls on the development of inequality come into action.

The principal occasions in which individuals in these societies are brought into association with valued assets which could be accumulated or distributed to build status are when large game animals are killed. And it is then that the most elaborate formal rules dissociating the hunter from his kill and denying him the privileges of ownership are brought to bear. Levelling mechanisms come into operation precisely at the point where the potential for the development of inequalities of wealth, power and prestige is greatest. Among the Hadza and the !Kung hunting success among adult men seems to be very variable. A high proportion of animals are killed by a small proportion of men (Lee 1979: 242-4). Techniques for drying meat and converting it into relatively lightweight stores of biltong are known. Yet successful individual hunters are specifically denied the opportunity to make effective use of their kills to build wealth and prestige or to attract dependents. Lee has reported how !Kung are expected to be self-deprecating about their hunting successes; boasting is met with scorn (1979: 243-6). Turnbull (1966: 183) tells us that 'some [Mbuti] men, because of exceptional hunting skill, may come to resent it when their views are disregarded, but if they try to force those views they are very promptly subjected to ridicule'. A Hadza returning to camp having shot a large animal is expected to exercise restraint. He sits down quietly with the other men and allows the blood on his arrow shaft to speak for him.

Sanctions on the accumulation of personal possessions

Clothing, tools, weapons, smoking pipes, bead ornaments and other similar objects are personally held and owned. At least in the case of the three African societies, they are in general relatively simple objects, made with skill but not elaborately styled or decorated and not vested with any special significance. They can be made or obtained without great difficulty. Rules of inheritance are flexible and no-one depends on receiving such objects either by inheritance or by formal transmission from close kin of the previous generation during their lifetime.

Everywhere we find that there are sanctions against accumulation. This cannot be explained, as so many writers have mistakenly suggested, simply in practical terms: nomadic peoples who have to carry everything they possess are concerned that their possessions should be readily portable so that they can be carried with ease when the time comes to move camp, but sanctions against accumulation go far beyond meeting this requirement and apply even to the lightest objects such as beads, arrowheads or supplies of arrow poison.

The transmission of possessions between people

Hadza use a distinctive method for transmitting such personally owned objects between people which has profound consequences for their relationships. In any large camp men spend most of their time gambling with one another, far more time than is spent obtaining food. They gamble mainly for metal-headed hunting arrows, both poisoned and non-poisoned, but are also able to stake knives, axes, beads, smoking pipes, cloth and even occasionally a container of honey which can be used in trade. A few personally-owned objects cannot be staked, because, Hadza say, they are not sufficiently valuable. These are a man's hunting bow, his non-poisoned arrows without metal heads used for hunting birds and small animals, and his leather bag used for carrying his pipes and tobacco, arrowheads and other odds and ends. These objects excluded from gambling share two characteristics: first, they maintain a man's capacity to feed and protect himself and secondly, they are made from materials available in every part of the country.

Leadership and decision-making

In these societies there are either no leaders at all or leaders who are very elaborately constrained to prevent them from exercising authority or using their influence to acquire wealth or prestige.12 A Hadza camp at any particular time is often known by the name of a well-known man then living in it. But this indicates only that the man is well enough known for his name to be a useful label, and not that he acts as either a leader or a representative of the camp (Woodburn 1968b: 105). Hadza decisions are essentially individual ones: even when matters such as the timing of a camp move or the choice of a new site are to be decided, there are no leaders whose responsibility it is to take the decisions or to guide people towards some general agreement. Sporadic discussion about moving does occur but usually it takes the form of announcements by some individual men that they are going to move and where they are going to move to. Other men will often defer a decision about whether to stay, whether to accompany those who are moving, or whether to move elsewhere, until the move actually begins." (


"These are, of course, not the only contexts in which equality is expressed and levelling mechanisms operate: to do justice to the subject it would be necessary to go much further and in particular to explore the expression of egalitarianism in religious belief and practice. But I think I have said enough to show that we have here the application of a rigorously systematic principle: in these societies the ability of individuals to attach and to detach themselves at will from groupings and from relationships, to resist the imposition of authority by force, to use resources freely without reference to other people, to share as equals in game meat brought into camp, to obtain personal possessions without entering into dependent relationships-all these bring about one central aspect of this specific ibrm of egalitarianism. What it above all does is to disengage people from property, from the potentiality in property rights for creating dependency. I think it is probable that this specialised development can only be realised without impoverishment in societies with a simple hunting and gathering economy because elsewhere this degree of disengagement from property would damage the operation of the economy. Indeed the indications are that this development is intrinsic, a necessary component of immediate-return economies which occurs only in such economies.


There equality does not have to be earned or displayed, in fact should not be displayed, but is intrinsically present as an entitlement of all men. There are no casualties of the principle of equality among the Hadza13 or the !Kung, none of whose moral worth is destroyed by poor economic performance or lack of personal competitiveness. Egalitarianism is asserted as an automatic entitlement which does not have to be validated." (

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