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Daniel Bitton on the Evolution of the Concept of Egalitarianism


Now before the Woodburn articles and before Man the Hunter and the subsequent focus on these hyper egalitarian immediate return societies, the term “egalitarian society” was often used to describe societies that still had significant elements of hierarchy.

For example, the Nuer who are a traditionally pastoralist people of southern sudan were usually described as an egalitarian society because they have no chiefs, and they are egalitarian in terms of there being equal political authority between men. But at the same time, they also have clear gender hierarchy and some wealth inequality.

Or else people would talk about the nations of the Haudenosaunee confederation in north america as being egalitarian because they had a lot of economic equality and gender equality, even though they also had a significant degree of political inequality and gerontocracy.

But, since the 1980’s, when anthropologists talk about an “Egalitarian society” or “egalitarian hunter gathers”, they’re usually talking about those hyper egalitarian immediate return hunter gatherer societies that i’ve been talking about. Because even if you accept the arguments made by critics about how their egalitarianism is exaggerated, those are still the most egalitarian societies known to exist in just about every respect."