Egalitarian Behavior and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy

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* Article: Egalitarian Behavior and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy. By Christopher Boehm; Harold B. Barclay; Robert Knox Dentan; Marie-Claude Dupre; et al. Current Anthropology, Vol. 34, No.3. (Jun., 1993), pp. 227-254.

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Contextual Quote

"From the standpoint of phylogeny an egalitarian mode of political life confronts us with an apparent anomaly (see Boehm 1984, 1991; Knauft 1991). The African great apes with which we share an ancestor have marked social dominance hierarchies with authoritative leadership, and so do humans living in chiefdoms, kingdoms, and states. Why is it, then, that humans dwelling in traditional societies of small scale, in locally autonomous communities of a few dozen to a few hundred persons, appear to live essentially as political equals?"

- Christopher Boehm [1]Bold text


"Egalitarian society is "explained" chiefly in terms of ecological or social factors that are self-organizing. However, egalitarian behavior is found in a wide variety of social and ecological settings, and the indications are that such societies are deliberately shaped by their members. This paper looks to egalitarian behavior as an instance of domination of leaders by their own followers, who are guided by an ethos that disapproves of hierarchical behavior in general and of bossiness in leaders in particular. A substantial cross-cultural survey reveals the specific mechanisms by which the political rank and file creates a reverse dominance hierarchy, an anomalous social arrangement which has important implications for cross-phylogenetic comparisons and for the theory of state formation."



Egalitarian Society

Christopher Boehm:

""Egalitarian society" has become one of anthropology's best-known sociopolitical types (see Fortes and EvansPritchard 1940; Middleton and Tait 1958; Service 1962, 1975; Fried 1967). The central idea has been that in such societies political leadership is weak and ranking and stratification among adult males are absent or muted (see also Flanagan and Rayner 1988, Knauft 1991). For scholars focusing on political evolution and on state origins in particular, this "type" in a sense was an expedient invention, providing a baseline for diachronic analysis (see Mitchell 1978, Schneider 1979, Cashdan 1980). Thus, "egalitarian society" was originally defined chiefly in terms of what was known about the smallscale nomadic foraging societies that so obviously contrasted with centralized polities. An important point agreed upon early on was that a readily recognized air of "equality" prevailed among adult males and at best leaders had little authority or economic advantage.

In explaining egalitarian society, Fried (1967:34) stressed "leveling mechanisms," in particular ones that might be called automatic: external factors that were likely to inhibit hierarchy and that operated independently of people's intentions. His early focus was on hunting bands, and he explained leveling in terms of the exigencies of a nomadic life in which a highly cooperative small group was unable to accumulate much material wealth. Over several decades, other societal types were recognized as exhibiting similar political patterns and were similarly explained in terms of local environmental, economic, demographic, and social-structural features. Analyses of individual egalitarian societies or specific subtypes ranging from nomadic foragers to sedentary horticulturalists have produced an impressive list of automatic leveling mechanisms.

This list applies

(I) to nomadic hunter-gatherers (see Gluckman [1965:4-5] on nonspecialized economic production; Cashdan [1980:II6] and Slobodin [1969:194] on how nomadic subsistence limits material accumulation; Salzman [1979] on effects of scattered and unpredictable resources; Layton [1986:24-28] on dispersed food supply and territorial behavior; Fried [1967:33-34] and Woodburn [1982:440] on uncentralized redistribution systems for large-game meat; Sharp [1958:5-6] and Tonkinson [1988:151] on complex ego-based dominance-submission networks that prevent the emergence of hierarchy at the group level; Turnbull [1965a:228] on constantly changing band composition and its negative effect on the development of authority and control; and, among recently sedentarized foragers, Knauft [1987:466, 477] on witchcraft-type killing as a sanction that facilitates an equitable distribution of females);

(2) to horticulturalists (see Forge [1972:533-34] and Mitchell [1978:9] on competitive redistributive systems based on exchange; Godelier [1982:4] on unavoidable cyclicity in "big-man" careers; and Mitchell [1988] on leveling effects of gambling); and

(3) to pastoralists (see Schneider [1979] and Black [1972:621] on the economic vagaries of cattle-holding; Burnham [1979] on the leveling effects of nomadism and flexible local groups; and Kluckhohn [1966] on the leveling effect of witchcraft accusations). The causal assumptions here seem logical and the leveling effects potentially powerful, but none of these mechanisms provides the basis for a general theory of leveling in traditional societies of small scale-"bands" and "tribes."

Not all or even most egalitarian people are foragers or even nomads. Nor, obviously, are they all gamblers or involved in "big-man" trading competition or pastoralists; nor is their group composition always dynamic. Aside from being by definition less politically centralized and less socially stratified than people who live in chiefdoms, the main thing they seem to share is that their local groups are relatively small and they have egalitarian ideologies; but none of the arguments makes small size or an egalitarian ethos causally responsible for egalitarian society.

Thus, over several decades of study, anthropologists have developed no unified theory for explaining egalitarian behavior."


Intentional Levelling To Maintain Socio-Political Equality

Christopher Boehm:

"Writing about the !Kung more than a decade ago, Lee (1979:457-61) ascribed causal importance to a previously neglected leveling mechanism, namely, the strong tendency of followers to restrict the development of personal ascendancy among adult males, including leaders. Howe's (1979) work on the sedentary modernizing Cuna suggested something rather similar. Several years later two attempts were made to generalize in the same direction. In one of these, discussing subsistence, Woodburn (1982) examined three African hunter-gatherer societies and suggested that their egalitarian political styles were attributable to the people's intentions (see also Ingold 1987:222-42; Woodburn 1988). In the other, in an evolutionary context I likewise emphasized the causal role of intentions (see Boehm 1982b), suggesting that egalitarian political styles developed only after the emergence of the human capacity for purposeful, moralistic sanctioning (see also Boehm 1984, 1986a, 1991). My general evolutionary interpretation was based on extant egalitarian societies and was not limited to foragers, and in a sense it reinterpreted "egalitarian society." In short, it suggested that an apparent absence of hierarchy was the result of followers' dominating their leaders rather than vice versa."


Data on collective action against 'aggressive men', by a coalition of men in indigenous societies

Christopher Boehm:

"The ultimate egalitarian political rebuke is to terminate a person's leadership role. The final solution is assassination; in bands or tribes that do not feud, an entire community can do this readily in the absence of "bodyguards" or a loyal "police force." Woodburn (1982:436) points to individual lethal retaliation as a powerful leveling mechanism among the Hadza and one that carries little risk since it can be accomplished by stealth. In certain parts of Arnhem Land, Australian Aborigines traditionally eliminated aggressive men who tried to dominate them (Berndt and Berndt 1964:289), and Spencer and Gillen (1976:263) recount that the Iliaura got rid of a man who was "very quarrelsome and strong in magic" by handing him over to an Arunta vengeance party. In South America after contact, a Yaruro "chief" was killed for making his own deals with outsiders (Leeds 1962: 599). A !Kung community may execute "extremely aggressive men" (Lee 1982:47). The !Kung also execute incorrigible offenders (Draper 1978:40), much as the Eskimo collectively kill recidivist murderers and others (see Hoebel 1964:88-92). In New Guinea, according to Knauft (1987:475-76), Gebusi assassination of "sorcerers" (people viewed as being unusually aggressive) parallels this !Kung behavior; however, because Knauft believes that the Gebusi are not singling out unusually aggressive people on a conscious basis, their executions would have to be counted under "witchcraft." For this reason, the Gebusi case and others like it have been set aside.~~' Of course, in classical feuding societies killing an extremely aggressive person becomes problematic with clan retaliation, but a man's own clan can put him to death with no further killing."