Egalitarian Societies

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* Article: Woodburn, James. 1982 ‘Egalitarian Societies.’ Man, the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 17, no. 3: 431-51.



"Greater equality of wealth, of power and of prestige has been achieved in certain hunting and gathering societles than in any other human societies. These societies, which have economies based on immediate rather than delayed return. are assertively egalitarian. Equality IS achieved through direct, individual access to resources; through direct, individual access to means of coercion and means of mobility which limit the imposition of control; through procedures which prevent saving and accumulation and impose sharing; through mechanisms which allow goods to circulate without making people dependent upon one another. People are systematically disengaged from property and therefore from the potentiality in property for creating dependency. A comparison is made between these societies and certain other egalitarian societies in which there is profound intergenerational inequality and in which the equality between people of senior generation is only a starting point for strenuous competition resulting In inequality.

The value systems of non-competitive, egalitarian hunter-gatherers limit the development of agriculture because rules of sharing restrict the investment and savlngs necessary for agriculture; they may limit the care provided for the Incapacitated because of the controls on dependency; they may in principle, extend equality o all mankind." (


James Woodburn:

"In a work published after his death, Malinowski made the splendidly forthright declaration that 'authority is the very essence of social organisation"(1960: 61). I am going to talk about a type of social organisation, not understood in Malinowski's day, in which individuals have no real authority over each other.

This lecture is about certain societies in which there is the closest approximation to equality known in any human societies and about the basis for that equality. I have chosen to use the term 'egalitarian' to describe these societies of near-equals because the term directly suggests that the 'equality' that is present is not neutral, the mere absence of inequality or hierarchy, but is asserted. The terms 'egality', from which 'egalitarian' is derived, was introduced into English with its present meaning in a poem by Tennyson in 1864 to suggest politically assertive equality of the French variety.l Even today 'egalitarian' carries with it echoes of revolution, offervour for equality in opposition to elaborate structures of inequality. But politically assertive egalitarianism is, of course, not found only in hierarchical systems under challenge and in their successor regimes. It is equally characteristic of many systems without direct experience of elaborate instituted hierarchy. Yet it may still seem surprising at first that equality should be asserted in certain very simply organised contemporary hunting and gathering societies which I am going to talk about, and in which, one might think, equality would simply be taken for granted.

In these societies equalities of power, equalities of wealth and equalities of prestige or rank are not merely sought but are, with certain limited exceptions, genuinely realised. But, the evidence suggests, they are never unchallenged. People are well aware of the possibility that individuals or groups within their own egalitarian societies may try to acquire more wealth, to assert more power or to claim more status than other people, and are vigilant in seeking to prevent or to limit this. The verbal rhetoric of equality may or may not be elaborated but actions speak loudly: equality is repeatedly acted out, publicly demonstrated, in opposition to possible inequality.

It is noteworthy that although very many societies are in some sense egalitarian, those in which inequalities are at their minimum depend on hunting and gathering for their subsistence. For reasons which I shall seek to explain, only the hunting and gathering way of life permits so great an emphasis on equality. But there is, of course, no question of the equality being a simple product of the hunting and gathering way of life. Many hunter-gatherers have social systems in which there is very marked inequality of one sort or another, sometimes far more marked than the inequalities in certain simple agricultural or nomadic pastoral societies."

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