How Did Social Inequality Arise?
In The Creation of Inequality: how our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus begin with the notion that the fields of Anthropology and Archaeology should inform one another. Anthropology learns from humans within living memory what they think and feel; while archaeology provides silent clues to the past: buildings, tools or bones.
They build a detailed account of how over the last five thousand or so years, humans have built unequal societies. They examine the underlying cultural logic of different social formations to show how inequality, and subsequent formations, can arise. They deny any straight line model of social development, that one stage leads to another, but rather that each stage can allow the next development. They also note that it isn’t a given level of technology or natural abundance that gives rise to different social formations (they note how the Andes, where the wheel was never even invented, can be seen as the graveyard of such theories). They suggest that over millennia, societies have oscillated between relatively equal or unequal forms, following ‘social logic’.
They begin with the most equal form of society: the nomadic extended kin group (such as has been encountered in the Arctic within historic memory). They observe that these groups of hunter/gatherers are relatively egalitarian, without formal leaders or classes. They also note that this distinguishes humans from our near primate relatives, who in similar bands operate either with alpha males or an alpha male/beta male coalition. They propose, though, that such dominance hierarchies and behavioural traits do remain in human communities; but that, rather, the function of the alpha male has been replaced by ‘God’ with beta coalitions replaced by interceding ancestors and spirits.
That is, people treat the deity and ancestors as if they were above them in a dominance hierarchy (such as, by adopting submission positions), and thinking of themselves as subordinates to these entities. All living humans thus become gammas, in effect equal in subordination. Religion, they suggest, is accompanied by collective ritual, and by inducement of euphoric states to reinforce its effects.
As an aside, this is a fascinating concept, firstly because it does provide for the notion that there was a positive evolutionary reason for the development of the idea of god (which rebuts the arguments of some pro-theists who suggest the disutility of the idea as evidence for some real basis for religion). Secondly, it suggests a useful interpretation of contemporary political psychology. When dictators and their boot boys elevate themselves to godlike status or servants of god, they free themselves from the constraints imposed by such submission. As we shall see, below, the development of inequality was in part about the appropriation of divine sanction.
The hunter gatherer bands may have engaged in gift relations with other nearby bands. As the authors note, the emphasis would have been on seeking and maintaining social relations and retaining the possibility of help and assistance when things may have gone bad. They suggest that, rather than developing language to assist in practical tasks, language and symbolic thinking emerged as a means of coalition building and enabling links between extended kin groups. A development of this, for example, was the nomination of special friends for young males. They give the example of an Eskimo tribe, whose boys had friends allocated parts of a slaughtered seal, indicating their sharing of the goods. They also note the ‘magic of names’ where a bond is assumed between people sharing a name, even beyond a kinship relation.
They conjecture that it was such behaviour that gave rise to the extended clan-based society. A key feature of such a society is the notion of social substitutability. If a person commits a murder, say, it becomes acceptable to kill one of their clan as a substitute for retaliating directly against them individually.