James Woodburn (1982) ‘Egalitarian Societies’, Man (NS), Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 431-451


This paper’s aim is to provide an overview of the principal modes of economic, social and political organisation of those societies in which ‘individuals have no real authority over each other’, who are therefore ‘near-equals’. It also seeks to defend the perspective that in these societies equality is actively and deliberately asserted and realised by their members. Woodburn summarises this perspective when he writes:

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 claim more status than other people, and are vigilant in seeking to prevent or to limit this.’

It therefore shares many similarities with Boehm's (1993) paper and his ideas about intentional levelling mechanisms.

The Classification of Hunting and Gathering Societies

Woodburn argues that egalitarianism is the principal mode of organisation in only a certain type of hunting and gathering societies. In order to develop this argument, he makes a distinction between an ‘immediate-return’ system and a ‘delayed-return’ system.

The Immediate-return system

In this system ‘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.’ Tools and weapons are easy to make and to acquire.

This system provides the infrastructure – the structural conditions of existence – for a specific mode of social organisation, where (i) social groupings are flexible and changing in composition, (ii) individuals have a choice about whom they associate with in a wide range of activities, (iii) people are not dependent on specific people for access to essential resources and (iv) social relationships emphasize mutuality and not long term patterns of dependency.

The Delayed-return system

In this system ‘people hold rights over valued assets of some sort, which either present 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.’ These assets are (i) tools and the means of production, (ii) stored food, (iii) ‘managed’ wild foods and resources and (iv) rights to bestow female kin in marriage to other men.

This system necessarily generates social relationships that depend on (i) clearly defined and ordered social relationships through which goods and services can be transmitted and (ii) binding commitments and dependencies between people.

A San Bushmen Camp

The Seven Levelling Mechanisms of Egalitarian Societies

Woodburn identifies seven levelling mechanisms in operation in some hunting and gathering societies. (His two principal examples are the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari and the Hadza of Tanzania. There's more of a discussion of these types of societies in the excellent hunters and gatherers wiki.)

1. Mobility and flexibility

Nomadism is a fundamental feature of these societies – people have no fixed dwellings or territories and are free to move wherever they want to go. They are therefore ‘potentially autonomous’. This is because there are no groups who are able to monopolise access to the resources in specific areas, thereby preventing others from gaining access to them. Woodburn explains why nomadism is subversive for the development of authority:

Individuals are not bound to fixed areas, to fixed assets or to fixed resources. They are able to move away without difficulty and at a moment’s notice from constraint which others may seek to impose on them and such possibility of movement is a powerful levelling mechanism, positively valued like other levelling mechanisms in these societies.’

2. Access to means of coercion

In hunting and gathering societies all adult males are armed with lethal weapons, principally used by them to hunt game. Thus, there are serious dangers in antagonising someone, since they might respond violently and use these weapons with deadly effect.

Inappropriate uses of power by individuals and their unequal access to resources may be potential sources of envy and resentment in egalitarian societies and, thus, may result in others taking violent action against them. This ever-present threat of violence is, according to Woodburn, another important levelling mechanism.

3. Access to food and resources

In hunting and gathering societies all individuals have the right to, and the capacity to make use of, the ungarnered resources of their country. These resources include wild foods and water and raw materials for making shelters, tools and weapons. This right is held by those people associated by convention with a certain area and those who are visiting an area temporarily. As such, there are few firm and clear boundaries strictly delimiting people’s access to resources.

According to Woodburn, there are two ways in which this lack of boundaries prevents and restricts the growth of inequalities. First, these arrangements reduce inequalities because:

If in one area people are eating better than in another, then, other things being equal, movement of people coupled perhaps with adjustment of boundaries, is likely over time to tend to even out such unacceptable discrepancies.’

Secondly, since all individuals have ready access to their means of subsistence, it is impossible for certain individuals to employ a capacity to restrict and circumscribe the access of others to resources as the basis of their power. In many societies people are dependent on others to get the resources they need and this provides them with power. In these hunting and gathering societies the relationships that provide a base for this power are absent.

4. Sharing

Whilst there is a genuine equality of opportunity for all people in relation to the access to resources, this does not ensure an equality of yield. Due to luck, skill and persistence, some individuals are able to generate more valued assets than others. This could then become a foundation for inequality in these societies, since those with greater valued assets could use them to build up a surplus and unequal dependencies with others with fewer assets.

But there is a powerful levelling mechanism at operation in these societies that prevents this outcome. This is the social expectation that those that achieve big yields – say, the killing of large game – should be both self-deprecating about their successes and should also share their assets with all others in their social group. If a man boasts about his hunting prowess, then he ridiculed by others. It would be heinous offence – likely to be enforced with threats of violence – for the hunter to eat a kill by himself.

It has been suggested that this arrangement is a kind of reciprocal exchange, where a hunter donates meat to others in the expectation that they will reciprocate in kind when he has not been successful when hunting. Woodburn argues that this is not the case. He asserts that ‘entitlement does not depend in any way on donation and some men who are regular recipients never themselves contribute’. His interpretation is that it something ‘imposed on the donor by the community.’ As such:

It is analogous to taxation on incomes of the successful in our own society. The successful pay more than the less successful and are obliged to do so. They are not able to establish greater claims in future through having paid more in tax and do not derive much prestige from having contributed more to the tax pool than they have withdrawn from in benefits.’

5. Sanctions on the accumulation of personal possessions

In these societies people have personal possessions – clothing, tools, weapons, pipes and decorations. These are all objects that are relatively easy to make and can obtained without any great difficulty. Yet individual have few personal possessions and appear to be unwilling to accumulate more. This is more than being an expression of the physical difficulties people might face when transporting a large number of personal possessions from location to location. It is more an outcome of people’s conformance with a powerful cultural norm and expectation about the inappropriateness of an individual owning a large amount of personal possessions.

6. The transmission of possessions between people

In hunting and gathering societies personal possessions are transmitted between people by gambling, which entertains many of their males for long periods of time. When they gamble they are able to stake most thing of value, such as weapons, tools, smoking pipes and cloth.

It might be expected that gambling might lead to some individuals accumulated resources, but this never happens. This is because those who win substantial winnings are subject to great social pressure to continue to compete, thereby allowing other competitors ample opportunities to win back their loss possessions. The effect of gambling is, thus, to ensure that scarce and local objects are circulated throughout an area, but without employing a ‘form of exchange which would bind participants to one another in potentially unequal relationships of kinship or contract.’ As such, gambling ‘subverts the accumulation of individual wealth by the hard-working or by the skilled.’

7. Leadership and decision-making

Woodburn’s assessment of these societies is that ‘there are 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.’ As a consequence, there are no people who able to exercise constant and permanent authority over a social group and most decisions are essentially individual in nature. For example, an individual may declare that he intends to move to new camp and some others may decide to go with him, whilst others decide to remain put. His social standing and experience might sway some to follow him, but there is nothing that might guarantee this outcome.

Woodburn concludes by saying that these hunting and gathering societies are egalitarian due to:

the ability of individuals to attach and 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 the game meat brought into camp [and] to obtain personal possessions without entering into dependent relationships.’

What is therefore central to these structures and practices is, according Woodburn, that they ‘disengage people from property, from the potentiality in property rights creating dependency.’

The Egalitarianism of Acephalous Delayed-Return Societies

In order to highlight the particular characteristics of egalitarian structures in hunting and gathering societies, Woodburn contrasts them with some acephalous delayed-return societies. His principal examples of these types of societies are taken from Papua New Guinea.

Whilst in acaphalous delayed-return societies there is equality between heads of households, there is strenuous competition for wealth, power and prestige between them employing the mechanism of the equal exchange of equivalent things. (There is, therefore, ‘equality of opportunity’ between them.) This is a competitive egalitarianism where some individuals lose out and, as a consequence, their wealth and social status is reduced. They pushed to the margins of a community and are referred to as ‘rubbish-men.’ (The outcome of this process is, thus, a lack of ‘equality of condition.’) These societies contrast with hunting and gathering societies since here ‘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.’