Woodburn (1982) argues that explicit and unambigious egalitarianism is the principal mode of organisation only in societies employing an immediate-return system. What's the meaning of this term and how does it constrast with 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’ (Woodburn, 1982). 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 (iii) 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’ (Woodburn, 1982). 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.