Levelling mechanisms are those structures and practices that prevent significant inequalities and aymmetries of power appearing within a society.

Automatic and Intentional Levelling Mechanisms

Boehm (1993) makes a useful and important distinction between automatic and intentional levelling mechanisms. When explaining egalitarian societies, early anthropologists tended to identify levelling mechanisms they saw as being automatic, or 'external factors that were likely to inhibit hierarchy and that operate independently of people's intentions'. Thus, it is argued the economics of hunting and gathering societies prevents the accumulation of wealth in the hands of certain members that could then become the basis for pronounced hierarchies and inequalities in these societies. Boehm (1993) asserts that more intentional and deliberate levelling mechanisms are just as important as the automatic levelling mechanisms. This is where people intentionally and collectively 'restrict the development of personal ascendancy among adult males'.

Woodburn (1982) and Levelling Mechanisms in Hunting and Gathering Societies

In this paper Woodburn identifies seven levelling mechanisms in operation in some hunting and gathering societies. These are:

  1. The mobility of people and flexibility of spatial arrangements
  2. Access to means of coercion
  3. Unrestricted access to food and resources
  4. The sharing of resources
  5. Sanctions on the accumulation of personal possessions
  6. The ready and easy transmission of possessions between people
  7. Subversion of leadership in decision-making

Boehm (1993) and Levelling Mechanisms of Egalitarian Societies

In this paper Boehm identifies four significant intentional levelling mechanisms in egalitarian societies:

  1. Public opinion - leaders may be highly sensitive to group disapproval
  2. Criticism and ridicule of leaders by followers
  3. Disobedience of commands of the leader
  4. Extreme sanctions of (i) assassination of the leader; (ii) the deposing of a leader and the appointment of another and (iii) desertion with a whole community moving away from a leader