Christopher Boehm (1993) ‘Egalitarian Behavior and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy’, Current Anthropology, Vol.34, No. 3, pp. 227-254)


This is an extended review of Boehm’s paper. Its purpose is to explain how egalitarian societies maintain their structures and the emergence of hierarchies and inequalities are blocked and thwarted via the use of levelling mechanisms. The main thrust of Boehm’s argument is that these levelling mechanisms are conscious and deliberate strategies of the members of these societies. In this respect, this conclusion shares many similarities with those to be found in Woodburn’s (1982) paper.

Materialist’ Explanations of Levelling in Egalitarian Societies

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 significant accumulation of wealth in the hands of certain members that could then become the basis for pronounced hierarchies and inequalities in these societies. Boehm’s critique of these explanations is that they undervalue and marginalise the importance of intentional levelling mechanisms, where people intentionally and collectively ‘restrict the development of personal ascendancy among adult males’.


It is importance of ‘reverse dominance hierarchy’ – the capacity of rank and file followers to dominate their leaders – in egalitarian societies that Boehm seeks to explore. In order to explore this hypothesis, he explored data from 48 societies spread across the globe, ranging from small hunting and gathering bands to more sedentary chiefdoms.

Four Levelling Mechanisms

Boehm identifies four significant mechanisms operating in the societies included in his comparative survey. He provides ethnographic evidence to illustrate each of them:

Public Opinion: leaders may be highly sensitive to group disapproval and give way to others in response to negative public opinion about their behaviour.

Criticism and Ridicule: followers may also sharply criticise leaders and ridicule their behaviour, if they feel that the powers of leadership have been abused.

Disobedience: another way to teach a prominent man a lesson is through simply disobeying his commands.

Extreme Sanctions: the final and extreme mechanism is to terminate a person's leadership role through an act of violence. This is often an assassination that might be condoned by (and sometimes be undertaken by) a whole community or clan. There are two other extreme sanctions identified by Boehm: (i) the deposing of a leader and the appointment of another and (ii) desertion with a whole community moving away from a leader.

Further Characteristics of Egalitarian Societies

Boehm identifies what seems to be something of a rag bag of additional characteristics of egalitarian societies:

Ambivalence towards leaders: within the egalitarian ethos of these societies, there is an expectation that leaders should be strong and brave, whilst at the same time being unassuming and with an absence of self-aggrandizement. At the heart of this ethos is, thus, ambivalence about the appropriate role of leaders.

Anticipation of domination: Boehm suggests that in those societies where evidence of explicit levelling mechanisms is absence, the simple threat of individuals using these mechanisms might nevertheless generate levelling effects. In this respect, Boehm writes ‘As long as followers remain vigilantly egalitarian because they understand the nature of domination and leaders remain cognizant of this ambivalence-based vigilance, deliberate control of leaders may remain for the most part highly routinized and ethnographically unobvious.’

Was intentional levelling universal? Given the strong evidence in support of some form of intentional levelling in many societies, Boehm explores the extent to which it is a universal characteristic of human development. Whilst he acknowledges that the evidence is difficult to interpret, he concludes by saying that ‘as of 40,000 years ago, with the advent of anatomically modern humans who continued to live in small groups and had not yet domesticated plants and animals, it is very likely that all human societies practised egalitarian behaviour and that most of the time they did so very successfully.’

Social scale: the operation of successful levelling mechanisms has, according to Boehm, restricted the size of social groups. This is because, when leadership is weak, it is possible to leave a group, thereby ensuring that it remains small. He writes that ‘egalitarian behaviour ensures that leadership will be weak and, as a side effect, that fission will take place readily and communities may remain small. In turn, these communities may remain too small to develop important factions. Therefore, ordinary people, who are used to decision making by consensus, remain in a good position to form one large coalition and thereby control their leaders.’

Phylogenetic considerations: if it is accepted that there is human tendency to dominate others, then it might be assumed that it is difficult to square with Boehm's evidence on the operation of several levelling mechanisms in egalitarian societies. According to him, this is not the case. The employment of these mechanisms is evidence of an explicit and deliberate attempt by the rank and file of a social group to dominate those individuals who that attempt to dominate them.

Here's a long quote that summarises Boehm's thesis:

'In small-scale societies that exhibit very limited hierarchy, potential victims deal with their ambivalence by setting aside their individual tendencies to submit and forming a coalition to control their more assertive peers. As a result, prudent...leaders set aside their own tendencies to dominate and submit to their groups even as they lead them. I have said that the social result of this interaction is...a group that cooperates well and that remains small because in the absence of strong leadership it so readily subdivides. Its small size in turn tends to keep major factions from forming and stablising. The resulting unity of purpose makes it possible for all or most members of local communities to unite against leaders and, by threat of disapproval or active sanctioning, circumscribe their role.'