Hunter Gatherer Research

Monopolisation of knowledge, social inequality and egalitarianism

An evolutionary perspective

Hunter Gatherer Research (2016), 2, (1), 5–37.

Abstract

It is argued in this article that we should search not for the origin or roots of social inequality, but rather for factors that might have caused a specific form or type of social inequality to develop and for mechanisms which might have shaped specific structural features of hierarchical systems. Also examined are the factors underlying the development of egalitarian social systems. Egalitarianism is as much a product of specific evolutionary processes as is the development of the various forms of social inequality. Different mechanisms of structuring hierarchical systems may act in parallel in the same society, or could be specific to particular cultures in particular periods. The foundations of hierarchical systems may lie in the sphere of material production, but also in other social realms, including the control of beliefs. The monopolisation of special knowledge and occupations (frequently connected with ideology) by certain social groups can be a powerful force that shaped and still shapes social inequality. The spirit of competition and emulation in warfare, occultism, artistic performance and other spiritual endeavours might also promote the development of institutionalised and excessive status inequality. Supporting evidence for non-economic drivers of inequality is drawn from the ethnographic record of indigenous Australian and Fuegian hunter-gatherers. It is argued that a society which had powerful mechanisms preventing accumulation of wealth by individuals or groups was able, nevertheless, to build up effective mechanisms of social differentiation. To create such mechanisms, it is unnecessary for a society to have followed a path towards the development of the production of a food surplus or economic intensification. The phenomena under consideration could exist without any paraphernalia that would leave archaeological signatures, although some data from European Upper Paleolithic sites might be interpreted as the indirect evidence of similar forms of inequality. The archaeological record also provides evidence of small-scale societies that show ‘some degree of inequality but lack many of the other traits associated with complexity’ (Ames 2010a:16–19). The discussion concludes with a set of nine propositions that are intended to stimulate debate and raise awareness of alternative pathways to inequality and equality.

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Artemova, O.Yu.