Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

8.2: Egalitarian Societies

  • Page ID
    56433
  • BAND-LEVEL POLITICAL ORGANIZATION

    Societies organized as a band typically comprise foragers who rely on hunting and gathering and are therefore nomadic, are few in number (rarely exceeding 100 persons), and form small groups consisting of a few families and a shifting population. Bands lack formal leadership. Richard Lee went so far as to say that the Dobe! Kung had no leaders. To quote one of his informants, “Of course we have headmen. Each one of us is headman over himself.”[9]At most, a band’s leader is primus inter pares or “first among equals” assuming anyone is first at all. Modesty is a valued trait; arrogance and competitiveness are not acceptable in societies characterized by reverse dominance. What leadership there is in band societies tends to be transient and subject to shifting circumstances. For example, among the Paiute in North America, “rabbit bosses” coordinated rabbit drives during the hunting season but played no leadership role otherwise. Some “leaders” are excellent mediators who are called on when individuals are involved in disputes while others are perceived as skilled shamans or future-seers who are consulted periodically. There are no formal offices or rules of succession.[10]

    Bands were probably the first political unit to come into existence outside the family itself. There is some debate in anthropology about how the earliest bands were organized. Elman Service argued that patrilocal bands organized around groups of related men served as the prototype, reasoning that groups centered on male family relationships made sense because male cooperation was essential to hunting.[11] M. Kay Martin and Barbara Voorhies pointed out in rebuttal that gathering vegetable foods, which typically was viewed as women’s work, actually contributed a greater number of calories in most cultures and thus that matrilocal bands organized around groups of related women would be closer to the norm.[12] Indeed, in societies in which hunting is the primary source of food, such as the Inuit, women tend to be subordinate to men while men and women tend to have roughly equal status in societies that mainly gather plants for food.

    Law in Band Societies

    Within bands of people, disputes are typically resolved informally. There are no formal mediators or any organizational equivalent of a court of law. A good mediator may emerge—or may not. In some cultures, duels are employed. Among the Inuit, for example, disputants engage in a duel using songs in which, drum in hand, they chant insults at each other before an audience. The audience selects the better chanter and thereby the winner in the dispute.[13] The Mbuti of the African Congo use ridicule; even children berate adults for laziness, quarreling, or selfishness. If ridicule fails, the Mbuti elders evaluate the dispute carefully, determine the cause, and, in extreme cases, walk to the center of the camp and criticize the individuals by name, using humor to soften their criticism—the group, after all, must get along.[14]

    Warfare in Band Societies

    Nevertheless, conflict does sometimes break out into war between bands and, sometimes, within them. Such warfare is usually sporadic and short-lived since bands do not have formal leadership structures or enough warriors to sustain conflict for long. Most of the conflict arises from interpersonal arguments. Among the Tiwi of Australia, for example, failure of one band to reciprocate another band’s wife-giving with one of its own female relative led to abduction of women by the aggrieved band, precipitating a “war” that involved some spear-throwing (many did not shoot straight and even some of the onlookers were wounded) but mostly violent talk and verbal abuse.[15] For the Dobe !Kung, Lee found 22 cases of homicide by males and other periodic episodes of violence, mostly in disputes over women—not quite the gentle souls Elizabeth Marshall Thomas depicted in her Harmless People (1959).[16]

    TRIBAL POLITICAL ORGANIZATION

    Whereas bands involve small populations without structure, tribal societies involve at least two well-defined groups linked together in some way and range in population from about 100 to as many as 5,000 people. Though their social institutions can be fairly complex, there are no centralized political structures or offices in the strict sense of those terms. There may be headmen, but there are no rules of succession and sons do not necessarily succeed their fathers as is the case with chiefdoms. Tribal leadership roles are open to anyone—in practice, usually men, especially elder men who acquire leadership positions because of their personal abilities and qualities. Leaders in tribes do not have a means of coercing others or formal powers associated with their positions. Instead, they must persuade others to take actions they feel are needed. A Yanomami headsman, for instance, said that he would never issue an order unless he knew it would be obeyed. The headman Kaobawä exercised influence by example and by making suggestions and warning of consequences of taking or not taking an action.[17]

    Like bands, tribes are egalitarian societies. Some individuals in a tribe do sometimes accumulate personal property but not to the extent that other tribe members are deprived. And every (almost always male) person has the opportunity to become a headman or leader and, like bands, one’s leadership position can be situational. One man may be a good mediator, another an exemplary warrior, and a third capable of leading a hunt or finding a more ideal area for cultivation or grazing herds. An example illustrating this kind of leadership is the big man of New Guinea; the term is derived from the languages of New Guinean tribes (literally meaning “man of influence”). The big man is one who has acquired followers by doing favors they cannot possibly repay, such as settling their debts or providing bride-wealth. He might also acquire as many wives as possible to create alliances with his wives’ families. His wives could work to care for as many pigs as possible, for example, and in due course, he could sponsor a pig feast that would serve to put more tribe members in his debt and shame his rivals. It is worth noting that the followers, incapable of repaying the Big Man’s gifts, stand metaphorically as beggars to him.[18]

    Definition: big man

    A form of temporary or situational leadership; influence results from acquiring followers.

    Still, a big man does not have the power of a monarch. His role is not hereditary. His son must demonstrate his worth and acquire his own following—he must become a big man in his own right. Furthermore, there usually are other big men in the village who are his potential rivals. Another man who proves himself capable of acquiring a following can displace the existing big man. The big man also has no power to coerce—no army or police force. He cannot prevent a follower from joining another big man, nor can he force the follower to pay any debt owed. There is no New Guinean equivalent of a U.S. marshal. Therefore, he can have his way only by diplomacy and persuasion—which do not always work.[19]


    BIBLIOGRAPHY

    Lee, Richard. The Dobe Ju/’hoansi. New York: Thomson, 2003.

    Martin, M. Kay, and Barbara Voorhies. Female of the Species. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.

    Service, Elman. Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective. New York: Random House, 1962.

    ______. Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975.

    ______. Profiles of Ethnology. New York: Harper Collins, 1978.

    Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. The Harmless People. New York: Knopf, 1959.


    NOTES

    1. Richard Lee, The Dobe Ju/’hoansi, 109–111.
    2. Julian Steward, The Theory of Culture Change.
    3. Elman Service, Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective (New York: Random House, 1962).
    4. M. Kay Martin and Barbara Voorhies, Female of the Species (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975).
    5. E. Adamson Hoebel, The Law of Primitive Man, 168.
    6. See Colin Turnbull, The Forest People: A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963) and Colin Turnbull, The Mbuti Pygmies: Change and Adaptation (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983).
    7. C.W. Merton Hart, Arnold R. Pilling, and Jane Goodale. The Tiwi of North Australia (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1988).
    8. Richard Lee, The Dobe Ju/’hoansi, 112–118.
    9. Napoleon Chagnon, Yanomamo (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1997), 133–137.
    10. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (London: Routledge, 2001 [1925]).
    11. Douglas Oliver, A Solomon Island Society: Kinship and Leadership among the Siuai of Bougainville (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955). For an account of Ongka, the big man in a Kawelka village, see Andrew Strathern and Pamela J. Stewart, Collaborations and Conflict: A Leader through Time (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999).

    Adapted From

    "Political Anthropology: A Cross-cultural Comparison" by Paul McDowell, Santa Barbara City College. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.