In anthropology, societies are often categorized based on their socio-economic structures, power dynamics, and political ideologies. Two fundamental categories in this regard are egalitarian and non-egalitarian societies . Egalitarian societies emphasize equality among individuals in terms of access to resources, decision-making power, and social standing. On the other hand, non-egalitarian societies display significant disparities in these areas, often leading to a hierarchical social structure.
Egalitarian societies are characterized by a fundamental equality among members. These societies tend to exhibit:
- Shared resources: Resources are distributed evenly, and there is a low degree of wealth disparity.
- Equal decision-making power: All members have an equal say in matters that affect the community.
- Lack of rigid social hierarchies: There are no rigid social classes, and every individual has the same social standing.
- Small-scale communities: These societies often exist in small communities like bands of hunter-gatherers.
Table 1 illustrates some notable examples of egalitarian societies throughout history.
|San People||Southern Africa||Present|
|Aka Pygmies||Central Africa||Present|
|!Kung San||Kalahari Desert||Present|
Impact on Culture
In egalitarian societies, cooperation and reciprocity are heavily emphasized, often leading to unique cultural manifestations. The absence of material wealth as a status symbol can lead to an emphasis on other forms of status, such as knowledge, wisdom, or skill .
Non-egalitarian societies are marked by unequal distribution of resources, power, and social standing. Their key characteristics include:
- Wealth and resource disparity: Wealth and resources are not evenly distributed, with a small group possessing a significant portion.
- Hierarchical decision-making: A few individuals or groups hold decision-making power.
- Defined social hierarchies: There are clear social classes, often determined by birth, wealth, or occupation.
Table 2 showcases examples of non-egalitarian societies.
|Feudal Europe||Europe||Middle Ages|
|Caste System in India||India||Ancient to Modern|
|Aztec Empire||Mesoamerica||14th-16th Century|
Impact on Culture
In non-egalitarian societies, culture often revolves around power structures and status symbols. There is usually a distinct culture of the elites, which can be distinct from that of the lower classes. Wealth, power, and social status often become significant cultural motifs .
Comparative Analysis: Egalitarian Vs Non-Egalitarian Societies
Wealth and Resource Distribution
In egalitarian societies, wealth and resources are shared, often leading to a stronger sense of community but potentially limiting individual ambition or competition. In non-egalitarian societies, the uneven distribution can drive economic growth and competition but can also result in poverty and social unrest.
Egalitarian societies are characterized by consensus decision-making, which ensures equal representation but can be time-consuming. Non-egalitarian societies often have faster decision-making processes but may ignore the needs of some sections of the society.
Egalitarian societies typically lack defined social hierarchies, fostering equality but potentially limiting specialization. Non-egalitarian societies have well-defined hierarchies that can enable efficient division of labor but can also foster social inequality and discrimination.
The structures of egalitarian and non-egalitarian societies highlight different aspects of human social organization. While egalitarian societies reflect values of equality and shared responsibility, non-egalitarian societies underscore the human inclination towards structure, hierarchy, and individual achievement. Understanding these societies offers valuable insights into the diverse ways humans have structured their communities throughout history.
 Boehm, C. (1993). Egalitarian Behavior and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy. Current Anthropology, 34(3), 227-254.
 Woodburn, J. (1982). Egalitarian Societies. Man, 17(3), 431-451.
 Lenski, G. (1966). Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. UNC Press Books.