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Egalitarian and Non-Egalitarian Societies

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 [1]. 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


Egalitarian societies are characterized by a fundamental equality among members. These societies tend to exhibit:

  1. Shared resources: Resources are distributed evenly, and there is a low degree of wealth disparity.
  2. Equal decision-making power: All members have an equal say in matters that affect the community.
  3. Lack of rigid social hierarchies: There are no rigid social classes, and every individual has the same social standing.
  4. 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.

Hadza PeopleTanzaniaPresent
San PeopleSouthern AfricaPresent
Aka PygmiesCentral AfricaPresent
!Kung SanKalahari DesertPresent

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 [2].

Non-Egalitarian Societies


Non-egalitarian societies are marked by unequal distribution of resources, power, and social standing. Their key characteristics include:

  1. Wealth and resource disparity: Wealth and resources are not evenly distributed, with a small group possessing a significant portion.
  2. Hierarchical decision-making: A few individuals or groups hold decision-making power.
  3. Defined social hierarchies: There are clear social classes, often determined by birth, wealth, or occupation.

Table 2 showcases examples of non-egalitarian societies.

Feudal EuropeEuropeMiddle Ages
Caste System in IndiaIndiaAncient to Modern
Aztec EmpireMesoamerica14th-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 [3].

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.

Social Hierarchies

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.


[1] Boehm, C. (1993). Egalitarian Behavior and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy. Current Anthropology, 34(3), 227-254.

[2] Woodburn, J. (1982). Egalitarian Societies. Man, 17(3), 431-451.

[3] Lenski, G. (1966). Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. UNC Press Books.

Anthropologist Vasundhra - Author and Anthroholic

Vasundhra, an anthropologist, embarks on a captivating journey to decode the enigmatic tapestry of human society. Fueled by an insatiable curiosity, she unravels the intricacies of social phenomena, immersing herself in the lived experiences of diverse cultures. Armed with an unwavering passion for understanding the very essence of our existence, Vasundhra fearlessly navigates the labyrinth of genetic and social complexities that shape our collective identity. Her recent publication unveils the story of the Ancient DNA field, illuminating the pervasive global North-South divide. With an irresistible blend of eloquence and scientific rigor, Vasundhra effortlessly captivates audiences, transporting them to the frontiers of anthropological exploration.

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