All human societies have mechanisms that maintain social order so that decisions can be made, disputes resolved, and behavior regulated. In large states this is clearly apparent in the political and judicial structures developed for such purposes. However, in many societies these formal mechanisms seem nonexistent. In classic anthropological discourse, these egalitarian societies are “tribes without rulers.”
Egalitarian societies are those in which little or no formal structure exists that places authority and power into the hands of certain individuals or groups on the basis of hereditary right or positions of authority. Indeed, in egalitarian societies there are no positions of authority. Every man, and in some societies woman, has an equal say in matters concerning the group and participates fully in decision making. No person can exert authority over another, and there are no avenues for individuals to acquire privileged positions that might provide them with unequal power over others.
It is easy to see how shared decision making in small band societies can be managed without too much difficulty. Many food-gathering societies spend most of their time living in family units small enough to manage their subsistence activities so that group dynamics can be jointly managed by consensus. The food-gathering bands of the Kalahari Desert and Australia are classic examples of this kind of egalitarian society.
Although it might be assumed that as a cohabiting population increases more formal mechanisms would need to be initiated to manage group interaction, this is not necessarily the case. There are dense populations that have informal, egalitarian relationships between individuals. In classic anthropological literature, these are found in horticultural and pastoralist societies located in Melanesia, Southeast Asia, and Africa.
Perhaps the best known of these are the “big man” societies of Melanesia. In these essentially egalitarian societies, some individuals are personally ambitious, setting out in their careers to garner more influence and prestige than other members of the group. These men display unique qualities of leadership and have persuasive oratorical and entrepreneurial skills. By manipulating relationships that give them greater access to wealth, these men are able to exert more influence over the members of the group than anyone else. However, these men have no authority and no power to make people do what they wish. They can only “lead” by persuasion. At any time, people can withdraw their support and the big man topples and another takes his place.
The existence of egalitarian societies might suggest that relations between all members of the society are based upon equality. However, one must take a closer look at the realities. There are extremely few societies where all members—men, women, and children— have an equal say in decisions made on behalf of the group. The Batek of Malaysia provides an example. The majority of egalitarian societies maintain inequitable relations between certain classes of its members. Even in those societies of the Kalahari Desert and Australia where equality between individuals is most apparent, women and the uninitiated have an inequitable part to play in matters concerning marriage, for example. When anthropologists talk about egalitarian societies, they are generally referring to the relations between men.
- Endicott, K. (1979). Batek negrito religion: The world-view and rituals of a hunting and gathering people of peninsular Malaysia. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Middleton, J., & Tait, D. (1958). Tribes without rulers: Studies in African segmentary systems. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Strathern, M. (1972). Women in between; Female roles in a male world: Mount Hagen, New Guinea. London: Seminar Press.