Overview: The Inheritance of Inequality in Pre-Modern Societies

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Human societies differ enormously in the extent of inequality, a topic that has engaged generations of historians and behavioral scientists. A key aspect of the emergence of persistent inequality in small scale societies is the perpetuation of political and economic status within families across generations (Hayden 2001, Wiessner and Tumu 1998). Building on an understanding of how inter-generational transmission produces inequality in status in each generation (Bowles 2006), we propose to combine theoretical and empirical approaches to explore how differences in capital (material, knowledge-based and somatic) translate into the persistent differences that characterize social hierarchies. This is part of the bigger question of explaining changes in the degree of social hierarchy over time.

The perpetuation across generations of a family’s social standing is generally thought to reflect the combined effects of the genetic and cultural transmission of traits such as cognitive functioning and health status that contribute to economic success, as well as the inheritance of network connections and property rights in land, cattle, capital and other form of wealth (Bowles and Gintis 2002). Recent research has explored elements of this process in the U.S. and other high-income nations (Bowles, Gintis, and Groves 2005). Studies of the economic and social correlates of reproductive success in small-scale societies have uncovered important aspects of the inter-generational transmission process (Smith 2004, Borgerhoff Mulder 1986). Yet we have little quantitative information about the inter-generational transmission of somatic capital, material wealth, network connections and other determinants of economic success in small scale societies or even in large-scale agrarian societies.

We are engaged in a comparative study of inter-generational transmission of wealth in small scale and other pre modern societies. Like the 15 small scale societies cross cultural behavioral experiments project (Henrich, Boyd, Bowles, et al. 2005), this study will combine quantitative measures that are readily compared across societies with rich ethnographic information about the social structures and practices of the peoples under study. In this respect it may support insights unavailable in the literature thus far, which has relied on large nationally representative samples devoid of the rich thick description available from ethnographic study.

We will estimate and seek to explain the level of intergenerational wealth transmission for different kinds of wealth including land, livestock, household wealth and other measures. Preliminary estimates (by Borgerhoff Mulder) for the transmission of land ownership among the Kipsigis people of Kenya suggest that the level of inter-generational transmission in this group approximates or exceeds that in the contemporary U.S.

The interdisciplinary working group continues the research of the 'Persistent Inequality' project at the Institute (most closely related to the workshop that led to the publication of Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success.) It is funded by a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation with additional support of the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Institute.

Works cited

Borgerhoff Mulder, Monique. 1986. "On cultural and reproductive success: Kipsigis evidence." American Anthropologist, 89, pp. 617-634.

Bowles, Samuel. 2006. "Equality's fate: A natural history."

Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. 2002. "The Inheritance of Inequality." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 16:3, pp. 3-30.

Bowles, Samuel, Herbert Gintis, and Melissa Osborne Groves eds. 2005. Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success. Princeton: Princeton University Press and Russell Sage Foundation.

Hayden, Brian. 2001. "Richman, Poorman, Beggarman, Chief: The Dynamics of Social Inequality," in Archaelogy at the Millenium. G. Feinman and T. Price eds. New York: Kluwer/Plenum, pp. 231-272.

Henrich, Joe, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, Herbert Gintis, Richard McElreath, Michael Alvard, Abigail Barr, Jean Ensminger, Natalie Smith Henrich, Kim Hill, Francisco Gil-White, Michael Gurven, Frank Marlowe, John Patton, and David Tracer. 2005. "'Economic Man' in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Behavioral experiments in 15 small-scale societies." Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28.

Smith, Eric A. 2004. "Why do good hunters have higher reproductive success." Human Nature 15:4, pp. 343-364.

Wiessner, Polly and Akii Tumu. 1998. Historical Vines: Enga Networks of Exchange, Ritual, and Warfare in Papua New Guinea. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.