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ASU anthropologist helps shape study of small-scale economies


October 29, 2009

How forms of wealth perpetuate economic inequality over generations is at the heart of a new study by 26 anthropologists, statisticians and economists, including an Arizona State University professor. Their research findings of wealth inheritance and inequality in small-scale societies appear in the Oct. 30 issue of the journal Science.

Led by evolutionary anthropologist Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and economist Sam Bowles, the transdisciplinary endeavor is part of the Santa Fe Institute’s ongoing Persistent Inequality Project of the Behavioral Sciences Program.

The results of the study look at a variety of populations in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. Chief among the findings is that the means of a group’s livelihood influence wealth inheritance and inequality.

For example, in herding- and farming-based societies, the offspring of landholders and owners of livestock inherit materialistically, keeping the wealth in the family. In these groups, wealth inheritance and inequality are similar to the world’s most unbalanced economies.

On the other hand, societies of hunter-gatherers prize non-material wealth that includes strength, skills, intelligence and social connections – facets that are not necessarily inherited by offspring. These populations display modest wealth inheritance with inequality akin to the democratic economies of Scandinavia, the most egalitarian at present.

Institutions also play a large role. Sharing resources, including information, and level of personal property ownership are defining factors. The researchers note that while our current knowledge-based economy is similar to that of hunter-gatherers, ultimately societal norms and institutions will determine whether the economy becomes more equitable.

Kim Hill, a physical anthropology professor in the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, contributed the data and analyses on hunter-gatherers, as well as theoretical insights into the meaning of the patterns reported.

He says the research is aimed at a general explanation of wealth transmission that applies to all human societies across spans of time since the Pleistocene.

“Since a huge array of other human experiences are determined by different levels of wealth access, it is critical that we formulate a general understanding of the persistence of wealth differentials,” he says. “The research also ties transmission in human societies to a larger body of general theory about the importance of epigenetic transmission in determining phenotypes in all living organisms.

The coauthors gathered a huge comparative data set allowing 43 estimates of the scope of inheritance and wealth within families and the degree of wealth inequality in small-scale societies. The sweeping study is unusual not only because it applies economics to traditional societies but also because it brings extensive quantification to the typically qualitative field of sociocultural anthropology.