Division of labor, economic specialization, and the evolution of social stratification

Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

79 Scopus citations


This paper presents a simple mathematical model that shows how economic inequality between social groups can arise and be maintained even when the only adaptive learning process driving cultural evolution increases individuals' economic gains. The key assumptions are that human populations are structured into groups and that cultural learning is more likely to occur within than between groups. Then, if groups are sufficiently isolated and there are potential gains from specialization and exchange, stable stratification can sometimes result. This model predicts that stratification is favored, ceteris paribus, by (1) greater surplus production, (2) more equitable divisions of the surplus among specialists, (3) greater cultural isolation among subpopulations within a society, and (4) more weight given to economic success by cultural learners.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)715-724
Number of pages10
JournalCurrent anthropology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2008
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology


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