The vines of complexity: Egalitarian structures and the institutionalization of inequality among the Enga

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125 Scopus citations


The initial stages of the institutionalization of hierarchical social inequalities remain poorly understood. Recent models have added important perspectives to "adaptationist" approaches by centering on the agency of "aggrandizers" who alter egalitarian institutions to suit their own ends through debt, coercion, or marginalization. However, such approaches often fail to take the recursive interaction between agents and egalitarian structure seriously, regarding egalitarian structures as the products of simplicity or blank slates on which aggrandizers can make their marks. The approach here, drawing on insights from the work of Douglass North, views egalitarian structures as complex institutions which, together with their accompanying ideologies, have arisen to reduce the transaction costs of exchange in small-scale societies. It will be argued that egalitarian structures and the coalitions that maintain them vary as greatly in configuration, scope, and nature as do hierarchical structures of power, presenting a variety of obstacles on the path to institutionalized inequality. Data from the precolonial historical traditions of no Enga tribes, covering a time span of some 250 years in which vast exchange networks developed and hierarchical inequalities began to be institutionalized, will be used to examine (1) the nature of egalitarian structures and coalitions in Enga at the outset, (2) how these steered the perceptions, motivations, and strategies of agents, and (3) the outcomes of different courses of action. By exploring egalitarian structures in this way it should be possible to depart from neoevolutionary models of political "evolution" without abandoning a more encompassing theoretical framework.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)233-269
Number of pages37
JournalCurrent anthropology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology


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