Inequality: Among the !Kung, the El Eshadda, and the Americans
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Inequality: Among the !Kung, the El Eshadda, and the Americans
By Russell Dekema

Joshua A. Irizarry
Cultural Anthropology 101
December 10, 2001


Although it exists in every society, the forms taken by inequality vary greatly across cultures. Not only do the causes of inequality differ, but so do peoples’ attitudes about it, methods of coping with it, and its effects on the society as a whole. As Americans, when looking at inequality in different cultures, we can be distracted by our view of how inequality works in our own society. Our perspective on economic inequality can be additionally skewed by the relative abundance of wealth that exists in our country.

It can be useful in dealing with the subject, to separate inequality into social inequality, and economic inequality. Economic inequality deals with differences in how people make livings, how much money people have, and the quantities and types of goods and services they are able to obtain. Social inequality has to do with the society’s idea of one’s “place in life” – things that all people theoretically could do, but that due to societal rules, some people are allowed to do and others are not. Both of these types of inequality exist in all three societies (America, the El Eshadda, and the !Kung), but each exists in varying degrees and for different reasons.

Among the !Kung, there is an extremely low level of economic inequality, and a relatively small, but not insignificant, level of social inequality. The largest social division among the !Kung is between men and women, although there are also more minor inequalities based upon age. Children of course have completely different roles than adults, but older adults have slightly more prestige than younger adults, and younger adults are more able to acquire food for the band. In !Kung society, it is the norm that women gather nuts, plants and water, and men hunt (Shostak 1981:84). When women go out to gather, they almost always return the same day. Men’s hunts, by contrast, often last for days, as it generally takes a lot of time to find, track, and eventually kill the hunted animal (Shostak 1981:86). This pattern is somewhat reminiscent of what used to be the dominant pattern in American society - one that still exists today, albeit to a lesser extent than in the past. This is, of course, the system in which men work for a living outside the home, and women stay at home and tend to the household and children. To most Americans, this system is intrinsically undesirable, and many women do not want to stay at home. The !Kung, however, do not seem to mind their system at all. Almost every time the men hunting/women gathering dichotomy is discussed in Marjorie Shostak’s “Nisa”, the !Kung in question, whether a man or woman, expresses satisfaction with their system. Both men and women seem to think that their jobs are desirable; men do not generally wish to gather, and women do not usually wish to hunt (Shostak 1981:242). If, for whatever reason, a man does engage in gathering, nothing much is thought of it. However, if a woman hunts, she is thought to be rather eccentric, and her hunting activities are somewhat frowned upon (Shostak 1981:244). However, most women do not actually want to hunt, so nobody among the !Kung really considers this to be a problem.

In America, until quite recently, women did not play much of a role in our system of government. The !Kung, however, do not have a formal system for making decisions, nor do they have explicit leaders (Shostak 1981:245). The !Kung make major decisions on the basis of group consensus. These groups do have members whose opinions, for varying reasons, carry more weight than those of others (Shostak 1981:245). According to Shostak, men assume this role as a de facto leader more often than women, but women do sometimes perform this role.

If social inequality among the !Kung is relatively mild, then economic inequality is almost nonexistent. The idea of personal property among the !Kung is nowhere near as important as it is among Americans, as the !Kung have very few possessions. The most important possessions that the !Kung have are their easily constructed huts, their food, and their hunting implements. The huts are built from materials readily found in nature, and there always seem to be enough hunting implements to go around. Food is easily replenished – the gathered nuts and plants are available in abundant quantities. People do not hoard or stockpile food among the !Kung. Meat is not so easily gotten, and it is a highly desirable thing to have. However, many men are skilled hunters, and when they bring back meat, it is distributed among the other members of the band in a rather complex system of relationships that ensures that everyone eats meat about as often as anybody else (Shostak 1981:85). Inevitably, some people (especially children who don’t entirely understand the distribution system) feel shorted now and then when it comes to the proceeds of a hunt, but there is no real sustained difference in the level of ‘wealth’ of different people. As people grow older and become less able to hunt and gather, their relatives and/or members of their band generally provide them with a wide variety of foods (Shostak 1981:323).

Although these minor and temporary fluctuations in the economic status of an individual or family do exist in !Kung society, there seems to be absolutely no permanent inequality of the economic status of individual !Kung or !Kung families – no type of class system. This may well have to do with the fact that wealth is so scarce and hard to obtain in the marginal environment in which the !Kung live, that there is simply not enough wealth in the society for it to be possible for some people to have significantly more of it than others.

The levels of economic and social inequality among the !Kung are both quite low, so it is not too surprising that significantly higher levels of both types of inequality exist among the El Eshadda; specifically the members of the El Eshadda tribe living in the village of El Nahra, in southern Iraq.

The level of economic inequality among the El Eshadda is considerably higher than that of the !Kung. Although the !Kung certainly live very modestly, they almost always had enough to eat, and everybody had about the same amount. This is not the case with the El Eshadda. In El Eshadda society, there are people who are literally starving to death, there are people who have electrical service, and own large residences, property and automobiles, and there is everything in between. Most people among the El Eshadda farm or perform a trade for a living. Wealth exists within the construct of the extended family, and is passed down from generation to generation within the extended family system. Traditionally, there has not been any easy way to improve one’s economic status among the El Eshadda, but as of the writing of “Guests of the Sheik,” widespread education was beginning to become quite popular (Fernea 1965:53). In El Nahra specifically, this was largely due to the influence of a very highly respected teacher, but one gathers that education was on the upswing throughout the region in general.

Although Elizabeth Fernea does not seem to do this, at least not to a great extent, it would be easy for a middle or upper-middle class American to look at the El Eshadda society and be aghast at what they might perceive to be a horrible, unjust system. However, it is likely that what they are aghast at is not specifically the economic inequality in the society, but the relatively low level of economic wealth in that society relative to that of the United States. Although there are people in the United States who are as bad off as some of the El Eshadda, the level of wealth of an ‘average’ (middle class) American is almost unimaginably higher than that of an ‘average’ member of the El Eshadda. Most members of the American working class or lower class are economically better off than the majority of the El Eshadda, and when there is this much disparity between the observer’s own level of wealth and the level of wealth in the observed society, it becomes that much harder to accurately and logically gage and comprehend the economic inequalities within the observed society.

The most shocking form of social inequality (to Americans, at least) is the form of social inequality that exists between men and women. Among the El Eshadda, women play almost no role in public life, and should not ever be seen by men outside the home (Fernea 1965:25). While men are generally free to engage in various and sundry activities in the public sphere, women are only engaged in the private sphere, with their husbands and with other women (Fernea 1965:84). When women do have to go outside for any reason, they must cover themselves completely with a garment known as an Abayah (Fernea 1965:38). Women certainly have fewer activities to participate in than men, and even the social and societal activities that women do participate in are strictly segregated by gender. One major social event that women do get to participate in is the kraya, a religious observance held during the holy month of Ramadan (Fernea 1965:107). Even these krayas are strictly sexually segregated. Women essentially try to sneak to the location where the kraya will be held as inconspicuously as possible, and krayas for women are led by female mullahs; likewise, men’s krayas are led by male mullahs (Fernea 1965:107).

Marriage is another aspect of El Eshadda society in which there exists both considerable difference from American and !Kung cultures, and considerable social inequality. Although men themselves have only a limited amount of influence over whom they will marry, women have no say in the matter whatsoever (Fernea 1965:136). Most of the time, the man and woman being married do not know each other very well at all, and have often never even seen each other. (The man of course, has never seen the woman’s face – since no man ever sees a woman, except for her husband.) Marriages are typically arranged between families in order to accomplish a number of goals. Marriages among the El Eshadda, as in most societies, allow for the production of offspring by legitimizing sexual intercourse between the married people, but among the El Eshadda, they also perform several other functions. Marriages serve to enhance social and economic connections between the families brought together by the wedding, and they can often enhance the social standing of one or even both families who are involved in the marriage.

To most Americans, this “treatment” of women among the El Eshadda probably seems barbaric, cruel, weird, and also rather unpleasant for both the men and the women who have to live under that system. These Americans would most likely be shocked to learn, and may not readily believe, that most men and women of the El Eshadda do not see any problem with their system; in fact, they think it is far superior to the American system. The reason for this split of opinion stems from what each culture (American and El Eshadda) deems important. American culture values individual freedom, self determination, pleasure, fun, and the idea of equality, while the El Eshadda culture places a high value on modesty, chasteness, tradition, religion, personal honor, and the honor of the family. Although these values do not sound too off-the-wall to most Americans (what American would say that honor, modesty and tradition are bad?), most of the El Eshadda practices that Americans would find repugnant do indeed stem from them. For instance, the reason that the El Eshadda do not want their women to be seen in public is that they feel that it brings dishonor to the woman and to her family to be seen by men (Fernea 1965:262). This explains many of the other prohibitions involving women; if it is dishonorable for women to be seen, then of course it is dishonorable for women to socialize with men, or work outside the home (away from other women), or to attend religious services and festivities where males will be present. And, on the occasions when it is necessary for women to go out (for visits to other women, extraordinary religious celebrations, pilgrimages, etc…), it makes perfect sense to feel compelled to wear an Abayah, if your family’s honor is going to be damaged by you being seen.

While working to eliminate inequalities may well be an honorable task, and one that most Americans would certainly approve of, it is one that can not be intelligently approached unless people have an understanding of the different types of inequality (it could certainly be broken down into more detailed categories than “social” and “economic”), the causes of inequality, the immediate and secondary effects of inequality, and the attitudes of the people living in the “unequal” system towards the inequalities that exist in that system. One of the core American values is that most forms of inequality are inherently bad. This view, as much as some Americans would like to think it is, is not held in every culture. Although most American men and women think the El Eshadda would be better off if their culture were “reformed”, most men and women of the El Eshadda disagree with our culture about as strongly as some of us disagree with theirs. The only way to intelligently think about inequality in various cultures is to first be aware of how your culture has shaped you, in terms of the inequalities that exist in your society, and in general, so that you can be more aware of what is actually going on in the studied culture, and less influenced by what are actually the values and traditions of your own culture.


Fernea, Elizabeth
1965 Guests of the Sheik. New York: Anchor Books

Shostak, Marjorie
1981 Nisa. New York: Random House