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Anthropologists and inequality

from Ken Zimmerman

Inequality in human societies has always existed. When it become extreme (that point varies by society and historical circumstances) the society either collapses completely (e.g., revolution, war, failure of basic services, famine) or undergoes changes in its basic framework. Ancient Rome, for example, nearly collapsed when corruption in government and economics (particularly appalling poverty) combined with refusal of its citizens (particularly the wealthy) to put themselves at risk by organizing to defend it from invading societies (e.g., Goths, Celts). The near collapse extended over three centuries. And even at the end of that time much of Roman culture survived within other societies. Later, the English turned ancient Greek and Roman cultures into idealized prototypes for their empire.

Since the 1980s the dominant perspective about inequality among anthropologists is undoubtedly towards an action-oriented approach: that is, seeing inequality and similar topics not as something to be merely studied, but as a social evil to be eradicated. The role of the anthropologist is more than dispassionate observer (as in traditional fieldwork methods), but as the analyst of the sociological, cultural, ecological and other factors involved in creating the event of inequality, and recommending strategies to eradicate inequality while causing, wherever possible, the least socio-cultural damage. The anthropologist may even become a partisan committed to the destruction of inequality, by political means if necessary. In this work anthropologists attempt to reflect on what others who work with inequality consider separate aspects of the event. These “separate” aspects include, (i) the perceptions, strategies, feelings and life-ways of those who suffer inequality; (ii) the structural features of the society and economy within which inequality is encapsulated; and (iii) the policy-makers, planners, economists, social workers and other agencies who mediate, or attempt to, between those trapped by inequality and those who study, assist, or are legally responsible for controlling the “losers” in inequality (e.g., police, social workers, teachers). This “holistic” approach enables us to dispense with the notion that inequality has only one history, one way of being created. For example (and popularly), cultural constraints on saving and capital formation such as feasting or partying. The reverse is just as possible. Inequality creates a social environment in which consumption rather than accumulation is necessary, and that often the whole syndrome is linked to such factors as disruption of a traditional economy by the appearance of wage-labor, labor markets, discriminatory schooling, landlessness, caste or gang affiliation, unemployment, etc. Both directly and indirectly.

Anthropologists take the position that there is no acceptable level of inequality within a society. Unlike economists who often argue that some level of inequality encourages people to work harder and is thus beneficial for society. But anthropologists also accept that actual societies will create some level of inequality. So, the issue is how to deal with “inequality on the ground.” First, anthropologists want government designed policies intended to reduce inequality. For example, by reducing the wealth of the wealthiest in a society and increasing the wealth of the poorest in that same society. These can be direct (what economists call redistribution) or indirect (reducing the effects of unequal circumstances on the opportunities and outcomes of the next generation). Also important are efforts to enhance citizens’ beliefs in their abilities to succeed along with efforts to alter socialization to focus less on competition and more on cooperation for that success. Finally, if a holistic approach to understanding inequality is necessary, so is a holistic approach to doing something about it. This implies the involvement of those affected by inequality and by mitigation programs. In other words, those effected by unequal circumstances or structures are not just ‘clients’ or ‘subjects’ but active participants in their own futures and in determining the sorts of policies towards them that they find just, efficient and culturally acceptable. The anthropologist is, or should be, uniquely placed to help in this situation, which is really a process of communication and socialization, the focus of every anthropologist.

    April 30, 2019 at 11:10 pm

    In support of Ken Zimmerman Anthropology and inequality April 30

    I take a quote from Malcolm Crick’s Entangled Lives and meanings: Colonialism and its cultural Legacy .cited in GLOBAL FORCES,LOCAL REALITIES edit by Bill Geddes and Malcolm Crick Deakin University Press1997

    He writes that:
    the inextricable connections between knowledge and power between social control and systems of meaning, between domination and structures of discourse, are now so well established tat complete escape from such entanglements is clearly self-deception.—
    In fact ,anthropology in the 1990s is no longer the discipline which so many of its critics have pilloried. A useful literature has existed for some twenty years (for instance Asad 1973;Eienne & Leacock 1980; Huizer &Manheim 1979; Hymes 1974) which ended the erstwhile deafeningly innocent silence about various political and ethical dimensions of anthropological work and thought. Malcolm Crick 1997.

    If or when it is remembered that ultimately economics is about people then in my humble opinion Crick’s 50 pages should be regarded as essential reading for any economist trying to understand how people function in the real world.Ted

  2. Robert Locke
    May 1, 2019 at 6:22 am

    Before there were anthropologists there was Marx, who famously wrote in the Communist Manifesto about the Red Specter haunting Europe (1846); people expected hungry forties to be the turning point of history, but history did not turn, and it never has, because of this fear of the Red Specter uniting all those who think they have a stake in the current order and are scared to death of the mob, to defend it. And the problem social scientists have in getting it right. The nature of capitalism, despite the ink spilled in its analysis, does not explain its collapse in the 30 years war ( 1914-45), imperialism the highest stage of capitalism, but the effects of war itself on populations, immediate situations, i.e. a backward economy Czarist Russia, trying to prevail over a modern one, Imperial Germany, in total war. Events are not teleological, they are immediate and unpredictable. That must be the anthropologists lament.

    • Craig
      May 1, 2019 at 5:32 pm

      As I’ve said before history is largely the record of man’s apathy and/or unconscious reactions to his environment.

      The naturalistic state of grace is only experienced when one is thoroughly in the present moment making it synonymous with consciousness itself, and only if one has thoroughly and wisely integrated the opposites that obscure and prevent such experience. Every one of the world’s major wisdom traditions agree on this.

      As a paradigm is a quintessentially integrative phenomenon (a single concept that defines an entire/pluralistic pattern) the integrative/wisdom mindset is necessary to have paradigm perception/full consciousness of it.

      How can a bunch of mostly middle aged people habituated to the paradigm of Science Only which in turn is habituated to dualistic thinking and strives mightily to eliminate the very basic and naturalistic experience of grace/consciousness itself….have anything but scant personal reality on the experience and hence any real wisdom/depth of knowledge with which to counsel their fellow man?

      Wisdom includes and transcends science, orthodox “settled science” excludes wisdom. Therein is the basic problem of history, economics and the rest of modernity.

  3. Dominique
    May 1, 2019 at 3:39 pm

    In Nature the distribution of a variable that comes in various sizes has to follow the Power Law. Frequency and size will be inversely related. The Law is observed from the distribution of stars’ sizes to income distribution. Of course, policies can push the frequency-size curve to the right, but the two will always be inversely related; hence,Ken’s paper.

    • Helen Sakho
      May 1, 2019 at 7:47 pm

      It is extraordinary that in the Ukraine, a young joker (who happens to be Jewish) wins the elections for the first time! Poor Stalin must be turning in his grave. It seems that his charisma could not save him this time! Marx, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, are all worthy referees of world history, but there are tens of others whose names remain unknown because they have been either killed or silenced or awaiting such faiths. Collective/barter systems are the best way forward for man and nature. Alas the introduction of money into all human exchanges continues to dominate.

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