Status and egalitarianism in traditional communities

This project investigates two hypotheses concerning the role of status in relationships between rich and poor in traditional communities by analysing who goes to whose funerals in six Zimbabwean villages. If egalitarian norms prevail in African communities and especially if those norms are rigorously enforced by denying status to those who violate the norms, it could explain why underinvestment and economic stagnation are often observed in such communities.

The concept of status is often discussed in sociology and anthropology, but rarely in economics. However, economic and social behaviour do not happen independently of one another especially in small, agrarian communities in countries with weak formal institutions. If, as many sociologists have proposed, status is seen as a social reward, it should enter individuals’ cost–benefit analyses in the same way as economic rewards. Status then becomes a good that can be exchanged for more material things, and disrespect and social ostracism, both means of status reduction, can be used as punishments as they are costly to the recipient. With this in mind, the role of status in the relationship between the poor and the rich in traditional communities could take two forms. First, the rich could provide something the poor want in return for the poor bestowing status upon them in a kind of gift-exchange. Poorer households are more vulnerable to the effects of negative shocks than their richer neighbours, so an exchange of status for insurance may be mutually attractive and would lead to a positive relationship between economic prosperity and status. We refer to this as the ‘status-for-insurance hypothesis’. However, if egalitarian norms prevail and rule against individual accumulation, the rich might be subject to punishment in the form of social ostracism and status reduction. And this would lead to a negative relationship between economic prosperity and status. We refer to this as the ‘egalitarianism hypothesis’.

Status is not directly measurable. However, there are many occasions in which it is manifest in the way that people behave towards one another. In Zimbabwe, as in many countries, funerals are one such occasion. Funeral attendance is a sign of respect for the deceased and his or her household, and failure to attend is a sign of disrespect. So, an investigation into whether people are more or less likely to attend richer households’ funerals can provide an indirect test of the two hypotheses described above.

Funeral attendance is relational in the sense that one household hosts a funeral and the members of other households decide whether to attend. For this reason, we derive our hypothesis testing strategy from the literature on dyadic regression analysis applied to data on funeral attendance in six Zimbabwean villages. These data were collected specifically for this purpose.

We find that the richer the household of the deceased, the less likely are heads of other households in the same village to attend the funeral. This finding supports the egalitarianism hypothesis, while leading us to reject the status-for-insurance hypothesis.

So, egalitarian norms do appear to prevail in at least some African communities and do appear to be enforced by denying status to those who violate the norms. This could explain why in sub-Saharan Africa underinvestment is so commonplace – why invest if any increase in income is likely to be associated with social ostracism? This suggests that efforts to increase investment and growth in such communities may perform better if they are aimed at increasing collective rather than individual wellbeing.

Although typically sub-Saharan in many ways, the Zimbabwean villages from which our data originates were resettled in the early 1980s, shortly after independence. Efforts to replicate in other communities will help us establish whether egalitarianism really is a constraint to growth in rural sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.

Barr, Abigail and Mattea Stein, Status and egalitarianism in traditional communities: An analysis of funeral attendance in six Zimbabwean villages, CSAE WPS, 26, 2008.