chapter
Social structure and ideology
Pages 2

The range of social structures exhibited by hunter-gatherers, from the past through to the present-day, may be best addressed by analysis which examines the structures’ essential features, the corresponding ideologies, and the factors which precipitate change from one structure to another. A good example is Wodburn’s distinction (1982) between †‘immediate-return’ and ‘delayed return’ hunter-gatherer societies which grasps the difference between egalitarian and more complex hunter-gatherer social structures in terms of different types of social bonding implicated by differing technological and economic constraints. From another perspective, discussion of egalitarian huntergatherers often makes much of the unrestricted access to territory and ungarnered resources which uniquely seems central to their cultures. Thus Ingold (1986) notes that in these societies the prevalent food sharing among members of the community replays the fact that the means of subsistence are held in common, and that this differs from more complex societies where sharing amounts to the giving up of that which is first personally owned. Other writers have attended to the essential instability of egalitarianism and how ‘immediate-return’ hunter-gatherers must work to sustain it, for example by employing joking, teasing, put-downs and other ‘levelling mechanisms’ against those who might seek to translate superior ability (e.g. in hunting) into higher †status. Meanwhile, the attempt to grasp what precipitates the emergence of the more complex social structures has resulted in a variety of proposals ranging from the development of systems of food storage, the intensification of control over women, and the emergence of notions of ownership associated with the conservation of resources. Among the Australian Aborigines, more complex social structures may be connected with large-scale †initiation ceremonies such as do not generally occur among egalitarian hunter-gatherers.