What is Domination?


According to Max Weber, domination is embedded in a social relationship (1978:26-28).  One person or group lords it over another person or group.  One is powerful and the other is dependent, as the power of the dominant person or group is equal to the dependence of the underling person or group (Emerson 1962).  In other words, domination is about a power-dependence relationship.  Someone or a cohort of persons has to exercise domination and someone or a cohort, class or group has to submit to or resist domination (Scott 1985, 1990). 

Beyond a single power-dependence relation, according to Iris Marion Young, domination can also be imbedded in an institution, which can be defined as a set of relationships governed by rules (1990:38).  She sees such a powerful institution as limiting the actions of those dependent on those wielding power within the institution e.g., the institution of slavery with its master-slave relations and the rules governing behavior on the part of both.

Philip Pettit (1997:52) adds the point that the powerful agent in the power-dependence relationship has the ability to arbitrarily interfere with the freedom of the dependent party.  If, for instance, a Divine King claims that he wishes to execute a subject, his action can be arbitrary, given the absence of any countervailing rules or parties wishing to contest his decision.  Furthermore, since liberty is the opposite of domination (Lovett 2001:104) arbitrary actions on the part of the dominator can reduce the freedom of the dominated.  We will see in the course of this book that personal freedom was severely reduced with the advent in society of a storable-stealable-surplus, which gave rise to the development of institutions of domination.

In this present work I am particularly interested in focusing on the kind of fabricated rules of domination of an institutional nature; and even more especially on the institutions of domination that permit an agent or agents to live off the surplus value of the labor of dependents – in other words, stratification.  We will also try to understand how such institutions developed in history and provide ethnographic and historical examples of societies where systems of domination developed.


Theories of Inequality


This present work is about how inequality has been produced throughout history.  A key theoretical question to be answered is: What is the primary stimulus to the development of inequality?  This is an important conundrum that has interested historians at least since the Enlightenment, although concern with the state of nature had been found in the writings of Cicero and Lucretius.  For instance, Sir Robert Filmer (Filmer & Sommerville 1991), writing in the 17th century, postulated that inequality was natural since the patriarchal order was ordained by God and that a monarch was a rightful leader because he was the “father” of the nation, a position famously attacked by John Locke (1978 [1690]). 

The beginnings of an alternate approach came in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1938 [1775]) who felt that humankind first existed in a natural state of equality but that was corrupted as selfish men created private property.  André Béteille (2003) has fleshed out the theory that inequality is socially constructed.

In the sentimentalism of the 18th century, based on this idea that there was an original state of nature, the concept of the noble savage emerged, though the derivation of the term is still disputed.  Whatever its origin, it influenced the thinking of many Enlightenment thinkers and in the 19th century the early anthropologists.  The founding fathers of anthropology used such now outdated terms as “savage” and “primitive” to refer to what we now call “tribal” or “simple” societies.

This primitivism is rather unfortunate in that it led some to believe that prior to the rise of civilization humankind existed in a natural state of being unencumbered by any form of inequality, traces of which can be found in Engles (1942 [1884]).  He stressed an economic base to inequality, as did the anthropologist Morton Fried who wrote: “at the heart of an egalitarian society is a fundamentally egalitarian economy” (1967:35).

Egalitarianism is a slippery concept.  In this present work I am saying that during much of the Paleolithic humans lived without formal structures of domination or stratification; but I am not saying that they were entirely free of inequality, if one takes the division of labor as a basic producer of inequality (Kelly 1993:480).  All societies in prehistory and history have had a division of labor, which has generated varying forms of inequality.  In Paleolithic hunting and gathering bands, in all probability, there was a division of tasks with men doing most of the hunting and women doing most of the gathering and childrearing, though we find in contemporary simple societies variation in how gender exclusive tasks are.  Tasks were also, presumably, allocated by age, if contemporary tribal societies are any guide. Nevertheless, in both Paleolithic and modern-day tribal societies the inequalities were and are minor when compared to the stratification produced in societies with state structures.  Later in this present work I will outline the evolution of inequality from the simplest to the more complex societies in history.

There are gradations in social inequality and when social scientists debate the issue of the origin of inequality they are often talking about apples and oranges because they are operating from different assumptions and theoretical positions.  There are many empirical cases and a great deal of data in this work that will flesh out our understanding of the origins of inequality, however at the beginning I want to be clear about where I stand.

Some see social inequality as simple social differentiation accompanied by differential moral evaluation (Fallers 1973, Berreman 1981).  Much of my work relies on a comparison between the relatively undifferentiated band societies of the Paleolithic and the more highly differentiated societies that followed the emergence of a storable-stealable-surplus, a historical point at which more severe forms of differentiation and stratification materialized.  From archaeologists we know that these Paleolithic hunting and gathering bands lacked the stratified characteristics of later societies that had a material surplus but we do not know exactly how much the gender and age differences of these simple bands had attached to them evaluations of moral worthiness or denigration.  There are contemporary societies that are very close in social and economic aspects to ancient societies that have different cultural evaluations of the work of men and women e.g., among the Strickland-Bosavi tribes of Papua New Guinea the Etoro do not place heavy moral evaluations on male and female roles, while the neighboring Kamula do (Kelly 1993).

If I had to guess, and that is all I can do, I would say that as time progressed in the long Paleolithic gendered roles became increasingly subject to moral evaluation and the cohorts of men and women became increasingly separated as cognitive categories.  Nonetheless, and this is a crucial point of my book, severe inequality and stratification did not begin until there was a storable-stealable-surplus to stimulate competition among aggrandizers who then began to construct alienating social structures e.g., chiefdoms and kingdoms.  These later structures are more commonly seen as moral hierarchies rather than simple prestige hierarchies.  It is my contention that opportunists who desired to be leaders would have facilitated the moral evaluation of various roles in order to elevate themselves and relegate others to the status of followers.

As Kelly (1993:473) points out, in simple societies lacking chiefs there are usually other morally defined categories of persons e.g., witches and curers, with the former using occult powers for evil purposes and the later attempting to combat such evil.  These categories of persons are also morally evaluated in simple societies and such assessments presumably took place among the hunting and gathering bands of the Paleolithic that lacked a storable-stealable-surplus.  But such minimal moral evaluation does not, nor did not, generate widespread social stratification.  That was brought about by the efforts of aggrandizers who were intent on building hierarchical structures that funneled wealth to themselves and their élite cohort.

Thus, to my mind, equality can only be an ideal construct, which can be defined as: equal access to valuables tangible and intangible.  But by this ideal definition no society in history has been able to attain this level of purity.  If we take the ethnographic record into account, even the simplest bands have morally desirable statuses e.g., shaman, best hunter, wise woman, etc.  People attain these statuses by their skill and effort and become elevated morally in the eyes of the public; but in non-stratified band societies they cannot use them access tangible goods e.g., material wealth or land.  Their elevated status, and its incumbent prestige and deference, dies with them.  It is not transferable. 

Consequently, equality cannot be empirically shown with precision; but it can be illustrated by comparing one society to another.  That is, one society can be more equal in comparison to another.  A society in which no material valuables are connected to higher moral status can be said to be have greater equality than one in which high status people can accumulate and hoard wealth.

When I say that the non-storing bands of the Paleolithic were egalitarian I mean that, as it is with most hunting and gathering bands of the ethnographic record, only individuals are thought to have superior wisdom, skills, virtue, ability or moral judgment – not groups or cohorts of persons.  Furthermore, privilege is not connected to high valuation or said another way: privilege is not constituted as socially legitimated advantage.  If an individual attains superiority, merit or distinction that does not entitle them to greater access to property.

On the other hand, in stratified societies privilege brings a socially legitimated advantage with regard to material possessions.  Once a storable-stealable-surplus was produced new statuses began to emerge e.g., chief and old ones such as shaman can be used by aggrandizing individuals to access more power, prestige and property, as we will see in Case 3.2.

As Kelly (1993:480) has rightly pointed out: “The division of labor is thus a central mechanism for the production of inequality.”  Since all societies have had a division of labor, all have had, to some degree, inequality.  But another cross-cultural variable must be considered.  How restricted is access to prestigious statuses?  In societies that are very hierarchical or stratified, prestige positions such as chief or keeper of the chief’s oracle are exclusive, while in non-hierarchical bands the position of best hunter, the one who plans and directs the hunting trips for other hunters, is an open position.  That is, the leadership of an old hunter can be usurped by a younger man whose attains and commands more attention and respect from the band of hunters. 

Prestige systems constitute a basic form of inequality but it is very basic.  When the system comes to have worth and stigma attached to positions, when positions become exclusive and held as offices and when holding those positions gives unequal access to property, the system becomes truly stratified.  Such stratified systems did not pop up in history automatically.  They were slowly and methodically constructed by aggrandizing men who wished to have more power, prestige and property.  As I will point out in this work, this was not possible until a society had a storable-stealable-surplus.  Once there was material value over which to compete, aggrandizing men went to work to fabricate rules that made their positions morally valued, exclusive and capable of siphoning off wealth from others in society.

Put another way, these early aggrandizers created forms of essentialism e.g., when men began to claim a spiritual affinity between their gender fellows and the animal world, thus defining men as better hunters than women (Kelly 1993:480).  Naturalistic essentialism (e.g., men can do extended heavy labor better than women) is then accompanied by a socially constructed essentialism (men’s spiritual affinity to animals makes them better hunters).  This is frequently concocted in ritual formulations such as totemism (Lévi-Strauss 1971).

Aggrandizers set about to formulate a cosmological system that would assign tasks to persons and categories of persons.  This was a monumental step in the direction of stratification.  Some individuals became defined as better suited to rule others and organize society.  As we will see, this usually occurred with the formation of chiefdoms and became elaborated with the subsequent emergence of kingdoms, empires and states.


Inequality & Stratification

Lloyd Fallers (1973:59) indicates that the heart of social stratification is the human tendency to evaluate one’s fellows as “better” or “worse” in terms of some cultural notion of “the good.”  This is a form of what I have called “otherizing” and which Edward Said (1979) also dealt with in Orientalism.  This human universal tendency gives rise to cultural schemata that reinforce notions of superiority and inferiority.  Fallers writes:


Since tasks are differentially allocated, the culture evaluates persons differentially; that is to say, not just pottery-making and praying are evaluated; but also potters and priests.  Obviously, varying degrees of excellence in the performance of priests’ and potters’ tasks are also recognized (1973:63).


Thus, essentialism is a human tendency and it is often elevated to the level of culture.  For example, in Geertz’s analysis of a Javanese town the townsfolk see persons, modes of behavior, material objects and psychic states as ranging along a continuum of relative excellence bounded by the polar concepts of alus and kasar (1956).  Alus is thought to be a trait associated with subtlety, control and inner serenity; as contrasted with kasar, which is associated with crudity, awkwardness and uncontrolled animal passion.  Not surprisingly, in the Javanese emic model high rank, authority and wealth should be held by persons who are alus

In Case 8.1. we will see that ancient Catalans developed a concept of nobilitas in which nobles were thought to have a bloodline infused with ingenio, or special intelligence.  Peasants were thought to lack ingenio.  Of course, these ideas were developed and promoted by élites and to a certain extent become commonly accepted in society.

In this present work we are going to see that ideas leading to social stratification developed out of the long Paleolithic where people undoubtedly judged each other differentially; but had no basis on which to stratify society in material or power terms.  With the development of an economic surplus, however, people began to equate postulated essential qualities with the capacity to lead, which in turn, allowed the development of economic stratification to manifest itself in society.  Based on this linkage between postulated essences and leadership, socio-economic managers came into being.

As with the case in many tribal societies today, in the early Neolithic most economic exchanges took place within kin groups; but as time progressed more began to occur beyond the realm of kinship.  That is, élites began to devise ways in which people felt constrained to provide politicos with material rewards.  This still exists in modern-day Africa according to Lloyd Fallers (1973:67):


It would not be unreasonable to hazard the guess that in Subsaharan Africa the greater part of the exchanges of goods and services which take place outside domestic units occur as incidents to the exercise or acknowledgment of authority.


As social animals, humans have always been trapped in cultures that dominated their thoughts and behaviors.  In Paleolithic band societies people were locked into a culture of egalitarianism and only small and temporary inequalities could break through this overriding culture.

Once there was a storable-stealable-surplus and more complex kinship structures emerged, we see emerge a new form of domination – the kin-ordered mode of production.  In time the hierarchical relass within the kinship structure provided self-promoters with the opportunity to build further structures of domination outlide that structure, which anthropologists call the tributary mode of production.  Viewing history, we see the tributary mode of production being superseded by the capitalist mode of production, though neither kinship nor tribute-based organizations have disappeared (Wolf 2001:338).

The significant difference between band life in the Paleolithic and the emergent modes of production (kin-ordered, tributary and capitalist) is that in the non-storing foragers of the Paleolithic no one person, class, cohort or group could exploit any other for their labor value.  Karl Marx (1818-1883) in Capital said that “the worker belongs to capital, before he sells himself to the capitalist” (quoted in Wolf 2001:336).  In fact, the worker began to belong to a dominating structure the minute men began to create kinship relations that served as a mode of production.

Why mode of production?  I take it that inasmuch as the human animal, at the most basic level of survival, must eat and avoid being eaten, finding or producing food is the most basic aspect of human life.  It colors all other social relations or forms of social organization in human existence. 

If we add one more mode of production to Wolf’s list, the band mode of production – hunting and gathering – we can see that it fundamentally differs from the other three in that the way non-storing foragers got and distributed food was not based on institutionalized forms; but on a free association of individuals.  Any degree of non-freedom in band society came, not from institutions of domination; but rather from the mental chains that growing up in a culture produced – enculturation or socialization.  As Jane Fishburne Collier (1988:21) puts it:


A foraging economy imposes few requirements and encourages nomadism.  People who invest little labor in the land have no need to establish property rules or complex kinship groupings to ensure access to adequate labor.  People who move frequently have no incentive to invest labor in making immovable or heavy objects.  Nor do they need to develop elaborate norms to handle conflict.  Finally, the lack of permanent settlements and large kinship groups limits possibilities for leadership.


In contrast, once the kin-ordered mode of production came into existence, which eventually evolved into the tributary mode of production and the capitalist mode of production, individuals were no longer as free as before.  They were caught up in the chains of institutional domination.  It was much more difficult to move from a natal lineage to another, as it was also difficult to move out of a chiefdom, kingdom or empire.  In the world of kinship people were more or less institutionally locked into the mode of production that dominated human existence at that time, for instance in the Early Neolithic (of course many societies are still locked into this way of life).  In the world of Big Men, Chiefs and Kings, people were confined in the tributary mode of production and today many of us find it hard to escape global capitalism (Greider 1998).

As Karl Marx indicated for the capitalist mode of production, once there was a surplus for which to compete, individuals became enmeshed in webs of relations that made them “belong” in more confining ways than “belonging” to a band did.  Another way of saying this is that once aggrandizing men began to formulate social structures that functioned as modes of production newer and more confining forms of domination came into existence.  These structures allowed some to live off of the labor of others.  In other words, stratification came into existence, tiny forms of exploitation and the reduction of individual freedom at first (in the kin-ordered mode of production), accelerating in the tributary mode of production and certainly firmly established in today’s global capitalism.  

What is stratification?  Haviland states that it has six elements:


(1) Hierarchically ranked groups with relatively permanent positions;


(2) Differential sources of power;


(3) Differential access to resources;


(4) Cultural and individual status distinctions;


(5) An ideology that provides a rationale for the stratified system;


(6) A relative degree of inequality of rewards and privileges.


We will see that these sociocultural formations developed with vigor at the beginning of the Neolithic Era and have evolved to bring us to the present-day in which our world is sharply divided into the haves and have-nots.  Ours is a world of inequality, wherein billions live on less than a dollar a day; a world where in the USA (the richest country in the world) 48 million people are at risk of hunger and the streets are littered with the homeless.

Later in this book I will investigate why this is (the easy part) and what can be done about it (the difficult part).  


Women and Inequality


During the Paleolithic, in non-storing foraging societies, women were more or less equal to men, an assumption anthropologists make based on ethnographic data from contemporary hunter-gatherers.  But once a storable-stealable-surplus was in existence, either in storing foragers, such as the Amerindians of the Northwest Coast of America (see Case 1.5., & Case 4.10), or in Neolithic farming and pastoral societies, such as the Natufians (see Case 1.3., & Case 1.4), women began to be defined by leading men as inferior (Lerner 1986).

Once the presence of a storable-stealable-surplus stimulated the rise of complexity women became valuable as producers.  This is a crucial point.  In a world where food could now be accumulated and stored, transforming it from food into wealth, aggrandizing men began to strategize about ways in which they could access greater stores of food.  Women were the ultimate producers because not only could they work for the dominant males; but they also could give birth to future workers that would belong to the dominant male owner of the female wife, concubine, servant or slave.

It is not surprising that with the advent of complex societies came the institution of polygynous marriage, usually restricted to rich men in great households and political leaders of great power and wealth.  For example, King Šulgi during the Ur III Period of Mesopotamia (4,112-4,004 B.P.) had nine known wives in a region where the vast majority of men were monogamous (Snell 1997:35) and widows were especially vulnerable – see Case I.2 below:




Case I.2. Mesopotamian Women.

In Mesopotamia, which of course was one of the first areas where hierarchy and complexity developed, women quickly fell to an inferior position in society.  Women in the Sargonic Empire (4,334-4,197 B.P.), in Mesopotamia’s later stages, women occasionally reached high station; but only because of the influence of a husband, brother or father.  For instance, Enheduana was high priestess of the moon god at Ur and the goddess of love and war at Uruk (Foster 1987; van de Mieroop 1987).  In the Ur III Period (4,112-4,004 B.P.) occasional mentions in the surviving archival texts indicate that there were queens and princesses; but generally women did not hold high administrative offices, though a few female scribes are known.  Importantly, daughters could not inherit if there were surviving sons. 

Also, lower-class women were “heavily exploited” by officials of the royal administration, especially when they were helpless, in sharp contrast to the rhetoric of the court.  Widows and orphans were left on their own, a common enough occurrence to warrant a special term – a-ru-a.  They were frequently employed in the wool processing industry or as weavers and the archival records show that they usually did not live long after becoming a-ru-a.  Work conditions were bad and the women’s ration at Ebla shows women getting only half a male portion of food.

All in all, the proliferation of administrative rules and institutions in the Neolithic, what I call the Jural Revolution (see chapter 2), was not good for women.  Royal women, of course, lived a life of luxury beyond that of the average woman; but even they were used as pawns in to bolster the foreign policy of kings e.g., between Egypt and Mesopotamia (Muntingh 1967; Moran 1992).  Thus, after the Neolithic Revolution women came to be valued in political and economic terms because of their attractiveness as producers, bearers of children and as diplomatic gifts, something that would have been unheard of in societies that had not developed hierarchically. 




Scripted Domination


Aggrandizement[1] and domination in society are not necessary; but they are widespread and even revered in some societies today.  Playing Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street, Michael Douglas famously stated: “Greed is good,” which some may take as the motto of capitalism in America.

But greed was bad (i.e., morally repugnant) for millions years of human existence, and, incidentally, still is in some societies in the world today.  That is, domination and acquisitiveness are not evenly spread throughout history or geographically in our modern world.  Nevertheless, after the Neolithic Revolution (beginning about 12 thousand B.P.) we do not find entirely egalitarian societies anymore, defined as societies without political institutions, a managerial élite or statecraft.   

Once a surplus existed, opportunistic men went to work to fabricate ideas that gave them exclusive control of scarce resources and the labor of others.  In the beginning, this was done on a petty scale, as when a family headman organized farm work and the storage of crops in a central granary.  And, as time passed, it escalated on a grand scale, as with the lavish lifestyles of kings, pashas and emperors who funneled most of the wealth produced in their domains into the coffers of the state, with the state often using much of this surplus to wage war in search of more lucre and power. 

Robert Adams (1966:45-47) noted that agricultural surpluses were a precondition to all sorts of changes in society, principally increasing complexity but also extensions of territorial control, political superordination, a multiplicity of technological advances and the Urban Revolution.  Adams points out that surpluses engendered ideologies and institutional forms that furthered the storage of foodstuffs and allowed élite control of the surplus, freeing élites from the responsibilities of food production.

Martin Orans (1966) also sees the agricultural surplus as a crucial stimulant to the growth of complexity and stated that it was the gross surplus of deployable wealth, rather than a per capita surplus, that was the important causal variable.  The presence of a gross surplus allowed reallocators to enter the scene and gave rise to the political and religious centers of urban societies e.g., in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica, from which élites redirected the surplus.

As Marshall Sahlins (1972) noted, the potential drawback of storage was exactly that it created a contradiction between wealth and mobility.  A sedentary group with stored wealth, for example heavy quantities of grain, was also vulnerable to marauders.  It was a new situation that necessitated some form of leadership and management, which opportunists were more than happy to supply.

The scripts[2] of aggrandizing leaders are usually boldly declared.  “I am the head of the household because my father was head of the household.”  Or, “Allah has chosen me to lead my people.”  Other scripts that allow exploitation and domination can, however, be subtler.  For example, Noam Chomsky has indicated in his book, Manufacturing Consent, that the American systems (political, economic and communicative – the media) have the function of fabricating an overall acceptance of the status quo.  That is not to say that there is some sort of conspiracy to accomplish this; but rather that it is a normal result of the overall social system and culture that have evolved in the United States.  It is subtle domination because most people don’t know they are being dominated and many would deny it if told so. 

Dominating structures were built throughout history by scriptwriters i.e., leaders and their immediate supporters.  As Goody (1968) has shown, early scripts were oral; while later domination has been fashioned through written documents (see especially Case 8.1).  Everywhere, and throughout history, chiefly leaders and their shamans and priests have put together discourses or ideologies that proclaimed and justified their rule. 

Every society has a script, a set of cultural ideas and norms that govern thought and behavior.  Without the political economy perspective, one might think that such scripts merely evolve in a very benevolent, or at least benign, fashion.  Rather, I would say that there is agency behind every script and the agents writing the societal script do so in ways that can benefit them at the expense of others.  This is consciously exploitative in some cases and in others the long history of institutional construction has created long-established political structures that aggrandizers can, and do, use to exploit others.  It was Karl Marx who said: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (1963 [1869]:1).

It is the actions of such agents and their creations that are the subject of this book.



[1]Trying to be better than or have more prestige, power and property

than others.

[2] Foucault, Bourdieu and others speak of discourses, which I take to be the same as scripts.  They are ideas manufactured by the powerful to control the minds of those they wish dominate.

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