Hunter-gatherer or family-level societies are characterised by sharing and egalitarianism.
This means that...
- Sharing: people readily lend or give away food and possessions, and, instead of precise reckoning of debts, there is a general expectation of give and take. This does not mean that people are always happy to share. They can find it a burden. Fred Myers, who studied the Australian Pintupi tribe, once lost his temper when he ran out of cigarettes because the aborigines had cadged them off him. One of his aborigine contacts advised him to hide his cigarettes in his sock and pretend that he did not have any next time he was asked, saying "that is what I do".
- Egalitarianism: there are no definite leaders and those who try to dominate are shunned or mocked. Richard Lee, who studied the Kalahari San, once tried to thank his hosts by giving them an ox to feast on. Instead of showing gratitude, they teased him, saying what a measly ox it was. In this way they prevented the appearance of any feelings of superiority/inferiority caused by his obviously greater wealth as a western anthropologist.
A moment's thought reveals, however, that members of high-scale societies behave like hunter-gatherers when it comes to those closest to them. Inside the household, there is sharing and equality: shopkeepers are not mercenary at home, nor do politicians lord it over their family in the way they show their authority in public.
The selfishness and hierarchy that seem typical of high-scale societies are characteristic of how people deal with strangers. It is just that, among hunter-gatherers, meetings with strangers are rare. Nevertheless, when they do have to deal with strangers, hunter-gatherers do not go in for their normal casual sharing. For example, they conduct trade with other groups, and, although this can take on what to us are unfamiliar forms (owing to communication barriers, lack of a medium of exchange, and mutual suspicion/hostility), it boils down to immediate and balanced exchange just like trade in high-scale societies.
Therefore, rather than hunter-gatherers and citizens of 'developed' societies having fundamentally different attitudes to sharing/not-sharing, they can be regarded as having exactly the same attitudes. The difference is in the amount of time they spend dealing with strangers versus friends and relatives.
How one person acts towards another depends on two factors:
- Intimacy: whether the person is only happy if the other person is happy
- Trust: whether the person expects to meet the other person again
These factors combine to produce three different types of relationship:
Some comments on this model:
- A 'person' is not necessarily an individual human being, but can be any legal or corporate 'person' such as a business firm or a nation state.
- The terms introduced above have the technical meanings given to them, not their natural meanings in informal, everyday language. For instance, a mother would be considered her son's friend in the above technical sense though probably not in the everyday sense. Similarly, a person's bank would be that person's acquaintance in the technical sense, in that there is an expectation of meeting again (they have each other's address) = trust.
- The above table leaves out a fourth possible relationship, involving intimacy but no trust. One might think that such a relationship would never occur and that intimacy would always involve trust. However, this relationship is seen when people give charity towards those they do not know and do not expect to see again. A classic example is that of desert tribespeople accepting unfamiliar travellers into the camp and giving them food, water and shelter. The hosts do not expect direct recompense, but they do expect indirect recompense through being treated similarly when they are travelling and in need of refreshment. I will not make much use of this relationship.