Cross-cultural study of wealth and inequality appears in Science; CPC Postdoctoral Scholar David Nolin among research team

Nov 2, 2009

Science has published a landmark cross-cultural study of the intergenerational transmission of wealth, and how such transmission can lead to persistent inequality in small-scale societies.

The project, organized by economist Sam Bowles (Santa Fe Institute) and anthropologist Monique Borgerhoff Mulder (UC Davis), drew on the combined research of anthropologists working in 21 different field sites. Quantitative data from these sites were used to estimate the correlation between parents and offspring of different types of wealth (material, embodied, and relational) and the relative importance of these types of wealth across different modes of production.

The results show that material wealth tends to be more heritable than embodied or relational wealth. Consequently, where material wealth is more important than other types of wealth to household wellbeing (as in pastoralist and agricultural societies), persistent inequality is more pronounced. In horticultural and hunter-gatherer societies embodied wealth and relational wealth are more important, and persistent inequality is less pronounced.

David Nolin, Carolina Population Center Postdoctoral Scholar, was a participant in the project. Data from his field site of Lamalera, Indonesia were used in calculating estimates of the heritability of embodied, material, and relational wealth among hunter-gatherers. His data supported the importance of relational wealth among foragers (in the form of food-sharing relationships) and provided key estimates of the heritability of material wealth among foragers.

The results of the study appear in the October 30 issue of Science. The project was funded by the Santa Fe Institute, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the National Science Foundation.

Read the full article:

Scholarly source:

Borgerhoff Mulder, M., Bowles, S., Hertz, T., Bell, A., Beise, J., Clark, G., Fazzio, I., Gurven, M., Hill, K., Hooper, P., Irons, W., Kaplan, H., Leonetti, D., Low, B., Marlowe, F., McElreath, R., Naidu, S., Nolin, D., Piraino, P., Quinlan, R., Schniter, E., Sear, R., Shenk, M., Smith, E., von Rueden, C., and Wiessner, P. 2009. Intergenerational Wealth Transmission and the Dynamics of Inequality in Small-Scale Societies. Science 326, no. 5953: 682-688.

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