Herders tending their wealth in Mongolia. Image courtesy Paul Hooper.

No matter when or where they emerge, or how complex they are, human institutions tend to breed inequality. Somehow, some members of a social system manage to collect more for themselves while leaving others poorer.

A new project under SFI’s Dynamics of Wealth Inequality series aims to discover how a society’s networks influence its resource distribution.

“We still have difficulty understanding how institutions have produced such high levels of inequality and left poorer folks without support,”says Paul Hooper, a professor of biological anthropology at Emory University and a former SFI Omidyar Fellow.

He and five other SFI researchers have organized a longitudinal study to test predictions about how structures of social relationships affect the degree of wealth inequality. But their subjects are atypical.

“Much research has looked at historical cases or at modern societies like Sweden and the U.S.,” Hooper says. “We’re going outside of industrial market systems to work with hunter-gatherers, herders, and farmers to ask if some of the same principles might be playing similar roles” in these very different societies.

Two mechanisms stand out as possible drivers for inequality. The first is the bottleneck, where one person has exclusive access to important goods and can set their costs. The second is the collective bargaining model, similar to labor unions, in which people’s coordinated actions can help secure a deal for groups of people.

Some 30 scientists gather at SFI in early February for the first of four workshops to design field methods for studies of small-scale societies around the world. These selected communities of up to 300 people each—cattle herders in Namibia, farmers in Guyana, and foragers in Siberia, for example—rely mostly on subsistence food production.

Through interviews with participants, researchers will identify and weight each social link—who’s connected to whom and how, by sharing food or helping, for example—as well as inventory household wealth in a way that renders this metric statistically comparable across countries and cultures.

Read more about the workshop.