Status is defined as an individual’s relative access to contested resources in a group (Henrich & Gil-White, 2001). Status can be more broadly conceptualized as an individual’s influence in pursuing their interests and goals when they conflict with the motivations and interests of others. Status competition is comprised of all the behaviors and strategies which individuals use as they vie for more relative influence and status.
Potential status differentials among individuals are an important aspect of political dynamics in small-scale societies generally. This entry will present the evolutionary logic underpinning status competition, its general relevance to human evolution and social organization, and empirical studies on its overt expression in small-scale societies.
Status differences are considered a near human universal, that is, it occurs in some form, degree, and context in almost every society known ethnographically (von Rueden 2014). Acquiring status appears to be a viable strategy for achieving enhanced reproductive success assuming that when individuals have greater ability to pursue their interests, they make decisions that have fitness enhancing effects. This assumption is supported by an interspecific and cross-cultural analysis that greater status is associated with enhanced individual reproductive success in men and male nonhuman primates (von Rueden and Jaeggi 2016). This relationship is consistent in degree for humans across forager, horticulturalist, agriculturalist, and pastoralist societies (von Rueden and Jaeggi 2016). This general importance of status in achieving reproductive success therefore sets up the competitive contexts in which individuals strive to acquire status.
Status competition has been an important influence on human evolution. While human sexual dimorphism is notably reduced relative to older hominin species, indicating less dyadic male-male competition for mate access, our evolved system of status competition importantly involves alliance building that attenuates how social power is distributed (Boehm 1999). This is the case even among the most assertively egalitarian mobile foraging societies. Christopher Boehm notes that group-wide coalitions are a social mechanism that guards against authoritarian social behaviors among individuals in a band (1999). This is in and of itself is an example of status competition. Any incipient authoritarian individual who strived to acquire disproportionate social power over others were often killed in response in order to deny them the social power they tried to wield. Status competition should therefore be recognized as occurring even if allies form bottom-up revolutionary coalitions to maintain an approximately egalitarian distribution of social power (Boehm 1999). However, these dynamics and tendencies do importantly become altered in other types of small-scale social organization where status striving is less constrained and guarded against than in egalitarian foragers. The next paragraph presents some empirical data regarding status competition in several of these types of small-scale contexts.
As noted, alliances between individuals drastically attenuate the importance of body size and formidability in dyadic male-male competition. That is, it is unlikely that one individual can successfully compete against two individuals who are in alliance and support one another in a coalition. The importance of alliances and coalitional support in acquiring status is supported by several studies. Among Tsimane hunter-horticulturalists, men who have greater social support via central positions in kinship networks and more allies achieve greater reputations for various forms of status, such as perceived ability to win in a dyadic fight, getting their way in a group context, community-wide influence, and overall respect (von Rueden et al. 2008). This acquisition of status among the Tsimane is also a fitness enhancing strategy (von Rueden et al. 2011). Prestigious and dominant Tsimane men were found to have more allies and were observed to have higher fertility, more extra-marital affairs, more attractive wives, and more likely to remarry if divorced or widowed (von Rueden et al. 2011).
Yanomamö men have been found to strive to acquire the culturally significant status of unokai. A man becomes an unokai when he is recognized as participating in a raid against an enemy village and successfully kills someone (Chagnon 1988). Being an unokai has notable fitness enhancing effects; compared to non-unokai, unokai have twice as many wives and three times as many children (Chagnon 1988). Importantly, these effects remain robust when a more sophisticated analysis with proper controls for confounding variables is used (Macfarlan 2015). More recent research has revealed how men achieve enhanced fitness via alliance building by co-participation in raids. Among all co-unokai, men who participated and killed during a raid together, nearly half eventually engaged in some type of marriage exchange of women from each other’s patriline (Macfarlan et al. 2014), which provides the mechanism by which unokai acquire more wives than non-unokai (Chagnon 1988).
Similar patterns are observed among other Amazonian hunter-horticultural groups, such as the co-residing Achuar and Quichua of Conambo, Ecuador. Patton shows that men strive for status by developing reputations as willing and capable warriors (2000). Importantly, the association between warriorship and status is mediated by coalitional membership; individuals allocate social status to reputable warriors from their own but not the opposing political coalition in Conambo (Patton 2000). This relationship can also be shown at the level of dyadic alliances; men are biased to give more status to men of their own coalition with which they are more strongly allied (Patton 2005). These results support that men strive and compete for status allocated by other coalition members and allies by engaging in coalitional conflict on their behalf. And in this particular context of Conambo, having more status than similarly aged men was found to be associated with women’s perceptions of male attractiveness (Escasa et al. 2010). While, developing a heightened reputation of warriorship is associated with being considered a better potential son-in-law by other men (Patton 2005). These studies present data on quite overt forms of status competition, but status striving also takes nonviolent forms involving more nuanced dynamics of reputation formation, cooperation, and relationship formation.
Social status is indicative of a greater ability to pursue one’s interests. The persistent link between greater social status and measures of fitness therefore support the evolutionary and adaptive basis of status striving. Further, ethnographic case studies support that status acquisition is affected by and occurs in political contexts of alliance building and coalitional competition.
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