This is a report on a Council seminar that brought together a group of scholars to assess recent developments in the study of inequality in Africa and to discuss both possibilities for further synthesis of existing studies and the need for additional research. As the seminar demonstrated, there is no consensus among scholars either on the broad significance of inequality or on the best ways of analyzing its causes and consequences in Africa—although some common themes are emerging in the literature.

If inequality is defined narrowly as the distribution of social resources or attributes—such as wealth, power, status, or prestige—among individuals or groups at a given point in time, then most scholars would agree that stable or changing patterns of distribution are symptoms of underlying social forces or relations which must be studied in conjunction with the distributional patterns themselves. Beyond that, however, scholars tend to disagree, on both ideological and disciplinary grounds, concerning the theoretical significance of inequality and the most fruitful methods for analyzing its causes and consequences.1

Theoretical considerations

In the last ten or fifteen years, debate on the theoretical significance of inequality in Africa has revolved to a considerable extent around differences between Marxist and non-Marxist approaches. According to Marxist theory, as long as capital is individually rather than collectively owned, resources and power will be unequally distributed. The goal of Marxist oriented research, therefore, is not so much to provide an explanation of inequality, as to increase understanding of the historical processes whereby people come together to struggle against their oppressors and to transform the relations of production on which social relations are based.

As a consequence, recent writing by Marxists has tended to challenge the pluralist models developed by social anthropologists in the late 1950s to explain patterns of social interaction and change in contemporary Africa. Instead, Marxist scholars argue that class analysis is not only applicable to but also necessary to understand patterns of social change in Africa, in pre-colonial as well as colonial and postcolonial times. They have also devoted considerable effort to tracing the consequences of an increasing dependence on the international capitalist system for the economic, social, and political structure of African societies, and to explaining (or encouraging) the emergence of revolutionary movements in contemporary African nations.

In contrast, non-Marxists tend to view patterns of inequality that are associated with changing economic or political conditions in Africa as problems stemming from multiple causes and susceptible of reform without drastically altering existing national or international frameworks. In response to the Marxist insistence that class conflict has been a central factor in African economic and political history—at least since the sixteenth century—non-Marxist writers have argued that, while a class system may be “emerging” in contemporary Africa, it is a relatively recent development and must be weighed against the continued importance of Africans’ participation in cross-cutting social networks and relationships, such as kinship, ethnic affiliation, or religious group.

“Of central concern is how to modify or restructure development strategy so as to achieve a more equitable pattern of economic development.”

Similarly, in the debate over the effects of economic growth on inequality and vice versa, non-Marxists tend to follow John Stuart Mill in arguing that there is no necessary connection between production and distribution. They argue that, insofar as incomes may be taxed or individual incentives influenced by government action, the income generated by individuals or institutions may be redistributed among members of a society in a number of ways. Accordingly, a central concern in this body of literature is how to modify or restructure development strategy so as to achieve a more equitable pattern of economic development.

In addition to the differences between the two schools of thought, there are also important differences within them. Marxists, for example, disagree over the extent to which the capitalist mode of production has generated economic growth in Africa. They disagree, too, on the question of when and in what form the class struggle will lead to revolutionary change. Non-Marxists also debate the manner in which increasing economic inequality hinders or facilitates growth itself, both in terms of its effects on savings and incentives to innovate and to invest and in terms of its wider consequences for the structure and stability of African political systems. Another issue debated by non-Marxists, stimulated by the recent revival of political economy in the field of development economics, is the extent to which state intervention in private or local economic activity is itself determined by economic forces. This question shares the spirit of many issues that are central to the Marxist approach.

As these examples suggest, some of the same kinds of questions are being asked by scholars of different ideological orientations. Both Marxists and non-Marxists have, for example, asked whether and how the bases of inequality have changed over time in African societies and what this implies for the changing character of social interaction or conflict. Specifically, a comparison of historical studies with research on contemporary patterns of inequality suggests the hypothesis that control over land or other forms of property has superseded control over people as the primary source of both wealth and power—as Africa has become increasingly integrated into the contemporary international economic and political system. Further investigation of this hypothesis could provide the basis for important syntheses of research by historians and anthropologists on inequality in “traditional” African societies with work by economists and political scientists on the consequences of economic growth and political independence for contemporary Africa.

Scholars have also identified a number of redistributive or stratifying mechanisms which operate at many levels of society, ranging from household to nation. These include such diverse phenomena as education, law, government, policy, ethnicity and cultural regionalism, language, rules of inheritance or land tenure, and political organization. Simply articulating the range of possibilities suggests the potential for interdisciplinary research, leading to theoretical propositions that may be applied to a range of social problems.

Methodological approaches

The debate over methodology concerns the relative merits of studying inequality in African societies from within the perceptual framework of Africans themselves—or from without, by relying entirely on objectively observable indicators of behavior. Some advocates of an objective methodology regard it as the only feasible approach for non-African scholars. Proponents of a perceptually based methodology argue, however, that responses to inequality can be meaningfully analyzed only when people’s perceptions of their own social situation are taken into account.

“Research designed to yield better data on such basic indicators as income distribution is clearly of high priority.”

The advantages of the objective approach are well-known. It is possible to define and measure units of observation with some precision and, through their use, to delineate empirical relationships with considerable clarity. There is evidently much that can still be learned about the sources and consequences of inequality through this method. For example, recent work on the relationships among socioeconomic background, academic performance, and occupational experience of African school leavers provides a fairly precise framework for evaluating various hypotheses about the effects of education as a stratifying device and for comparing African experience with that of other areas. Objective studies could be useful, as well, in examining some of the consequences of regional inequality. More generally, analyzing the associations among various economic, social, and political indicators of inequality in Africa could help identify important mechanisms of redistribution and stratification by shedding light on the extent to which different types of inequality reinforce or counteract one another over time. A major obstacle to such research is the poor quality of much of the available quantitative data on economic and social variables in African societies. Research designed to yield better data on such basic indicators as income distribution is clearly of high priority.

The limitations of an objective approach are also well-known. Any given pattern of association between measurable indicators is usually susceptible of more than one explanation. To determine which explanation is the best or most likely source of accurate predictions, therefore, it may be necessary to draw on more “subjective” types of data.

The need for a synthesis of the two methodological approaches is particularly apparent in the study of social change. The absence of generally accepted theories of the effects of social forces on attitudes, or of perception on behavior, has hindered the development of socioeconomic models which incorporate both types of evidence.

Aggregate models which attempt to spell out the dynamics of social change—such as the classical and Marxist theories of economic evolution—often rest on simplistic or ethnocentric assumptions about attitudes and values. On the other hand, the empiricist approach—which attempts to estimate statistical associations among both behavioral and attitudinal indicators—fails virtually by definition to reveal the dynamics of the hypothesized relationships.

Moving beyond dichotomous descriptions to formulate genuinely dynamic analyses which simultaneously incorporate or allow for cultural diversity remains a formidable challenge. As a step toward meeting it, several seminar participants suggested treating individuals or groups of actors, rather than attitudes or attributes, as units of analysis, and studying their responses to changing patterns of inequality. Criminal or extralegal behavior could also be examined as a heuristic device for identifying and understanding changing lines of social division and conflict.

Plans for a research conference

A number of the interests shared by scholars of different theoretical and methodological orientations point to directions for further research and analysis of inequality in Africa. To pursue these possibilities, the committee is planning a research conference in the fall of 1976.

Papers will be presented from different perspectives on a number of topics, including the changing bases of inequality in African societies; the sources, manifestations, and consequences of regional inequality; inequality and the choice of development strategy; forms of inequality in rural Africa; the role of urban workers in contemporary Africa and the implications of rural-urban migration for change and distribution; redistributive mechanisms; Africans’ perceptions of inequality and their implications for social change; and various responses to inequality, including resistance or organized struggle against oppression by labor unions, millenarian religious movements, and political protest movements.

Sara S. Berry is a retired professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. She has done research on land, development, agrarian change, political economy, and socio-economic history in sub-Saharan Africa, with primary emphasis on Nigeria and Ghana. Publications include Fathers Work for their Sons: Accumulation, Mobility and Class Formation in an Extended Yoruba Community (University of California Press, 1985), No Condition is Permanent: the Social Dynamics of Agrarian Change in sub-Saharan Africa (University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), Chiefs Know their Boundaries: Essays on Property, Power and the Past in Asante, 1896-1996 (Heinemann, 2001) and “Questions of ownership: proprietorship and control in a changing rural terrain. A case study from Ghana,” Africa, 83 (1): 36-56 (2013). Berry had served as cochair of the Joint Committee on African Studies with Aristide Zolberg from 1975 to 1977. During this time, Berry organized and chaired the seminar to which this essay refers, which was sponsored by the Joint Committee on African Studies (JCAS) of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council. Berry also cochaired the JCAS subcommittee on African agriculture from 1986 to 1988 with Shem Migot-Adholla.

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 30, No. 1 in the spring of 1976. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.

Posted on October 18, 2016