Dani Social Stratification

Dani society represent to some extent an egalitarian order, although it has some interesting features that don't fully follow the general pattern suggested in the standard anthropology typology of stratification systems.

Status differentiation among the Dani is restricted to male activity and results, as we have already discussed, from the accumulation of wealth and prestige objects through exchanges, mainly in the contexts of rituals and warfare. Women do not seem to be directly involved in personal status quests, although they contribute substantially to their husbands' careers. However, Heider notes that his coverage of the female perspective was quite poor and he may have overlooked important information in this area.

Dani status holders are known as ab gotek, which, typically of Papuan and Melanesian terminology, literally means "big men". This status is open to an unlimited number of claimants, and Heider notes that almost all social competent men are considered ab gotek in some respect. The status is acquired through the accumulation, display, exchange, and redistribution of wealth objects, such as pigs and shell bands. It is also dependent on the ability to arrange a marriage and on the number of wives a man can acquire. However, the development of wealth accumulation does not extend to restrictive control over the land or irrigation resources, to which all members of the community can claim access.

The primary activity of Dani bigmen is to organize and direct important tasks in the male arenas of capital formation, ritual, and warfare. These tasks are graded in relation to their importance and the number of people involved in their performance. Bigmen are accordingly ranked within a hierarchy depending upon the range of activities they can organize as follows:

Relative Status

Tasks Organized

All capable individuals
  • Assemble a work party
Prominent men in the neighbourhood
  • Host a funeral
  • Lead a watchtower group
  • Keep the sacred sib stones
Confederation leaders
  • Lead raids and local battles
  • Organize conferation-wide rituals
Alliance leader
  • Keep enemy trophies
  • Hold a pig feast

The status that a man attains in this hierarchy is of course dependent upon his relative wealth and the skill he can exercise in the manipulation of the exchange system.

The quality of leadership demonstrated in the organization of important male activities is of course limited by the informal and non-coercive character of the bigman system. Thus a man can invite participation from his fellows but cannot command it or punish delinquents. These limitations extend even to battles, which the part-time Dani soldier can refuse to join. Actual fighting also reflects the limits of leadership and follows an "every man for himself" pattern rather than a planned and closely organized campaign.

While many aspects of the Dani stratification system conform to an egalitarian model, it also incorporates some curious features. The apparent ranking of ab gotek into an ordered hierarchy of statuses is not typical , and more importantly the restriction of authority to a single claimant at the apex of the system, in the position of alliance leader, is noticeably unique. As such, Dani leadership and status roles seem to reflect characteristic of both egalitarian and ranked forms. This dual aspect of the system has an important impact upon the dynamics of the status order. Although the pre-eminent position of alliance leader is restricted to one occupant, the open nature of the system allows rival leaders to assert their own claims. Thus at times the alliance will be subject to fierce competition for the top position, a situation which usually leads to the eruption of "secular war" within the group and its eventual disintegration. The territory in which Heider lived, Gutelu's alliance, was actually going through this process of internal disruption during his original period of fieldwork.