As I read through this section, it seemed to me that in the same way Gray’s exploration of the Hunter-Gatherer community contributes to our understanding of the play community, it also sheds equally clear light on the nature of the virtual community. Rather than draw my own parallels, I thought it would be more productive, and more fun, if I invited you read this part of Gray’s article and draw your own.
Most hunter-gatherers, wherever they have been studied, live in bands of about twenty to fifty people each, counting children as well as adults. Each band moves as needed to follow the available game and edible plants. At each campsite to which they move, each family within the band builds, from natural materials, a small, temporary hut, the construction of which usually takes just a few hours. Because the band moves frequently, material goods beyond what a person can easily carry are a burden, so there is very little accumulation of property. Each band is an independent entity. There is no governmental entity above the level of the band. The people within the band make all of the group’s decisions.
Hunter-gatherers are highly mobile, not just in the sense of whole bands moving from place to place but also in the sense of individuals and families moving from band to band. Bands are not permanent structures with fixed memberships. Everyone has friends and relatives in other bands who would welcome them in. Because of this, and because they are not encumbered by property, individuals may move at a moment’s notice from one band to another. People move from band to band for marriage, but they also move to get away from conflicts or simply because they are more attracted to the people or the procedures that exist in another band. Disgruntled groups of people within any band may also, at any time, leave the original band and start a new one. Thus, the decision to belong to any given band is always a person’s choice. The freedom of band members to leave sets the stage for the other playlike qualities of hunter-gatherer life.
Although hunter-gatherers are free at any time to leave a band, they reconize the value of keeping a band together. The band is the economic and work unit, as well as the social unit, of hunter-gatherer societies. A band with stable membership, in which people know one another well and have a history of co- operating with one another, is more valuable than an unstable band. Moreover, people develop close friendships with others in their band. Therefore, people within a band—like people in a play group—are motivated to behave toward others in ways designed to keep the band together, and this lays the foundation for hunter-gatherers’ autonomy, equality, sharing, and consensual decision making.
Essentially all researchers who write about the social lives of hunter- gatherers emphasize the high value placed on individual autonomy. The descriptions make it clear that hunter-gatherers’ sense of autonomy is different from the individualism that characterizes modern, Western, capitalist cultures. Western individualism tends to pit each person against others in competition for resources and rewards. It includes the right to accumulate property and to use disparities in wealth to control the behavior of others. Thus, Western individualism tends, in principal, to set each person apart from each other person. In contrast, as Tim Ingold has most explicitly pointed out, the hunter- gatherers’ sense of autonomy is one that connects each person to others, rather than sets them apart but does so in a way that does not create dependencies. Their autonomy does not include the right to accumulate property or to use power or threats to control others’ behavior or to make others indebted to them. Their autonomy does, however, allow people to make their own decisions from day-to-day and moment-to-moment about their own activities, as long as they do not violate the implicit and explicit rules of the band, such as rules about sharing. For example, individual hunter-gatherers are free, on any day, to join a hunting or gathering party or to stay at camp and rest, depend- ing purely on their own preference. This is a freedom that goes far beyond the freedom of most workers in Western cultures.
Hunter-gatherers avoid, with passion, any kinds of agreements or practices that make one person dependent upon or beholden to another. They do not engage in contractual exchanges. Gifts are given regularly, but there is never an obligation that a gift be reciprocated. Hunter-gatherers likewise do not tell others what to do or use power-assertive methods to gain compliance. When they do try to influence the behavior of others, they usually do so indirectly, in ways that preserve each person’s sense of choice and prevent or minimize any sense of being dominated. A general assumption is that all adults will want to work for the good of the band, but care is taken to ensure that each person’s work for the band is voluntary, not coerced. Ingold points out that social relationships among hunter-gatherers are founded on trust—trust that the others will, on their own volition, want to please others in the band and support the band as a whole.
Intimately tied to hunter-gatherers’ sense of autonomy is what Richard Lee has called their “fierce egalitarianism.” Egalitarianism, among hunter-gatherers, goes far beyond the Western notion of equal opportunity. It means that no one has more material goods than anyone else, that everyone’s needs are equally important, and that no one considers himself or herself to be superior to others. The maintenance of equality in these ways is part and parcel of the maintenance of autonomy, as inequalities could lead to domination of those who have less by those who have more. Hunter-gatherers, of course, recognize that some people are better hunters or gatherers than others, some are wiser than others, and so on, and they value such abilities. However, they react strongly against any flaunting of abilities or overt expressions of pride. Any sense that some people are superior to others would challenge the autonomy of individuals, as a sense of superiority can lead to attempts to dominate.
From an economic point of view, the primary purpose of the band for hunter-gatherers is sharing. The people share their skills and efforts in obtaining food, defending against predators, and caring for children. They also share food and material goods. Such sharing, presumably, is what allowed hunter-gatherers to survive for so long under challenging conditions. The hunter-gatherer concept of sharing is different from our Western concept. For us, sharing is a praiseworthy act of generosity, for which a thank-you is due and some form of repayment may be expected in the future. For hunter-gatherers, sharing is not a generous act, nor an implicit bargain, but a duty. Nobody is thanked or praised for sharing, but they would be ridiculed and scorned if they failed to share. Anthropologists refer to such sharing as “demand sharing.” Failing to share, if you have more than someone else, is a violation of a fundamental rule of hunter-gatherer societies.