Friday, October 5, 2018

In-depth look at income and wealth data (pt. 2.5 of 3): A small note on wealth inequality from the archaeologist's perspective

I've been working on fellowship applications these past few weeks so naturally I began my research in a germane area of literature and ended up somewhere completely random. And by completely random I mean not even within the field of economics anymore and at best tangential to my original topic of investigation, but fascinating. I stumbled upon Ten Thousand Years of Inequality: The Archaeology of Wealth Differences, a volume on the archaeological studies of wealth inequality, and given its relevance to the posts I've been writing on inequality I figured I would make a small note on how inequality is being measured for a society that lived nearly two thousand years ago.

I haven't written a formal post on the Gini coefficient but given that this article uses it extensively in the archaeological context I preface by stating a few things: (1) the Gini coefficient is notably a simple measure of inequalities (most commonly income inequality) therefore it has its limitations that are well summarized in this Wikipedia post; (2) it has also been subject to revision and extensive debate as well as the creation of alternative measures of inequality including the Atkinson Index that may be more informative if certain contexts; (3) given my lack of knowledge of archaeology (and my lack of knowledge more broadly on the range of applications that the Gini coefficient has had in diverse fields within social science) I don't assess whether or how the Gini coefficient was applied and rather introduce it as a thought-provoking application outside of the realm of economics.

Feinman, Faulseit, and Nicholas (2018) provide estimates of wealth inequality for the Classic period in the history of the pre-Hispanic Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico based on archaeological house excavations at six pre-Hispanic settlements. They rely principally on architectural constructions and space to proxy for wealth and apply the Gini coefficient to three architectural variables: terrace area, house size, and patio area. They also utilize distribution of artifacts such as obsidian and other rare items.

The Lorenz curve in the figure below shows the Gini coefficient constructed based on the house sizes for all of the houses in the sample (a total of 36 excavated houses across all six sites in the Valley of Oaxaca) with a coefficient of 0.35 and a 95 percent confidence interval between 0.31 and 0.39. A Gini coefficient of 0 represents perfect equality whereas 1 represents perfect inequality.

The Gini coefficients from all samples (houses, patios, and terraces) and excavation sites are indicated in the figure below. They range from 0.35 to 0.43.

The authors find based on their analysis that wealth inequality during this time was low compared to other urbanized and preindustrial settings (confirming extant evidence).

While there was notable variation between the periods that the authors link to changes in the socio-political structures of the time, they specifically note that "[t]he consistently low Gini values... are informative, especially as indicators of wealth inequality, because they challenge the long-term notion that archaic states were always starkly divisible into the rulers and the ruled, with dramatic differences in resources and quality of life between the two. This coercive/despotic vantage on archaic states is well ensconced in the historical/social sciences for preindustrial times (e.g. Mann 1977; Wittfogel 1957) but now is being challenged as not uniformly applicable (Blanton 2016; Blanton and Fargher 2008), with some historical polities seen as having had a more collective institutional orientations and lower degrees of wealth inequity (e.g. Mann 2016, for a change from his earlier perspective)."

A few comments and questions came to mind about the application of Gini coefficient in this context:
  1. The sets of data used in these analyses of the Classic period in particular are considered by the authors to be large and representative (likely given the difficulties involved in excavations and the number of houses, patios, and terraces that are still intact after thousands of years) but they are still subject to the well-described small sample size bias associated with the Gini coefficient. Smaller samples are biased towards having smaller Gini coefficients which may make it difficult to compare excavated sites in the graphic below (from the Smithsonian Magazine article about this book) with the United States today, which is not based on excavated evidence and has a much, much larger sample size. 
  2. Comparisons across past civilizations, though, if they are based on similar sample sizes may be more informative than comparisons between past civilizations that were excavated and modern day societies. Similarly, I would find variation within a given civilization over time (as evidenced in the article) to be informative especially in conjunction with changes in socio-political structures. This is hinted at by the authors when they quote from Piketty (2015) on the impacts of these structures on inequality: "[O]ne should be wary of any economic determinism in regard to inequalities of wealth and income... The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political... How this history plays out depends on how societies view inequalities and what kinds of policies and institutions they adopt." 


  1. Gracias por la informacion!! Este tipo de blogs me parecen muy importantes, esto lo estudio en la universidad. gracias por la informacion.

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