Siobhán Mattison an assistant professor in Anthropology at the University of New Mexico has received funding from the National Science Foundation to support a three-year project that seeks to understand how social inequality evolves from relatively egalitarian origins.

Alongside investigators Mary Shenk from the University of Missouri and Tami Blumenfield from Furman University, Mattison will study the rapid expansion of material wealth in rural China and Bangladesh.

“We all know that wealth is an important component of well-being,” explained Mattison, “but we actually know relatively little about how any given individual becomes wealthy.” In some enclaves, for example, large or deep social networks can facilitate access to material wealth.

“But in others, those same networks hinder access to wealth,” Shenk said. “Having lots of friends can mean a lot of instrumental and material support in times of need, but it also means a lot of demands for help when those same friends are in need.”

The researchers intend to document how access to different types of wealth and social capital – including material wealth, health, different types of education, and social networks – affects overall well-being and inequalities in well-being.

In the Chinese and Bangladeshi contexts under scrutiny by these researchers, access to material wealth, education, and healthcare is rapidly changing and altering local social networks.

“The Mosuo are a society known for unusual family organizations,” says Blumenfield, “but the changes being wrought by tourism are far more important to understanding their lifestyle and well-being.” Similarly, Bangladeshi farmers’ opportunities for wage labor and labor migration are quickly expanding, affecting the distribution of haves and have-nots, with related changes in social norms and behaviors.   

The researchers will conduct demographic and social network surveys to collect economic and social information, take anthropometric measures to assess health, and conduct focus groups, in-depth interviews, and short video interviews to examine local interpretations of wealth and well-being using methods designed to facilitate comparison between the two populations.

The results of this study will provide a detailed understanding of how individual- and larger-level social constraints affect the distribution of wealth and well-being in economies undergoing economic development, providing a useful model for understanding the opportunities and challenges affecting people struggling to thrive amid changing circumstances in the United States and around the world.