Anthropologists have long been interested in the sources and consequences of material inequality among African peoples. Societies in which such inequality existed during pre-colonial times have been investigated (cf. Maquet, 1970; Cohen, 1970; Hoben, 1970) but, especially since the close of the colonial era, attention has been directed toward societies originally without significant material wealth differences that have become internally differentiated due to exogenous social and economic forces. Emergent wealth differences have been related to a number of causes, including differential participation in labor migration (Mitchell, 1970; Watson, 1970; Wilson, 1977), differential incorporation into trade networks (Levine, 1962; Cohen, 1966; Mascarenhas and Mbilinyi, 1971), differential participation in ideological systems (Allan et el., 1948; Long, 1968; Barrett, 1974), and, especially, differential control over the factors of production (representative are: Ruthenberg, 1968; Vincent, 1971; Hill, 1972; Parkin, 1972; Feldman, 1974; Raid and Raid, 1975).
In East Africa today there is cause for particular concern regarding the extent to which differential access to land, labor and capital is generating patterns of rural inequality in which a few fortunate households are elevated while the majority remain poor. The concern exists not only because maldistribution of wealth and material well-being implies widespread suffering in rural areas, but because concomitant circumstances such as unequal educational opportunities (Sheffield, 1967; Court and Ghai, 1974), unequal access to development funds (Hyden et al., 1970; Heyer et al., 1971), and unequal nutritional intake (Gerlach, 1961, 1964; Dema, 1969; Kraut and Cremer, 1969), can lead to social, economic and physiological polarization of the rural population.