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Increased access to defensible material wealth is hypothesised to escalate inequality. Market integration, which creates novel opportunities in cash economies, provides a means of testing this hypothesis. Using demographic data collected from 505 households among the matrilineal and patrilineal Mosuo in 2017, we test whether market integration is associated with increased material wealth, whether increased material wealth is associated with wealth inequality, and whether being in a matrilineal vs. patrilineal kinship system alters the relationship between wealth and inequality. We find evidence that market integration, measured as distance to the nearest source of tourism and primary source of household income, is associated with increased household income and ‘modern’ asset value. Both village-level market integration and mean asset value were associated negatively, rather than positively, with inequality, contrary to predictions. Finally, income, modern wealth and inequality were higher in matrilineal communities that were located closer to the centre of tourism and where tourism has long provided a relatively stable source of income. However, we also observed exacerbated inequality with increasing farm animal value in patriliny. We conclude that the forces affecting wealth and inequality depend on local context and that the importance of local institutions is obscured by aggregate statistics drawn from modern nation states.
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