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Tribalism is a social system where human society is divided into small, roughly independent subgroups, called 'tribes'. This phenomenon is named for tribes because tribal societies lacked any organizational level beyond that of the local tribe, with each tribe consisting only of a very small, local population. The internal social structure of a tribe can vary greatly from case to case, but, due to the small size of tribes, it is always a relatively simple structure, with few (if any) significant social distinctions between individuals. Some tribes are particularly egalitarian, and most tribes have only a vague notion of private property; many have none at all. As a result, tribalism has also been sometimes called "primitive communism" (though this term clearly does not apply to all tribes). One thing that is certain is that tribalism was the very first social system that human beings ever lived in, and it lasted much longer than any other kind of society to date.
Tribes and tribalism in anthropology
While ethnocentrism is one of only a very small handful of human cultural universals, the term "tribalism" has become nearly synonymous with it. This is largely due to the Eurocentrism of early anthropologists who forced tribal societies into a simplistic model of cultural evolution.
Many tribes refer to themselves with their language's word for "people," while referring to other, neighboring tribes with various ephitets. For example, the term "Inuit" translates as "people," but they were known to the Ojibwe by a name translating roughly as "eaters of raw meat." This fact is often cited as evidence that tribal peoples saw only the members of their own tribe as "people," and denigrated all others as something less. In fact, this is a tenuous conclusion to draw from the evidence. Many languages refined their identification as "the true people," or "the real people," suggesting that there were other people, who were simply inferior. In this, it is merely evidence of ethnocentrism, a universal cultural characteristic found in all societies.
Tribalism and violence
The term "tribalism" taken in this sense usually carries a connotation that society is not only divided into smaller groups, but that these groups are actively hostile towards one another. Thus, "tribalism" connotes a society divided in civil conflict between myriad small groups.
The anthropological debate on warfare among tribes is unsettled. While certainly found among horticultural tribes, an open question remains whether such warfare is a typical feature of tribal life, or an anomaly found only in certain circumstances, such as scarce resources (as with the Inuit), or among food producing societies. There is also ambiguous evidence whether the level of violence among tribal societies is greater or lesser than the levels of violence among civilized societies.
If nothing else, tribal conflict can never achieve the absolute scale of civilized warfare. Tribes use forms of subsistence such as horticulture and foraging which, though more efficient, cannot yield the same number of absolute calories as agriculture. This limits tribal populations significantly, especially when compared to agricultural populations. When tribal conflict does occur, it results in few fatalities. Lawerence Keeley argues in War Before Civilization, however, that as a percentage of their population, tribal violence is much more lethal. Nevertheless, Keeley also admits that the absolute numbers are so low that it is difficult to disentangle warfare from simple homicide, and Keeley's argument does not ever cite any forager examples, save the anomalous Inuit.
Tribalism and evolution
Tribalism has a very adaptive effect in human evolution. Humans are social animals, and ill-equipped to live on their own. Tribalism and ethnocentrism help to keep individuals committed to the group, even when personal relations may fray. This keeps individuals from wandering off. Thus, ethnocentric individuals would have a higher survival rate -- or at least, with their higher commitment to the group, more opportunities to breed.
In larger, agriculture societies, however, this can become maladaptive. Nations and empires force tribes and small groups into regular contact--a novel situation in human evolution. At the same time, agricultural societies produce larger populations, which can field larger armies, while providing the material resources with which to arm and maintain those armies. Thus, the natural tribalistic impulse becomes maladaptive in its new setting, leading to ethnic or racially motivated conflict, genocide and ethnic cleansing.
According to a study by Robin Dunbar at the University of Liverpool, primate brain size is determined by social group size. Dunbar's conclusion was that the human brain can only really understand a maximum of 150 individuals as fully developed, complex people (see Dunbar's number). Malcolm Gladwell expanded on this conclusion sociologically in his book, The Tipping Point. According to these studies, then, "tribalism" is in some sense an inescapable fact of human neurology, simply because the human brain is not adapted to working with large populations. Beyond 150, the human brain must resort to some combination of hierarchical schemes, stereotypes, and other simplified models in order to understand so many people.
Nevertheless, complex societies (and corporations) rely upon the tribal instincts of their members for their organization and survival. For example, a representative democracy relies on the ability of a "tribe" of representatives to organize and deal with the problems of an entire nation. The instincts that these representatives are using to deal with national problems have been highly developed in the long course of human evolution on a small tribal scale, and this is the source of both their usefulness and their disutility. Indeed, much of the political tension in modern societies is the conflict between the desire to organize a nation-state using the tribal values of egalitarianism and unity and the simple fact that large societies are unavoidably impersonal and sometimes not amenable to small-society rules.
In complex societies, this tribalistic impulse can also be channeled into more frivolous avenues, manifesting itself in sports rivalries and other such "fan" affiliations.
In the past 50 years, anthropologists have greatly revised our understanding of the tribe. Franz Boas removed the idea of unilineal cultural evolution from the realm of serious anthropological research as too simplistic, allowing tribes to be studied in their own right, rather than stepping stones to civilization or "living fossils." Anthropologists such as Richard Lee and Marshall Sahlins began publishing studies that showed tribal life as an easy, safe life, the opposite of the traditional theoretical supposition. In the title to his book, Sahlins referred to these tribal cultures as "the original affluent society," not for their material wealth, but for their combination of leisure and lack of want.
This work formed the foundation for primitivist philosophy, such as that advocated by John Zerzan or Daniel Quinn. These philosophers have led to new tribalists pursuing what Daniel Quinn dubbed the "New Tribal Revolution". The new tribalists use the term "tribalism" not in its traditional, derogatory sense, but to refer to what they see as the defining characteristics of tribal life: namely, an open, egalitarian, classless and cooperative community, which can be characterized as primitive communism. New tribalists insist that this is, in fact, the natural state of humanity, and proven by two million years of human evolution.
Whether life in this natural state was better or worse than life in modern society is a question that remains open to debate, and the answer may depend on each person's preferences as well as on the particular tribes that are used as a point of reference - because tribal life itself was not (and is not) the same for all tribes; the natural environment where a tribe lives has an especially important influence.
- "The New Tribalism" by University of Oregon president Dave Frohnmayer, condemning a "new tribalism" in the traditional sense of "tribalism," not to be confused with "new tribalism."
- "Tribalism in Africa" by Stephen Isabirye
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