Tribalism
Overview
 
The 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 role structure, with few (if any) significant social distinctions between individuals.

The other concept to which the word tribalism frequently refers is the possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates one member of a group from the members of another group.
Encyclopedia
The 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 role structure, with few (if any) significant social distinctions between individuals.

The other concept to which the word tribalism frequently refers is the possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates one member of a group from the members of another group. This phenomenon is related to the concept of tribal society in that it is a precondition for members of a tribe to possess a strong feeling of identity for a true tribal society to form. The distinction between these two definitions for tribalism is an important one because, while tribal society no longer strictly exists in the western world
Western world
The Western world, also known as the West and the Occident , is a term referring to the countries of Western Europe , the countries of the Americas, as well all countries of Northern and Central Europe, Australia and New Zealand...

, tribalism, by this second definition, is arguably undiminished. People have postulated that the human brain is hard-wired towards tribalism due to its evolutionary advantages. See Tribalism and evolution below.

Many tribes refer to themselves with their language's word for "people," while referring to other, neighboring tribes with various epithets. For example, the term "Inuit
Inuit
The Inuit are a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Canada , Denmark , Russia and the United States . Inuit means “the people” in the Inuktitut language...

" translates as "people," but they were known to the Ojibwe by a name 'Eskimo' 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," dehumanizing
Dehumanization
Dehumanization is to make somebody less human by taking away his or her individuality, the creative and interesting aspects of his or her personality, or his or her compassion and sensitivity towards others. Dehumanization may be directed by an organization or may be the composite of individual...

 the other people or simply considering them inferior. In this, it is merely evidence of ethnocentrism
Ethnocentrism
Ethnocentrism is the tendency to believe that one's ethnic or cultural group is centrally important, and that all other groups are measured in relation to one's own. The ethnocentric individual will judge other groups relative to his or her own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with...

, a universal cultural characteristic found in all societies.

Tribalism and violence

The anthropological
Anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 debate on war
War
War is a state of organized, armed, and often prolonged conflict carried on between states, nations, or other parties typified by extreme aggression, social disruption, and usually high mortality. War should be understood as an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political...

fare among tribes is unsettled. While typically and certainly found among horticultural tribes, an open question remains whether such warfare is a typical feature of hunter-gatherer life, or an anomaly found only in certain circumstances, such as scarce resources (as with the Inuit
Inuit
The Inuit are a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Canada , Denmark , Russia and the United States . Inuit means “the people” in the Inuktitut language...

), 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
Civilization
Civilization is a sometimes controversial term that has been used in several related ways. Primarily, the term has been used to refer to the material and instrumental side of human cultures that are complex in terms of technology, science, and division of labor. Such civilizations are generally...

 societies.

If nothing else, conflict in tribal societies 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
Agriculture
Agriculture is the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi and other life forms for food, fiber, and other products used to sustain life. Agriculture was the key implement in the rise of sedentary human civilization, whereby farming of domesticated species created food surpluses that nurtured the...

. This limits tribal populations significantly, especially when compared to agricultural populations. When tribal conflict does occur, it results in few fatalities. Lawrence 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
Inuit
The Inuit are a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Canada , Denmark , Russia and the United States . Inuit means “the people” in the Inuktitut language...

.

Tribalism and evolution

Tribalism has a very adaptive effect in human evolution
Human evolution
Human evolution refers to the evolutionary history of the genus Homo, including the emergence of Homo sapiens as a distinct species and as a unique category of hominids and mammals...

. 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 or joining other groups. It also leads to bullying when a tribal member is unwilling to conform to the politics of the collective.

Socially, divisions between groups fosters specialized interactions with others, based on association: altruism (positive interactions with unrelated members), kin-selectivity (positive interactions with related members), and violence (negative interactions). Thus, groups with a strong sense of unity and identity can benefit from kin selection
Kin selection
Kin selection refers to apparent strategies in evolution that favor the reproductive success of an organism's relatives, even at a cost to the organism's own survival and reproduction. Charles Darwin was the first to discuss the concept of group/kin selection...

 behavior such as common property and shared resources. The tendency of members to unite against an outside tribe and the ability to act violently and prejudicially against that outside tribe likely boosted the chances of survival in genocidal conflicts.

Modern examples of tribal genocide rarely reflect the defining characteristics of tribes existing prior to the Neolithic Revolution
Neolithic Revolution
The Neolithic Revolution was the first agricultural revolution. It was the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and settlement. Archaeological data indicates that various forms of plants and animal domestication evolved independently in 6 separate locations worldwide circa...

--for example, small population and close-relatedness.

According to a study by Robin Dunbar
Robin Dunbar
Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar is a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist and a specialist in primate behaviour. He is currently Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and the Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology of the University of Oxford and the...

 at the University of Liverpool
University of Liverpool
The University of Liverpool is a teaching and research university in the city of Liverpool, England. It is a member of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities and the N8 Group for research collaboration. Founded in 1881 , it is also one of the six original "red brick" civic...

, 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
Person
A person is a human being, or an entity that has certain capacities or attributes strongly associated with being human , for example in a particular moral or legal context...

 (see Dunbar's number
Dunbar's number
Dunbar's number is suggested to be a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person...

). Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell, CM is a Canadian journalist, bestselling author, and speaker. He is currently based in New York City and has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996...

 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, stereotype
Stereotype
A stereotype is a popular belief about specific social groups or types of individuals. The concepts of "stereotype" and "prejudice" are often confused with many other different meanings...

s, 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
Democracy
Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law...

 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
Nation-state
The nation state is a state that self-identifies as deriving its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign entity for a nation as a sovereign territorial unit. The state is a political and geopolitical entity; the nation is a cultural and/or ethnic entity...

 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 channelled into more frivolous avenues, manifesting itself in sports rivalries and other such "fan" affiliations.

"New tribalism"

In the past 50 years, anthropologists
Anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 have greatly revised the understanding of the tribe. Franz Boas
Franz Boas
Franz Boas was a German-American anthropologist and a pioneer of modern anthropology who has been called the "Father of American Anthropology" and "the Father of Modern Anthropology." Like many such pioneers, he trained in other disciplines; he received his doctorate in physics, and did...

 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
Civilization
Civilization is a sometimes controversial term that has been used in several related ways. Primarily, the term has been used to refer to the material and instrumental side of human cultures that are complex in terms of technology, science, and division of labor. Such civilizations are generally...

 or "living fossils". Anthropologists such as Richard Borshay Lee
Richard Borshay Lee
Richard Borshay Lee is a Canadian anthropologist. Lee has studied at the University of Toronto and University of California, Berkeley, where he received a Ph.D. Presently, he holds a position at the University of Toronto as Professor Emeritus of Anthropology...

 and Marshall Sahlins
Marshall Sahlins
Marshall David Sahlins is a prominent American anthropologist. He received both a Bachelors and Masters degree at the University of Michigan where he studied with Leslie White, and earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1954 where his main intellectual influences included Karl Polanyi and...

 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
Original affluent society
The "original affluent society" is a theory postulating that hunter-gatherers were the original affluent society. This theory was first articulated by Marshall Sahlins at a symposium entitled "Man the Hunter" held in Chicago in 1966...

," not for their material wealth, but for their combination of leisure and lack of want.

This work is for the progression of humanity and the enlightenment of ourselves, such as that advocated by John Zerzan
John Zerzan
John Zerzan is an American anarchist and primitivist philosopher and author. His works criticize agricultural civilization as inherently oppressive, and advocate drawing upon the ways of life of prehistoric humans as an inspiration for what a free society should look like...

 or Daniel Quinn
Daniel Quinn
Daniel Quinn is an American writer described as an environmentalist. He is best known for his book Ishmael , which won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991....

. 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 widely thought of derogatory sense, but to refer to what they see as the defining characteristics of tribal life: namely, an open, egalitarian
Egalitarianism
Egalitarianism is a trend of thought that favors equality of some sort among moral agents, whether persons or animals. Emphasis is placed upon the fact that equality contains the idea of equity of quality...

, classless and cooperative community. New tribalists insist that this is, in fact, the natural state of humanity, and proven by two million years of human evolution.

The answer depends on each person's preferences as well as on the particular tribes that are used as a point of reference - because tribal life itself is not the same for all tribes; the environment where a tribe lives has an especially important influence.

In an open letter to the Occupy protesters, Quinn described the Occupy movement as the "New Tribal Revolution".

External links

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