From Academic Kids

Tribalism refers to a view of society as being divided into subgroups, or 'tribes'. Critics believe that tribalistic views can detract from the unity of society, creating an "us versus them mentality." This phenomenon is named for tribes in particular due to the fact that tribal societies lacked any organizational level beyond that of the local tribe, with each tribe consisting only of a very small, local population. Because of this, "tribalism" has been taken to refer to any situation where society is broken down into smaller, more isolated groups.


Tribes & 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 simply evidence of ethnocentrism, a universal cultural characteristic found in all societies.

Tribalism & 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.

This usage of the term is unfortunate, as it serves to reinforce the Hobbesian view of tribal life as "nasty, brutish and short," despite the fact that the anthropological debate on warfare among tribes is unsettled. While certainly found among horticultural tribes, an open question remains as to whether such warfare is a typical feature of tribal life, or an anomoly found only in certain circumstances, such as scarce resources (as with the Inuit), or among food producing societies. There is also ambiguous evidence as to 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. Keeley also admits that the absolute numbers are so low that it is difficult to disentangle warfare from simple homicide; nor does Keeley's argument ever cite any forager examples, save the anomolous Inuit.

Tribalism & 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.

In more complex societies, this tribalistic impulse can also be channeled into more frivolous avenues, manifesting itself in sports rivalries and other such "fan" affiliations. It also becomes attached to more theoretical organizations lacking the face-to-face community of an actual tribe, such as corporations or nation-states.

"New Tribalism"

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 Hobbes' theoretical supposition. While such research has been debated in its details, there seems now to be little doubt that Hobbes' conception of tribal life was woefully inaccurate. 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 liesure 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." These 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, cooperative community differing from the Communist utopia primarily in its significantly smaller scale. Where other utopians have tended to be very philosophical and theoretical, new tribalists insist that their utopia is, in fact, the natural state of humanity, and proven by two million years of human evolution. They also tend to shy away from the term "utopia" itself, taking care to insist that while significantly better than civilized life, tribalism is not a perfect utopia, either.

The traditional, derogatory usage of the term remains the most prevalent, however.

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