Despite its popular as well as academic usage, tribe is a contentious concept. In popular imagination, tribe is associated with “primitivism” and “backwardness,” clearly referring to non-Western or indigenous groups inhabiting the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America or to American Indian reservations. In 1951 the Royal Anthropological Institute defined the tribe as a “politically or socially coherent and autonomous group occupying or claiming a particular territory” (1951, p. 66). Scholars since then have contested the notions of coherence, autonomy, and territorial segregation as only ideal constructs, devoid of much empirical support. Although it is unlikely that this definition would apply perfectly to any single tribe, theoretically tribe is construed as a group or community sharing a common territory, speaking a common language or dialect, sharing a culture and religious tradition, united under a single political organization, and having a common economic pursuit. Therefore, as André Béteille (1981) observes, the existence of a tribe fitting any theoretical definition is at best an anthropological imagination.
Morton Fried suggests that what anthropologists study today is “tribe as a secondary sociopolitical phenomenon, brought about by the intercession of more complex ordered societies, states in particular.… The ‘pristine tribe,’ on the other hand, is a creation of myth and legend, pertaining either to the golden age of the noble savage or romantic barbarism” (1975, p. 114). As Archie Mafeje notes, in Africa “the indigenous population has no word for ‘tribe’… Traditionally, people were identified by terri-tory—‘Whose [which Chief’s] land do you come from’” (1971, p. 254). This is true also for India, where there is no lexical equivalence of the English word “tribe”; it began to be used by the British administrator-anthropologists only for administrative convenience.
In the United States and India, tribes today refer to the indigenous or autochthonous people, legally recognized groups that enjoy some degree of autonomy and state protection. In India, for example, the Constitution makes special provisions for the protection and welfare of its “Scheduled Tribes,” a legal-administrative category within the nation.
When European colonial expansion was at its peak during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the writings of missionaries, traders, and adventurers resulted in the genre of ethnography of the peoples they encountered, whom they called tribes. The tribes were deceptively painted to be in the primal stage of human cultural evolution, the culmination of which was, in the minds of the Europeans, advanced European civilization. The legacy of this Eurocentric notion was inherited by the anthropologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, within the domain of anthropology, unilineal or classical evolutionists like Lewis H. Morgan (1818–1881) hypothesized tribe as a transient stage in the process of cultural evolution from early hunters and foragers to agrarian societies. With the collapse of classical evolutionism at the beginning of the twentieth century and the consolidation of the field of anthropology in Great Britain, scholars like E. E. Evans-Pritchard used a structural definition of tribe, particularly in the context of segmentary societies like the Nuer of Sudan, which he discussed in his 1940 book. Later, Marshall Sahlins, in his 1968 study, characterized tribes with segmentary lineages that were different from centralized chiefdoms.
Taking cue from Wilson and Wilson, Lewis introduced the concept of “scale” in characterizing a tribe. He contended, “Ideally, tribal societies are small in scale, are restricted in the spatial and temporal range of their social, legal, and political relations, and possess a morality, religion, and world view of corresponding dimensions” (1968, p. 147). In the 1970s the Marxist anthropologist Maurice Godelier, while attempting a critique of the concept, cautioned that “tribe” was used as a tool by the powers who dominated the Third World and warned that “we cannot silently bury it with a mere death sentence, or stigmatize those who continue to use it with the epithet ‘infamous’ empiricism.” Godelier argued that new concepts would not resolve the problem; thus the “concept of the ‘tribe’ will continue to be used in more or less refined forms and will deliver the same goods and the same kind of bad service” (1977, pp. 95–96). Despite Godelier’s exhortation, in subsequent decades post-structuralist, postmodern, and feminist theorists such as Lila Abu-Lughod and Michael Gilsenan deconstructed the colonial legacy of the concept and pleaded for a more reflexive and dialogic ethnography. All these controversies notwithstanding, there is nothing wrong in using the term tribe, so long as it conveys the real sociopolitical formation and cultural distinctiveness of a group rather than myths, stereotypes, and prejudices. However, anthropologists have come to prefer the term ethnic groups over tribes.
For many, as Susana Devalle (1992) notes, tribe is understood as a “colonial category” to promote specific colonial interests and is largely associated with the Western colonial power structures and discourses. Yet Fried (1975) persuasively argues that in the past in many expansionist states, such as China, the relatively weaker peoples conquered by the stronger groups were given pejorative terms on a par with “tribe.”
In the absence of a clear-cut definition, it is useful to examine the ways in which tribes are characterized. A tribe is ideally designated as having a common territory, a common name and culture, speaking a common language, practicing endogamy, with an autonomous political organization and close-knit kinship ties, the members of which are believers of a common religion. The classical anthropological depiction of tribes, as put forward by Mafeje, as “self-contained, autonomous communities practicing subsistence economy with no or limited external trade” (1971, p. 257) is highly polemical, as ethnographies hardly support this utopian construction. Far from being autonomous or self-contained, tribal communities have more often fostered multitribal units that functioned as bigger kingdoms or confederacies. The Luapula Kingdom of Kazembe in Central Africa, the Zulu empire in South Africa, the Ashanti Confederacy in West Africa, and the Gond kingdoms of India are good examples of, in Mafeje’s term, “super-tribes.” Realistically, tribal communities as “little traditions” in the civilizational model of Robert Redfield (1956) have interacted politically, economically, and ritu-ally with larger sociopolitical formations in their neighborhoods. The process of Sanskritization suggested by M. N. Srinivas (1966), Nirmal K. Bose’s model of Hindu methods of tribal absorption (1967), and Surajit Sinha’s case studies on state formation in tribal India (1987) are classical examples of the fact that neither in the past nor at present have tribes remained secluded or insulated either politically or culturally, despite having their own chiefs or heads, territorial affiliations, and customary laws.
Tribes also economically interact with other neighboring tribes and nontribes, and yet have their own means of subsistence. Many of them still practice hunting and foraging (the !Kung of Botswana and Namibia), pastoral-ism (the Masai of Kenya and the Nuer of Sudan), swidden agriculture (the Pgakenyaw and Lua of Thailand, Uma’ Jalan of East Kalimantan), settled cultivation (the Kikuyu of Kenya and the Munda and Santal of India), or traditional crafts (the Uraali Kurumas of South India), or more realistically, a combination of them. Although tribal societies may not be stratified, primordial forms of social differentiation do exist in them, as noted by Kamal Misra (1991); and despite practicing many different faiths, animism still forms the bedrock of their religion.
Approximately 8.2 percent of the total Indian population has been designated as “Scheduled Tribes” (STs), according to the Indian census of 2001. The official Web site of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, states that “the Scheduled Tribes are the tribes or tribal communities or part of or groups within these tribes and tribal communities which have been declared as such by the President through a public notification.” The Indian government regards retention of “primitive” traits, geographical isolation, possessing distinct culture, shyness of contact with the community at large, and economic backwardness as the essential characteristics of Scheduled Tribes. However, most of these communities are in close proximity and constant interaction with the neighboring Hindu peasants. Some of the tribal groups are now almost extinct—the Great Andamanese number only twenty persons—whereas others, like the Gonds, number more than five million. They are still at different stages of economy, from hunting and foraging to industrial labor and whitecollar jobs. According to the census, the tribal literacy rate is 47.1 percent. The Government of India has designated seventy-five communities among the STs as Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs), for whose development specific microprojects have been designed and implemented. Despite constitutional protection, Scheduled Tribes in India are still impoverished and marginalized.
Many tribes have come to symbolize the most victimized segments of societies. It is a strange paradox that although they inhabit the most resource-rich regions of the world, many of them are in a state of impoverishment. They are the most severely affected victims of induced development, such as the establishment of mega-hydroelectric projects, conservation through parks, sanctuaries and bioreserves, mining and allied activities, urbanization and industrialization, ecotourism projects, and so on. As John Bodley notes in his 1988 study, these activities cause involuntary displacement, alienation from natural resources, cultural disorganization, and disengagement with the intense community life, eventually pushing them into abject poverty and squalor. Their problems are compounded by the penetrating regime of globalization and a competitive market economy. The Jarawa of the Andaman Islands, the Yanamami group of tribes of South America, and others are now vulnerable to new diseases like measles and mumps because of their exposure to the people outside their habitat.
Concern for the plight of the tribes and indigenous peoples is growing in many quarters, and efforts are being made to protect them and preserve their cultural heritage. The International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995–2004), declared by the United Nations; the International Labor Organization conventions 107 (1957) and 169 (1989); and the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) have made special provisions for protecting the civil and political rights of the tribes and indigenous people. Tribal empowerment and participatory development have become buzzwords in the field of tribal development, and efforts are being made to reverse the trend of marginalization of tribes all over the world.
SEE ALSO Animism; Colonialism; Darwinism, Social; Ethnicity; Ethnography; Evans-Pritchard, E. E.; Human Rights; Indigenous Rights; Marxism; Native Americans; Natives; Postmodernism; Poststructuralism; Sahlins, Marshall; Stratification; Third World; Tribalism
Béteille, André. 1981. The Definition of Tribe. In Tribe, Caste and Religion in India, ed. Romesh Thapar, 7–14. Delhi: Macmillan Co. of India.
Bodley, John H., ed. 1988. Tribal Peoples and Development Issues: A Global Overview . Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.
Bose, Nirmal Kumar. 1967. Culture and Society in India. Bombay, London, and New York: Asia Publishing Co.
Devalle, Susana B. C. 1992. Discourses of Ethnicity: Culture and Protest in Jharkhand. New Delhi and Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Fried, Morton H. 1967. The Evolution of Political Society: An Essay in Political Anthropology. New York: Random House.
Fried, Morton H. 1975. The Notion of Tribe. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings Publishing.
Godelier, Maurice. 1977. Perspectives in Marxist Anthropology. Trans. Robert Brain. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lewis, I. M. 1968. Tribal Society. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 16, ed. David L. Sills, 146–151. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Mafeje, Archie. 1971. The Ideology of “Tribalism.” Journal of Modern African Studies 9 (2): 253–261.
Misra, Kamal K. 1991. Dynamics of Inequality in an Unstratified Society: A Case Study of the Juang. Man in India 71 (2–3): 363–372.
Redfield, Robert. 1956. Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 1951. Notes and Queries on Anthropology. 6th ed. London: Routledge and K. Paul.
Sahlins, Marshall D. 1968. Tribesmen. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Sinha, Surajit, ed. 1987. Tribal Polities and State Systems in Pre-Colonial Eastern and North Eastern India. Calcutta: K. P. Bagchi.
Srinivas, M. N. 1966. Social Change in Modern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Suzuki, Peter T. 2005. Tribe: Chimeric or Polymorphic? In Tribal Situation in India, vol. 6 of Contemporary Society: Tribal Studies, eds. Georg Pfeffer and Deepak Kumar Behera. New Delhi: Concept.
The English word tribe is an ambivalent term that is used indiscriminately to refer to a wide variety of social groupings that range from small, preliterate, and relatively isolated communities in the Amazon jungles of South America to large, powerful confederacies whose chiefs are members of the national political elite such as the case of the Bakhtiyari of southwest Iran. In what follows, the concepts of "tribe"and "tribalism" are discussed in the specific context of the Middle East.
The Arabic term for tribe is qabila ( pl. qaba˒il). The word qabila is mentioned in the Qur˒an: " O mankind: we have created you from a male and a female and made you into peoples and tribes [qaba˒il] that you may know each other" (49:13). In its most common usage, qabila refers to a named group of people who share an ideology of common descent in the male line, claim a common geographical territory, and are politically united under the leadership of a chief, called a shaykh in Arabic, or khan in Persian and Turkish. As such, the concept of "tribe" and "tribalism" is used to simultaneously indicate a personal and group identity, a form of social organization, and a distinct political structure.
As a source of personal and group identity, tribal affiliation can be analogous to ethnicity albeit on a more limited scale; it confers a distinct identity on its members, binding them together in a distinct moral code expressed most commonly in the idiom of honor, courage, and personal autonomy. Tribal identity, based on ties of kinship (real or fictitious), is further reinforced by the common practice of close endogamy that favors the marriage of a man to his father's brother's daughter. Among Arabic speakers, intratribal bonds and group cohesion are expressed in the idiom of ˓asabiyya, or group solidarity, based on blood ties and common descent.
Tribal systems of sociopolitical organization are also based on the ideology of common descent from a founding ancestor; some pastoral nomads, like the Bedouins of the Arabian and Syrian deserts, keep elaborate genealogies that serve to organize the different segments of the tribe in a network of mutual rights and responsibilities. Typically, the smallest tribal segment is the household made up of one or more patrilineally related families; a number of such households make up the next ascending segment, or lineage. Among the Bedouins, this level of organization is known as fakhd; members of a fakhd or lineage usually lay claim to a common grazing territory, brand their herds with the same symbol, and are collectively liable to pay blood money in the case of a murder committed by one of their memebrs. A number of related lineages are grouped into the next all-encompassing level of the tribe, or qabila; in some parts of the Arabic-speaking Middle East, this level is also referred to as ˓ashira. The tribe is thus the largest named unit of incorporation constructed on a genealogical framework. While today tribes serve mainly as reference groups for related lineages, in the past they played an important role in the political life of the region. Each tribe united behind a paramount chief who acted as a military commander in intertribal warfare. Tribal members typically share a strong sense of common heritage that goes beyond that of common descent. They tend to speak one dialect, dress in a distinctive style, and have their own customs and traditions.
Tribes have a long and complicated history in the Middle East; unlike the case for other parts of the world, tribes did not disappear with the formation of nation-states in the region. In fact, the historical coexistence of state and tribe lends a unique texture to Middle Eastern human geography. Beginning with the Islamic conquest in the seventh century (itself carried out by Arab tribal forces) tribes and tribal confederacies have played a key role in the creation and disintegration of several Islamic imperial dynasties such as the Abbasids, the Ottomans, and the Qajars. Equally significant were the many tribes who managed to maintain their autonomy in defiance of state rule. This was the case with the Bedouin tribes of Arabia, the Kurds of the Zagros mountains, and the large tribal confederacies of Iran like the Bakhtiyari and the Qashqa˒i.
In the mountain and desert areas of Kurdistan, the Arabian Peninsula, and Iran, tribally organized confederacies managed to escape the reach of the state and maintain their independence well into the twentieth century. Following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War and the arrival of European colonial powers in the region, the role of tribes in the newly formed nation-states assumed a new significance. In their effort to stem anticolonial and nationalist movements in the region, colonial powers encouraged tribal separatism by promoting tribal identities and reinforcing the authority of tribal leaders. This policy of "divide and rule" came to an end after the Second World War, which marked the end of colonialism in the region. Seeking to promote national unity, the policy of the newly independent governments aimed at integrating the tribes into the nation-state. In cases of pastoral nomadic tribes such as the Bedouins of Arabia and the Qashqa˒i of Iran, this took the form of forced sedentarization, taxation, and conscription into the national army.
Today all over the Middle East, tribes have ceased to be important political units capable of challenging the power of the central governments. Tribal leaders have been generally co-opted or were absorbed into the national elite. But while their political role has been generally undermined, tribes and tribalism remain an important component of Middle Eastern cultural landscape. Supplanted by nationalist and Islamist ideologies, tribalism as an ideology has not disappeared. Tribal identity and tribal ties continue to be an important source for self-reference and social organization for many people in the region.
Bates, Daniel G., and Rassam, Amal. Peoples and Cultures of theMiddle East. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.
tribe / trīb/ • n. 1. a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader: indigenous Indian tribes the Celtic tribes of Europe. ∎ (in ancient Rome) each of several political divisions, originally three, later thirty, ultimately thirty-five. ∎ inf. family: the entire tribe is coming for Thanksgiving. ∎ derog. a distinctive close-knit social or political group: she made a stand against the social codes of her English middle-class tribe. ∎ derog. a group or class of people or things: an outburst against the whole tribe of theoreticians. ∎ (often tribes) inf. large numbers of people or animals: tribes of children playing under the watchful eyes of nurses.2. Biol. a taxonomic category that ranks above genus and below family or subfamily, usually ending in -ini (in zoology) or -eae (in botany).
Hence tribal (-AL1) XVIII. tribesman (-S) XVIII.
a number or company of persons or animals; a social group containing a number of families.
Examples : tribe of children, 1835; of critics, 1843; of chronical diseases, 1744; of goats—Brewer ; of medicines, 1822; of nieces, 1909; of vulgar politicians, 1796; of savages; of snails and worms, 1731; of sparrows; of whales, 1820.