Tribal Society

views updated

Tribal Society


In general usage, the word “tribe” is taken to denote a primary aggregate of peoples living in a primitive or barbarous condition under a headman or chief. The unnecessary moralistic overtones that this usage implies can be avoided or minimized by the use of the expression “tribal society,” which is to be preferred to such synonyms as “primitive society” or “preliterate society.” At the same time, the word “tribe” need not be discarded. Indeed, it has become a technical term denoting a territorially defined political unit, a usage that recalls the original Latin use of the word for the political divisions or patrician orders of the Roman state.

Traditional views. Evolutionary writers of the last century attempted to distinguish between tribal and modern society in terms of imputed differences in their legal and political institutions. Morgan (1877) saw tribal society as having social, but not political organization, a judgment echoed by Sidgwick (1891) and some later authorities on politics. Both Morgan and Maine (1861) contrasted the territorial foundations of the modern state with what they considered to be the kinship basis of tribal societies. Maine regarded tribal emphasis on the status structure (ascribed through birth) to be dominant over relations of voluntary contract that could be achieved by skill or effort. This assessment, of course, formed the basis for the great legal historian’s famous aphorism expressing the transition from tribal to modern institutions in terms of the “movement of the progressive societies” from status to contract.

The remarkable advances that have been achieved in the empirical study of tribal societies in recent years make these judgments in many respects untenable. It is true that no one seriously questions the importance of kinship organization in most tribal societies, but the conclusion that this implies the exclusion of territorial ties can no longer be maintained. Almost all sedentary tribal societies have well-defined groupings based on common occupation of territory, and even where these are lacking, kinship is not coterminous with the political cohesion of a tribe.

On the other hand, Maine’s emphasis on the paucity of contractual relations in tribal society has been widely sustained, particularly by such anthropologists as Gluckman (1955, p. 28) and Schapera (1938), who have made fundamental contributions to the study of tribal legal institutions. Yet here much naturally turns on what is meant by “contract.” Davy (1922), who seriously attacked the question, regarded status and contractual relations as inseparably intertwined in tribal society and saw what Maine took to be the complete replacement of the first by the second as a gradual process of separation and specialization. Evidence supporting this position may be cited from the pastoral Somali nomads of the Horn of Africa, where contract is explicitly employed as a political device for the purpose of supplementing, curtailing, or defining the range of blood solidarity (Lewis 1961, pp. 161 ff.). Even in the Lozi kingdom of central Africa (Gluckman 1955), contractual relations of a kind can be discerned, cloaked though they may be in the idiom of kinship.

It is evident, therefore, even from this brief discussion, that neither contract nor territoriality provide in themselves adequate criteria for distinguishing between tribal and modern society. Nor, indeed, is it easy to find any other acceptable criteria of this order. What is necessary is an entirely different approach, for it is not the presence or absence of particular principles of social grouping that is significant here, but the form, shape, and design of society itself.

Characteristics of tribal society. While taking account of the implications of such homely synonyms as “simple society,” “preindustrial society,” or “folk society,” a satisfactory characterization of tribal society must therefore concentrate upon criteria of form rather than of content. Here the most useful general criterion is that of “scale” (Wilson & Wilson 1945). 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. Characteristically, too, tribal languages are unwritten, and hence, the extent of communication both in time and space is inevitably narrow. At the same time, tribal societies exhibit a remarkable economy of design and have a compactness and self-sufficiency lacking in modern society. This is achieved by the close, and sometimes unilateral, connections that exist between tribal institutions or principles of social organization, and by the concentration of a multiplicity of social roles in the same social persons or offices. There is a corresponding unity and coherence in tribal values that are intimately related to social institutions and are endowed with an intensity characteristic of all “closed” systems of thought. Tribal societies are supremely ethnocentric.

Economic relations are usually of the subsistence type, although trade and barter often extend outside the community. At the same time, economic differentiation and specialization are not developed, and by modern standards technological knowledge and environmental control remain restricted. Ideally, indeed, a position of socioeconomic equilibrium has been attained in relation to environmental conditions. In these circumstances social change tends to be on a limited scale, reproducing rather than drastically altering the existing order, and innovations are profoundly affected by the established institutions of society.

Yet the isolation and unchangingness of tribal communities must not be exaggerated; above all, it must be remembered that knowledge of tribal life derives mainly from studies made at a particular point in time. Even where the history of a tribal society is not known with any certainty, the ebb and flow of contact and influence between cultures is too widespread a phenomenon to be denied on the basis of negative evidence alone. As Forde (1934, pp. 466 ff.) very properly emphasized, the diffusion of technical, moral, and aesthetic ideas is something that all societies have experienced to some degree. Indeed, contact by either peaceful penetration or conquest, has, in many cases, wrought far-reaching, and often radical, changes in material techniques, values, and social institutions. Hence, if tribal societies are to be regarded as having achieved a state of balance with their physical and social surroundings, they must be understood to be in dynamic rather than static equilibrium. Only when these qualifications are accepted is “tribal society” a useful working concept that applies to a wide range of actual communities, existing as they do in reality in both time and space.

The concept applies best to such small, relatively isolated and self-contained societies as the Tro-briand Islanders of Melanesia (Malinowski 1922), the Tikopia (Firth 1936), and many peoples of the hinterlands of America and Africa, as for example, the Tallensi of Ghana (Fortes 1945; 1949). Many other traditional societies generally regarded as tribal conform less closely to the ideal type. There is, for instance, what might be described as a middle range of large centralized states, such as the east African Baganda (Richards 1960, pp. 41 ff.), whose population numbers well over a million; the central African state of Ruanda, with nearly two million people (Maquet 1961); the west African state of Nupe, with a population of almost half a million (Nadel 1942); and in southern Africa, the Zulu state, which in 1870 was similar in strength to Nupe (Gluckman 1940). The famous League of the Iroquois (Morgan 1851) presents another example of this type.

In the degree and range of internal differentiation, especially in their political and legal institutions, these examples do not conform fully to the ideal conception of a tribal society. It is clear that the issue is not merely one of the degree of political and administrative centralization achieved, for there are many other tribal societies that lack these features and yet in terms of sheer numerical size assume the proportions of small nations. For example, both the Galla (Huntingford 1955) and the Somali (Lewis 1961) of northeast Africa have a population of about three million, and the Yoruba (Forde 1951), Hausa, and Ibo (Forde & Jones 1950) of west Africa are probably even more numerous.

Other exceptions are encountered when one deals with much smaller, but equally uncentralized, tribal peoples who live in Arabia and in north, northeast, and west Africa. Through trade, the Muslim religion, and the partial use of the Arabic language, these communities participate in the world culture of Islam. In Asia, the Hindu world provides parallel instances of small societies which are culturally and linguistically distinct, but which participate through religion and the caste system in the macroculture and society of Hinduism (cf. Srinivas 1952; Dumont 1957). Although it is common practice to regard these communities as laterally organized tribal units in the vertical world of Hindu caste, here the closed horizons of tribal societies in the strict sense are patently absent. Similar reservations have to be made in the case of rural Chinese communities, although these share many tribal principles of organization.

In these latter cases we are concerned with communities that belong emphatically to two worlds, where the category of tribal society overlaps with that of peasant society and, according to Redfield (1956), the “little tradition” in many respects partakes of the more inclusive “big tradition” in which it participates.

The chief difficulty here is that of determining where the tribal community begins and ends. With the spread of modern values, of industrialization, and of urbanization, this problem of course is becoming almost universal, and in its urban aspects gives rise to the so-called phenomenon of “detribal-ization” discussed below. In the typically isolated and self-contained tribal society, however, there is a common awareness of social and cultural identity —a common set of values—and no dispute about the social frontiers of the community. But in the fluid conditions just described, this no longer applies. Instead, there is a lack of generally accepted, precisely defined limits to consciously recognized social and cultural identity. In these cases, the frontiers of cultural and social interaction are ill-defined, shifting, and inconsistent (cf. Leach 1954).

The concept “tribal society,” therefore, although having general utility as an idealized type of society, is in no sense an absolute category. Some societies are merely more or less tribal than others. In the classification of societies according to their scale, “tribal society” can be regarded at most as a loosely bounded area at the opposite end of the continuum to that of “modern society.”

Typologies of tribal society. Various criteria have been adopted by different schools of anthropologists in the classification of tribal societies. For the purpose of reconstructing historical connections, German and Austrian workers such as Schmidt and Koppers and their followers have classified societies according to the particular configuration of institutions, or Kulturkreise, which they incorporate. The theoretical premise is that peoples sharing the same cluster of institutions have a common origin, an assumption that has proved better founded when the cultural traits shared have belonged to the material rather than to the social sphere of organization. Attempts to correlate social and political institutions with types of tribal economy, usually in order to construct evolutionary scales of progress, have fared little better. Certain crude correlations undoubtedly exist between the extent of environmental control and scope of economic exploitation on the one hand, and the complexity and scale of juridical and political organization on the other. This has been elegantly demonstrated by Hobhouse, Wheeler, and Ginsberg (1915). But, in spite of this, there is no necessary and inevitable connection between particular social and political institutions, or clusters of them, and modes of livelihood and economy.

Recent research in cultural and structural anthropology has consequently abandoned the holistic search for origins and has applied the comparative method to the functional analysis of institutions. The British school and its adherents, stimulated by the pioneering work of Fortes and Evans-Pritchard (1940), have devoted much attention to problems of political organization. These studies have shown equally how the same institutions may in one tribal society provide a basis for a complex administrative and governmental structure, while in another they are invested with different functions and provide only for ephemeral political cohesion without any formal positions of leadership or authority.

More generally, this work has demonstrated how as political units increase in size (but not necessarily in population density) their internal organization inevitably becomes more complex. Among the politically diffuse Nuer of the Sudan, or among the equally equalitarian Somali nomads of northeast Africa, quite large communities may for short periods act as political entities. However, stable and concerted political unity requires a degree of centralized government and administrative specialization that these peoples traditionally lack. Here, moreover, there is often a separation between morality, or the system of values, and political cohesion. In the Somali case, for instance, the boundaries of traditional political unity stop short at the clan, although all clans share common value and moral systems and recognize the same code of indemnification for wrongs.

This concentration on the comparative functions of political institutions has greatly advanced the study of tribal societies and has led to a deepened understanding of the various institutional principles by which tribal cohesion is maintained. It is now clear, for example, that in many politically inchoate societies the threat of vengeance, rather than its execution, serves to maintain social order. In this manner the potential for violence activates the network of personal allegiances founded on residence and kinship, and thus affords a system of social control in the absence of government and courts of law. These inquiries have emphasized the significance of the counterbalancing forces in the elastic fabric of social relations, which in certain areas of all societies contribute to social stability and integration. Stripped of their particular cultural idiom, similar social processes can be seen to be at work in all human societies. One of the principal values of tribal studies is that in these alien, small-scale, and closely knit communities it is easier to perceive the mechanisms of cultural dynamics.

“Tribe” as a technical term. The increasingly detailed functional analysis of tribal institutions has naturally entailed a reformulation of concepts. In English anthropology, although not always in America or on the Continent, the term “tribe” has acquired a restricted technical meaning. Usually the term now refers to the widest territorially defined, politically independent unit in a tribal society. It no longer refers to the culturally and ethnically distinct tribal society as a whole except where, as in such tribal states as Baganda or Ruanda, tribe and society coincide. Some tribal societies, therefore, consist of several tribes; others comprise a single tribe. But in both cases the emphasis of the definition is on territorially based political unity, an emphasis that reflects tribal realities. In truly nomadic societies, of course, where there are no proprietorial rights asserted over definite areas of land, tribes in this strict sense do not exist.

Thus the introduction of the word “tribe” as a technical term makes possible a fuller and more accurate description of the nature of political cohesion within the tribe and facilitates the distinction between purely territorial loyalties and those founded on such other principles of association as kinship, clanship, or age-grouping. But, while it is always easy to describe the tribe in its territorial aspects, its political qualities are not always easily defined, especially in tribes without chiefs or other formally installed rulers. Thus, in dealing with the Nuer of the Sudan, Evans-Pritchard (1940) found it necessary to define the tribe as the largest territorial unit within which the members of the tribe would unite against external aggression and settle their internal differences by arbitration.

Tribalism and “detribalization.” When tribesmen move out of their native society to join, however peripherally, a larger multitribal or plural society, the tribal identity that they carry with them is that of their tribal society as a whole, irrespective of whether or not it originally represented a single political unit. An interesting example is provided by the Luapula kingdom of Kazembe in central Africa studied by Cunnison (1960). Here peoples of various tribal origin have settled and owe common allegiance to the Lunda King Kazembe and yet also retain their external ties with their tribal homelands. There is a single multitribal Luapula political unit under Kazembe, a tribe; yet cultural, social, and political ties extend outside the kingdom from among its heterogeneous subjects. What is significant is the retention of original tribal links and their use as a principle of association within the kingdom as well as outside it, a situation that implies something more than dual citizenship.

This purely tribal phenomenon, which is not restricted to central Africa, is analogous to the common situation today caused by the spread of urbanization and industry throughout the world and the increasing involvement of tribesmen in the new plural societies that result. Contrary to the deep-seated traditional view, many tribal societies do not disintegrate or lose their identity in these situations of contact or acculturation between widely diverse cultures. Indeed, as long as the traditional economy is not radically changed and the weight of foreign influence is not overwhelming, much of the traditional tribal culture and values persists and shows remarkable resilience in adapting to the new conditions. Tribal cohesion has, moreover, in most cases shown itself to be capable of surviving and even profiting from quite radical changes in political organization under colonial rule. Frequently indeed, and especially where the policy of indirect rule has been followed, colonial administration has buttressed and strengthened rather than weakened tribal identity.

When tribal identity and cohesion persist outside towns, those tribesmen who move into the industrial areas in search of work do not necessarily become “detribalized.” Recent studies, such as those of Mitchell (1956; 1960) and of Southall (1961) in Africa, reveal how inadequate this traditional evaluation has become. Especially where urban conditions are insecure, the tribal townsman maintains a foot in both town and country and is not unequivocally committed to urban society. Social, political, and property interests (particularly where land or livestock are involved) tie the townsman to his rural kinsmen, whom he helps to support with his new earnings. In turn, the effective maintenance of these ties with his rural kin guarantees that the townsman’s place in his tribal social structure will be kept open for him. Thus, between tribal area and urban conglomeration a kind of social continuum is established. In the multitribal or plural society of the town itself, tribal identity is now enlarged to the limits of the individual’s tribal society as a whole. It becomes a category of social interaction competing for the townsman’s allegiance with other social categories, such as residential ties, class, and modern nationalism.

Hence, what is carried forward into the mixed and often polyglot urban community with all its new values is not tribal allegiance at the level of “tribe” in the strict sense, but tribal institutions and patriotism on the wider scale. For the townsman, and also to an increasing extent for the tribesman who remains at home, the tribal way of life and system of values are now one institution among several that are variously opposed and conflicting.

With these developments, the gap between the real situation and the ideal concept of tribal society grows even wider. But the concept will remain useful, not only for understanding the way in which tribal societies have changed and are changing in the modern world, but also as a theoretical construct in the comparative study of social systems and institutions. Even when all truly tribal communities have disappeared, the fact that under certain conditions certain combinations of institutions have provided the basis for a viable social system at some point in man’s history is of the utmost significance to the student of society. No empirically sound general theory of society can be elaborated unless account is taken of every known form of man’s existence in society.

I. M. Lewis

[See also Political anthropology, article on POLITICAL ORGANIZATION; Stateless society; Village.]


Beattie, J. H. M. 1964 Other Cultures: Aims, Methods and Achievements in Social Anthropology. London: Cohen & West; New York: Free Press.

Bohannan, Paul; and Dalton, George (editors) 1962 Markets in Africa. Northwestern University Africa Studies, No. 9. Evanston, 111.: Northwestern Univ. Press.

Cunnison, Ian G. 1960 The Luapula Peoples of Northern Rhodesia: Custom and History in Tribal Politics. Manchester (England) Univ. Press.

Davy, Georges 1922 La for jurée. Paris: Alcan.

Douglas, Mary 1966 Purity and Danger: A Comparative Study of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge.

Dumont, L. 1957 Une sous-caste de I’lnde du Sud: Organisation sociale et religion de Pramalai Kallar. Paris: Mouton.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940 The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford Univ. Press.

Fallers, Lloyd A. (editor) 1964 The King’s Men: Leadership and Status in Buganda on the Eve of Independence. Oxford Univ. Press.

Firth, Raymond (1936) 1957 We the Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Polynesia. 2d ed. London: Allen & Unwin. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Beacon.

Forde, C. Daryll (1934) 1963 Habitat, Economy and Society: A Geographical Introduction to Ethnology. London: Methuen.

Forde, C. Daryll 1951 The Yoruba-speaking Peoples of South-western Nigeria. Ethnographic Survey of Africa Series: Western Africa, Part 4. London: International African Institute.

Forde, C. Daryll; and Jones, G. I. 1950 The Ibo and Ibibio-speaking Peoples of South Eastern Nigeria. Ethnographic Survey of Africa Series: Western Africa, Part 3. Oxford Univ. Press.

Fortes, Meyer 1945 The Dynamics of Clanship Among the Tallensi: Being the First Part of an Analysis of the Social Structure of a Trans-Volta Tribe. Published for the International African Institute. Oxford Univ. Press.

Fortes, Meyer 1949 The Web of Kinship Among the Tallensi: The Second Part of an Analysis of the Social Structure of a Trans-Volta Tribe. Published for the International African Institute. Oxford Univ. Press.

Fortes, Meyer; and Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (editors) (1940) 1958 African Political Systems. Oxford Univ. Press.

Gluckman, Max 1940 The Kingdom of the Zulu of South Africa. Pages 25-55 in Meyer Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard (editors), African Political Systems. Published for the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures. Oxford Univ. Press.

Gluckman, Max 1955 The Judicial Process Among the Barotse of Northern Rhodesia. Manchester (England) Univ. Press; Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Gluckman, Max 1965 Politics, Law and Ritual in Tribal Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

Herskovits, Melville J. 1938 Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom. 2 vols. New York: Augustin.

Hobhouse, Leonard T.; Wheeler, G. C.; and Ginsberg, M. (1915) 1930 The Material Culture and Social Institutions of the Simpler Peoples: An Essay in Correlation. London School of Economics and Political Science, Monographs on Sociology, No. 3. London: Chapman.

Huntingford, George W. B. 1955 The Galla of Ethiopia. Ethnographic Survey of Africa: North-eastern Africa, Part 2. London: International African Institute.

Kroeber, A. L.; and Kluckhohn, Clyde 1952 Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. Harvard University, Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Papers, Vol. 47, No. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: The Museum.

Leach, Edmund R. 1954 Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. A publication of the London School of Economics and Political Science. London School of Economics and Political Science; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

LÉvi-Strauss, Claude 1949 Les structures elementaires de la parente. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Lewis, I. M. 1961 A Pastoral Democracy: A Study in Pastoralism and Politics Among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa. Published for the International African Institute. Oxford Univ. Press.

Lowie, Robert H. (1920) 1947 Primitive Society. Rev. ed. New York: Liveright.

Maine, Henry J. S. (1861) 1960 Ancient Law: Its Connection With the Early History of Society, and Its Relations to Modern Ideas. Rev. ed. New York: Dutton; London and Toronto: Dent. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Beacon.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1922) 1960 Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London School of Economics and Political Science, Studies, No. 65. London: Routledge; New York: Dutton.

Maquet, Jacques J. 1961 The Premise of Inequality in Ruanda: A Study of Political Relations in a Central African Kingdom. Published for the International African Institute. Oxford Univ. Press.

Mitchell, James C. 1956 The Kalela Dance: Aspects of Social Relationships Among Urban Africans in Northern Rhodesia. Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, Papers, No. 27. Manchester (England) Univ. Press.

Mitchell, James C. 1960 Tribalism and the Plural Society. Inaugural lecture at University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, 1959. Oxford Univ. Press.

Morgan, Lewis H. (1851) 1962 League of the Iroquois. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → First published as League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois, in 2 vols.

Morgan, Lewis H. (1877) 1964 Ancient Society. Edited by Leslie A. White. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap.

Murdock, George P. 1949 Social Structure. New York: Macmillan.

Nadel, S. F. 1942 A Black Byzantium: The Kingdom of Nupe in Nigeria. Oxford Univ. Press.

Nadel, S. F. 1957 The Theory of Social Structure. London: Cohen & West; Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Redfield, Robert 1956 Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization. Univ. of Chicago Press; Cambridge Univ. Press. → A paperback edition, bound together with The Little Community, was published in 1961 by Cambridge University Press.

Richards, Audrey I. (editor) 1960 East African Chiefs: A Study of Political Development in Some Uganda and Tanganyika Tribes. London: Faber; New York: Praeger.

Schapera, Isaac (1938) 1955 A Handbook of Tswana Law and Custom. 2d ed. Oxford Univ. Press.

Schapera, Isaac 1956 Government and Politics in Tribal Societies. London: Watts.

Schmidt, Wilhelm; and Koppers, Wilhelm 1924 Volker und Kulturen. Regensburg (Germany): Habbel.

Sidgwick, Henry (1891) 1908 The Elements of Politics. 4th ed. London: Macmillan.

Southall, Aidan (editor) 1961 Social Change in Modern Africa. Oxford Univ. Press.

Srinivas, M. N. 1952 Religion and Society Among the Coorgs of South India. Oxford Univ. Press.

Steward, Julian H. 1955 Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Wilson, Godfrey; -and Wilson, Monica H. (1945) 1965 The Analysis of Social Change, Based on Observations in Central Africa. Cambridge Univ. Press.

About this article

Tribal Society

Updated About content Print Article