Talking about “Tribe”

Via Ethan Zuckerman, a nice little piece on the problems associated with using the word “tribe” to talk about Africa.

What is a tribe? The Zulu in South Africa, whose name and common identity was forged by the creation of a powerful state less than two centuries ago, and who are a bigger group than French Canadians, are called a tribe. So are the !Kung hunter-gatherers of Botswana and Namibia, who number in the hundreds. The term is applied to Kenya’s Maasai herders and Kikuyu farmers, and to members of these groups in cities and towns when they go there to live and work. Tribe is used for millions of Yoruba in Nigeria and Benin, who share a language but have an eight-hundred year history of multiple and sometimes warring city-states, and of religious diversity even within the same extended families. Tribe is used for Hutu and Tutsi in the central African countries of Rwanda and Burundi. Yet the two societies (and regions within them) have different histories. And in each one, Hutu and Tutsi lived interspersed in the same territory. They spoke the same language, married each other, and shared virtually all aspects of culture. At no point in history could the distinction be defined by distinct territories, one of the key assumptions built into “tribe.”

Tribe is used for groups who trace their heritage to great kingdoms. It is applied to Nigeria’s Igbo and other peoples who organized orderly societies composed of hundreds of local communities and highly developed trade networks without recourse to elaborate states. Tribe is also used for all sorts of smaller units of such larger nations, peoples or ethnic groups. The followers of a particular local leader may be called a tribe. Members of an extended kin-group may be called a tribe. People who live in a particular area may be called a tribe. We find tribes within tribes, and cutting across other tribes. Offering no useful distinctions, tribe obscures many. As a description of a group, tribe means almost anything, so it really means nothing.

Somewhat related is this post by Josh Ruxin about why Kenya Isn’t Rwanda:

That kind of blithe comparison obscures more than it clarifies. If you rely on the foreign press, the parallels with Rwanda may appear striking: violence committed by one tribe against another (in this case, multiple groups against one); rioting characterized by intense brutality and seemingly indiscriminate murder; most horrifically, hundreds of sanctuary seekers burned to death in a locked church. But there, the similarities abruptly end. What is happening now is terrible and horrifying, but it is not the 1994 Rwandan genocide; something else is occurring, a failure to accompany economic development with a concomitant strengthening of the institutions of political democracy.

6 thoughts on “Talking about “Tribe”

  1. If I were teaching a course on the subject I’d use Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject (there is both the book and the CSSH article), but I liked the blog-like readability of this piece.

  2. There is a double-edged problem here, of which the concept of tribe and its critiques are both symptoms: the circularity of the modern colonial contact situation, well expressed in the statement that “Tribes Make States and States Make Tribes” (from the SAR War in the Tribal Zone volume).

    What if we encountered a tribe-like polity not as a tool of empire but the other way around? Well guess what? That’s exactly what we do find around 1800 BCE, when Zimri-Lim, of the beni Sim’al, takes over the Old Babylonian city-state of Mari. Here we see tribal (or “tribal”) political categories used to organize a state.

    One of the things that I, and I think Rex, find appealing about the ancient Near Eastern archive is getting outside the box of modernity.

  3. Yeah one thing that recent flurry of high-table theory on Sovereignty and The State has never connected with is any state formation before 1948 (or, to be _very_ charitable, 1648). Or the earlier Marx n’ Archaeology literature on the state. See my paper here, Seth:

    What we really need here is a concrete, comparative anthropology of these interactions, exactly as Kerim points out. Otherwise we will lapse back to generalities like, say, Jared Diamond does:

    Ironically, as the footnotes from GGS indicate, it was exactly that Marx n’ Archaeology moment which Diamond read up to. All the work done sense then doesn’t really come up in his work — at least not the work I’ve read.

  4. I have several Dinka students in my classes and when they read and commented on Southall, Fried & K\R. Kelly’s views of tribes they all had this interesting nostalgia and repulsion to any concrete formulations of tribes.

  5. Hmm–that makes sense and is interesting. What specifically bugged your students about the formulations?

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