The Invention of ‘Tribe’ (Again)

I’ve kvetched about Burning Man on this blog before, but it looks like it is time to kvetch again — the East Bay Express is reporting that Native Americans go to war against burners and win“. Apparently the ‘Go Native!’ theme party at which discounts would be offered if people showed up in ‘native’ dress didn’t go over with local Indians, especially since it abutted a sacred Ohlone site, which was touted in advertising for the party:

Within the dark, labyrinthine walls of the 140-year-old former brothel, old Native Americans were lecturing young Burners on what it meant to be Indian. Lit by dim lamps under red glass lampshades, tribal elder Wounded Knee DeOcampo — wearing a black T-shirt that read “original landlord” — stood over performance artist “Cicada” in her sparkly, sheer scarf and layered hipster garb, lecturing her about his grandmother’s forcible kidnapping and rape at white hands.

On the one hand, its good to see some growing awareness of indigenous issues creeping into the minds of people for whom the emulation of indigeneity is so central to their own lives. On the other hand, its incredibly sad and disappointing to see that these conversations need to be started — again — after a half century of AIM activities. As you can imagine, I have little sympathy for the burners.

While the ‘tribe’ meme has been around in California counterculture, it seems to be growing increasingly popular in its electronic variants — we have books now like Electronic Tribes which asks the question “what is an electronic tribe? What is the difference between a tribe and community? And what is “virtual” about these concepts?” and “So who is the shaman of the e-tribe? Who is the chief? Who are the warriors? Electronic tribes develop norms, and people take on various roles just as those in real life do in face-to-face interaction.”

Unfortunately, this volume doesn’t seem to have any – any – reference to any sort of actually existing group which might be called ‘tribal’. Instead, the editors of this volume seem to be taking as their primary analytic concept an unreconstructed notion of ‘tribe’ borrowed from television:

When I think of tribes, I think of the tribes I encountered in the media of my childhood. These tribes could be either Native Americans or the tribes of Africa. Certainly, to me, a component of this type of tribe was the interdependence among members of these groups. They were often isolated by factors such as geography, language (though, of course, on TV and in the movies everyone spoke English), and dress, and differed from other tribes or larger groups in terms of religion, housing, and worldview.

I haven’t read the book, so perhaps when it comes in through ILL I’ll be pleasantly surprised by their close readings of Morton Fried and collaborative approaches with an array of indigenous groups. But probably not.

…and I doubt Cyberchiefs will be any better…


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

10 thoughts on “The Invention of ‘Tribe’ (Again)

  1. rex,

    that is a great observation. however, i’m not an anthropologist, and i haven’t the faintest notion of what a tribe is defined (or not defined) as. could you perhaps elucidate, especially in comparison with the above works, and possibly talk about the consequences of using folk definitions of the word?

  2. 1) i’ve been to Burning Man (last year) and after glancing over your kvetch, i agree with you on certain levels. There is a mighty dose of pale out there, and the bourgeois comment is pretty much on the money, especially considering my experience (my campmates do what they call the “Princess Tour.” They refuse to go without an RV. Talk about expensive.)

    2) I have Electronic Tribes and have perused a few chapters of it. I’m not horribly impressed at the moment, partially for the reason you stated; there’s no comparison to a present-day “tribe” and their definition leaves a bit to be desired. When it comes to thinking of what to call our online formations, i like your co-blogger Kelty’s idea of the ‘recursive public’ much better than i like “tribe.” i also tend to be partial to “community” but that’s a messy term that i’m trying to find a way to un-mess a bit. If i manage to succeed, no one will be more surprised than i.

  3. The article from the East Bay Express might actually be a parody article, since it appeared in the April 1st issue (as all of the front page articles in that issue were).

  4. I agree — the word “tribe” has been getting a lot of use in recent years in the business and non-fiction press (Seth Godin’s book being just one example).

    My guess is that it’s because people are struggling to find words to describe some of the new stuff they’re seeing in terms of group activity (esp online, but also offline) in work and life. (As another commenter said — the word “community” gets used a lot too, with similarly wide and non-specific meanings.)

    We/our broader society just doesn’t have the language to describe some of these new kinds of relationships and groups, so we co-opt / adopt / bend existing words (such as “friends/friending”, “community,” “tribe,” “link,” etc.).

    The example you give above actually describes this perfectly — where the authors talk about their mental model for “tribe” as something they absorbed from TV & movies. (And yeah, that has nothing to do with actual indigenous people’s experiences — but that’s not the point of their book, either.)

    Yes, part of this is ignorance, co-option/colonization etc. But many/most words tend to change meanings and connotations over time. Most people today using words like “assassin” and “avatar” and all kinds of words that used to have certain historical or linguistic meanings — and for the broader public, those words have become unmoored/disconnected from those old meanings.

    So it seems little misplaced to expect these kinds of books to include >>>close readings of Morton Fried and collaborative approaches with an array of indigenous groups<<< You were kidding about that, right?

    Because of course you know that’s not a reasonable expectation to have for these kinds of books. These are mainstream non-fiction books, using common language/folk language to discuss societal trends. It’s like reading Rachael Ray and being disappointed that it’s not a footnoted academic treatis on the history of cooking.

    These books are great for what they are — popular mainstream writing — but they’re not rigorous academic works. They serve a different purpose.

  5. I agree with Mary Walker, about the absence of any descriptor in place of tribe. But focusing on public media, programs like ‘Survivor’ sure have made a mess of the concept of tribe. It would be interesting to unpackage Survivor’s conept of tribe as a means of entering into the mass viewership’s perception of what tribes are (does this mean anthropology is marginalized if one of its main constructs has been overtaken by public/mass media?).Maybe not in a university setting, but outside of that I’m not too sure.

  6. I am a pretty late to this conversation but I wanted to chime in as I have been struggling with some of these issues and in specific, trying to find an appropriate word (and I might add politically sensitive) that captures what I think these folks are trying to get at with the word “Tribe” but fail to do so, in part because of all the very problematic association the word brings along with it.

    It seems to me that word Tribe reflects a missing set of categories: I think it might be useful to linguistically and analytically differentiate between everyday uses of new media technologies that while certainly transformative of some practice (mall shopping vs Internet shopping but in the end both practice are still shopping) vs those formations and social manifestation that would not exist, could not exist without the technologies (hacking, 4Chan, Internet memes,Second Life, certain types of political activism etc etc). I have somewhat clumsily (and perhaps problematically) referred to those latter examples that rely completely and fundamentally on digital media as indigenous formations of new media, all the while also trying to get away from treating them as exceptional or more authentic by also pointing how those formations are still tied into currents that have nothing to do with digital media. And as important recognizing that unless we take into account how indigenous groups and non-western societies use new media, we will continue to sustain the very large blinders that are already so pervasive in new media studies.

    Anyhow, I am still thinking about what word might be useful to use to capture this idea that technology has indeed produced social formations, even cultural groups, that simply could not exist without these technologies without falling into really problematic language and terms such as Tribe.

  7. Why not ‘community’? It seems to me that when people use the term ‘tribe’ what they are really doing is painting themselves as the inverse of a bureaucratic/industrialized society: egalitarian as opposed to stratified, personalistic as opposed to impersonal, creative and opposed to stultified, authentic as opposed to heartless.

    Thus ‘tribe’ becomes for them a certain imagination of authentic communion, rather than any actually-existing group that they might know about and compare themselves to. It it is the lack of any actual comparison with other social forms (except those they imagine themselves to be revolting against) that is the problem.

    Actually, since these ‘tribesmen’ imagine themselves to be egalitarian, nomadic, etc. etc. I vote for ‘band’ as the proper incorrect label. We need a book called “virtual bands: original affluent societies online”

  8. Indeed, I don’t find it useful for the reasons you point to, and community/band/group/ perhaps is what we should fall back on. But I still need to find a clever and non-offensive term for what I am looking for (thankfully I have many months to do so). 🙂

    One more historical thing to add to the mix: soon after writing my comment, I came across a tribal reference in Dominic Boyer’s very nice PPP “Understanding Media: A Popular Philosophy (and was reminded of how far back the whole “Tribe” Trope goes, in fact, back to one important intellectual grandfather of this “brand” of media studies, McLuhan who put the T in Tribe in the following terms during an interview (pp. 19-20 in Boyer’s book):

    “These new media have made our world into a single unit” The world now is like a continuously sounding tribal drum where everyone gets the message all the time.

    Am: Why Marshall, do you use the word “tribal”?

    MM: Well, I think you find everything we’ve observed tonight abut the media points in the direction of tribal man and away from individual man.

    AM: By individual man I suppose you are reffering to literary man/

    MM: Yes and tribal man in the man created by the new electronic media… Yes, we’re retribalizing… [You get the point]

    A good reminder that the (problematic) forging of the electronic and the tribal is not really all that new.

  9. Instead of guessing what people mean by “tribe,” why not take a look at some sources. A prime mover in the marketing use of “tribe” is Seth Godin, who has written a book, readily available on Amazon titled _Tribes_. On his block he recently wrote,

    bq. Intentionally building communities (More hallway!)

    bq. If you think about the tribes you belong to, most of them are side effects of experiences you had doing something slightly unrelated. We have friends from that summer we worked together on the fishing boat, or a network of people from college or sunday school. There’s also that circle of people we connected with on a killer project at work a few years go.

    bq. These tribes of people are arguably a more valuable creation than the fish that were caught or the physics that were learned, right?

    bq. And yet, most of the time we don’t see the obvious opportunity–if you intentionally create the connections, you’ll get more of them, and better ones too. If the hallway conversations at a convention are worth more than the sessions, why not have more and better hallways?

    bq. What would happen if trade shows devoted half a day to ‘projects’? Put multi-disciplinary teams of ten people together and give them three hours to create something of value. The esprit de corps created by a bunch of strangers under time pressure in a public competition would last for decades. The community is worth more than the project.

    bq. The challenge is to look at the rituals and events in your organization (freshman orientation or weekly status meetings or online forums) and figure out how amplify the real reason they exist even if it means abandoning some of the time-honored tasks you’ve embraced. Going around in a circle saying everyone’s name doesn’t build a tribe. But neither does sitting through a boring powerpoint. Working side by side doing something that matters under adverse conditions… that’s what we need.

  10. As the co-author of one of the chapters in “Electronic Tribes” I wanted to let you know that we kicked off our chapter with Morton Fried (don’t know about a “close reading”), and that we do discuss the “tribalism” trend as rooted in Western fantasies of indigeneity, and that we do reference “actually existing group which might be called ‘tribal.’”

    Also, in response to the comment by Will–the East Bay Express story is accompanied by an editor’s note saying that it’s real.

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