what is a tribe?

now that tribes are all popular and trendy again, i feel it would be good to clarify exactly what a tribe is. everybody’s throwing the word around a lot (including yours truly), and i’m not sure that we’re all using the word in the same way. in fact, i’m not sure that everybody’s using the word in the same way consistently (i have a bad feeling i’ve been guilty of this).

so, what is a tribe?

well, first of all, as a very wise commenter once said:

“At one level it’s easier to talk in terms of clans, tribes and nations but at another level it maybe makes more sense to see it as a ten point scale where 1 is clan, 10 is nation and 2-8 are gradually increasing tribal size.”

exactly! what we’re looking at here is the range of sizes of the extended family, starting from — i’d say — the nuclear family on up to a race (a very extended family) — and really all the way up to the species level (the human race).

i’d say the scale looks something like this:

individual >> nuclear family >> extended family >> band or sub-clan >> clan or lineage >> tribe or chiefdom >> nation or ethny >> race >> human race ( >> primates >> mammals >> eukarya >> life on earth)

what did i miss? prolly something a LOT.

anyway, so a tribal society is: “organized largely on the basis of kinship, especially corporate descent groups (see clan and kinship).”

gaddafi defines a tribe as such, btw — and you think he oughta know! [pg. 299]: “A tribe is a family which has grown as a result of procreation. It follows that a tribe is a big family….”

so, there you go!

the thing that i think is confusing is that tribes are different in character because they are based on different kinship or mating systems. tribes are, by definition, endogamous in their mating patterns, but they have different ways of going about arranging marriage/other mating.

for example, on the one hand you’ve got the slightly crazed, patrilineal tribes of the arabs that are dominated by the men-folk and that seem to be at war with one another. all. the. time. they are the way they are (i think) because of their mating patterns (father’s brother’s daughter marriage). their behaviors and institutions and ideologies are quite different from matrilineal tribes like, say, the iroquois. these differences are, i think, due in part to the mating patterns and that is how tribes need to be evaluated.

btw, roman tribes? not real tribes. athenian (attican) tribes? not real tribes. (the founding latin and greek tribes of rome and athens were actual tribes; these later ones were not.)

previously: whatever happened to european tribes?

(note: comments do not requie an email. or a tribal affilation.)