TRIBE (Social Science)

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 Andre Beteille (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 territory—’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 white-collar 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 bio-reserves, 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.

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