Tribal // Social

Tribes are not dead, they’re just sleeping.

The word tribe first occurs in 12th-century Middle English-literature, in reference to the twelve tribes of Israel. The Middle English word is derived from Old French tribu and, in turn, from Latin tribus (plural tribūs), in reference to a supposed tripartite division of the original Roman state along ethnic lines, into tribūs known as the RamnesTities, and Luceres.

The term’s ultimate etymology is uncertain, perhaps from the Proto-Indo-European roots tri- (“three”) and bhew (“to be”). The classicist Gregory Nagy says, citing the linguist Émile Benveniste, that the Umbrian trifu (equivalent of the Latin tribus) is apparently derived from a combination of *tri- and *bhu-, where the second element is cognate with the Greek root phúō φύω “to bring forth” and the Greek phulē φυλή “clan, race, people” (plural phylai φυλαί). The Greek polis (“state” or “city”) was, like the Roman state, divided into three phylai.

Definitions aside, a tribe is a brilliant human invention. A structure that provides its members with physical protection, assistance, and a powerful tool for survival in the harsh and unforgiving world. A tribe is an extension of the notion of family, amplifying individual abilities combining them into a total larger than the sum of its members. It is no wonder then so many people seek tribal membership, even if they would not openly admit it.

Religions, cults, membership-only societies, and many other social structures are based on, or directly follow tribal form. Cities, even when too large to be considered a single coherent tribe, carry out many of the characteristics of one, so do nation states.

In light of the above it is interesting to confront two seemingly contradictory ideologies, namely individualism, and communalism (not to be confused with communism).

It seems that even though individualism has been, and for the most part is, the leading school of thought of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, communalism – a modern form of an earlier tribal social structure – is rapidly attracting ever growing interest.

The False Individual

The 20th century idealization of the individual took its pound of flesh. Epitomizing the individual it has also dismantled many communal social structures, be it the clan, small community, the single lifetime workplace and many other safety nets.

It was not by anyone’s evil doing. No one person has devised and executed a demonic plan to wipe out the intricate (mainly western) social structures that have provided mental and physical sense of security to the masses. Nevertheless the scaffolding on which previous generations have rested were gradually cast away of our own free will.

We bought into a Darwinian ideology promising personal success to those who win the race. By doing so we have set individualism and competition as the fundamental values triumphing all others, creating a culture where one must abandon his internal instincts and socially predefined nature.

The false individual clings to his individuality, never at rest, unknowingly denying himself the benefits of older social models. Be it the single mother or young family struggling to get by while raising kids and working long hours, or the twenty year old that moved to the city, waiting tables for minimum wage barely getting by. They celebrate individualism while blind to the supportive structures they willingly left behind, lamenting how hard life is and how difficult it is to get by.

there is a loneliness in this world so great
that you can see it in the slow movement of
the hands of a clock.

people so tired
either by love or no love.

people just are not good to each other
one on one.

the rich are not good to the rich
the poor are not good to the poor.

we are afraid.

our educational system tells us
that we can all be
big-ass winners.

it hasn’t told us
about the gutters
or the suicides.

or the terror of one person
aching in one place

unspoken to

watering a plant.
Charles Bukowski, Love Is a Dog from Hell

The Need to Belong

You probably heard about flash mobs.

A flash mob is a group of people who give a choreographed but unannounced performance in a public space. The first one created in Manhattan in 2003, by Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper’s Magazine, and the phenomena persisted ever since. 

Flash mobs are a mesmerizing experience. If you’ve ever seen one you’d never forget the tingle it sends down your spine. A large number of people, sometimes dressed up the same way, appear out of nowhere performing a pre-agreed ritual, dispersing as quickly as they appeared.


Why are flash mobs such a powerful experience?

At first one may be tempted to dismiss them as a childish act, a fringe activity for adolescent grownups. But looking under the covers something very fundamental emerges.  Flash mobs are a way of experiencing community without committing to a long term relationship. They allow reconciling the conflicting needs to be both a part-of and an individual at the same time.

Flash mobs allow people to create loosely-coupled human bonds for a limited amount of time, without risking their sense of self. It is an instant community, and as instant things go it is much like a quickly dissipating sugar rush providing a temporary high, fading away into a feeling of emptiness.

It’s no wonder flash mobs usually occur in urban areas. Cities, especially large ones, provide a false sense of community while in fact having little to none. What they do provide is the illusion of community, the sense you are situated within your kind of people. However, the social bonds created are mostly short-lived. A kind of a series of one-night stands loosely touching on other peoples lives, hurrying away to experience the next one. But that is what you came for the city for. Haven’t you?

Life of Brian
We are all individuals! shouts the crowd as one
[Life of Brian, Monty Python]

The urban experience is an experiment in assimilating a set of individuals into a very large community. It is a balancing act of the sense of self, separated and unique, with the sense of being a part of a larger group. Successful as it may seem it leaves out a crucial need, a human one that is etched into our DNA. The need to truly belong.

What’s In A Tribe

A tribe is first and foremost an extension of family. A family, regardless of its ever changing shape and form, provides (or should I say should provide) ones’ most basic needs. Nutrition, Security, and a sense of companionship. We are social creatures shaped by evolution. Cooperation is not a choice, it is a survival strategy, and a winning one (look at how successful we have become).

But tribes go further than that.

Imagine you shop a a local grocery store. It is either the only or one of the few stores in the tribe’s area.  Both you and the grocer know that you will do business again, therefor it is in your mutual interest to conduct your affairs fairly. No other strategy allows the grocer to keep selling produce, nor you to get service from him. You simply cannot afford not to cooperate. Thus, trust is built. And trust begets security.

This simple example extends beyond commercial relationships. Once you are a member  of a limited(-small)-sized social structure, usually in a geographically segregated area, your social strategies adapt, then become values, then culture. Your culture.

The tribal sphere creates its set of rules, internal law and order. Conflict mitigation becomes part of the “services” provided to you as it naturally evolves in order to keep the tribe cohesive. Mutual dependency acquiring crucial resources forces the community members to devise way of fairly dividing labor, minimizing the free rider problem. As the community is small enough the individual abilities are factored in allowing each to serve a role to whom she or he best fits. Common rituals are invented and conducted to enhance the sense of togetherness, which is simply another way of keeping the tribe united following common goals.

And lets not forget empathy.

Tribe scenarios, being tightly coupled, both encourage and even force empathy. You will meet your tribes people on a daily basis, you cannot avoid interacting with them in the physical world, nor can you shun away from the mutual activities and rituals built into your local culture. In other words, you need to look them in the eye.

This may seem trivial at first, however social neuroscience researchers have thoroughly studied and affirmed that empathy works at eye-distance.  That humans’, as well as animals’ mirror neurons allow us to guess, and feel, what the other is feeling (if you want to extend on that I suggest reading this excellent paper).

It is much harder to hate someone when you meet them face to face. You are less likely to be in an vehement escalating conflict with those you personally know and interact with at an eye’s distance.

Modern Tribes

The tribal format has not escaped the business sector.

WeWork and its like have built an extremely successful business catering to the fundamental human tribal nature. You don’t really need to pay for a space on WeWork, you could work at home in perfect solitude, but still one does.


Because you need to. Socializing, feeling a part-of some group however distant and loose, is hardwired into our nature. You could work alone, but you’ll never have those corridor talks, or the occasional coffee and good company to hang out with. Those are not indulgent cravings, rather mandatory requirements that must be met to keep you in good mental and physical health.  Humans must interact, otherwise prisons would not be as effective as they are.

But WeWork is not alone. Large companies, especially in the high technology areas, tend to use the tribe metaphor to keep employees at bay. Such companies often refer to the hired help as family, however they would quickly dispose of an employee whenever need arises.

“Family companies” adopted a single-sided exploitative model (lets call it the quasi-tribe model), where the worker, being a family member, has to carry out all family obligations amongst which, and most importantly, lies loyalty.

Employees leaving the company for better pay are considered traitors within the company culture, treated accordingly. It is not uncommon for managers in such companies to respond angrily when an employee gives his notice, even less uncommon to provoke the same anger and cold shouldering by his recent peers.

It is not surprising then that the so called Y and Z generations (millennials and post-millennials) are often lamented by such companies as disloyal self-serving individuals that put their own interest before that of the company. Truth of the matter is that those companies simply cannot handle the fact that the show is over, that those Y/Z-Gens have seen through their act and are not willing to put up with the quasi-tribe family model anymore. Sadly, in doing so, they unwittingly adopted the same model they shunned away from.

Gladly, those are not the only manifestations of modern tribes.

Recent years have seen new (old) trends trying to reinvent the tribal model. From small community projects in highly populated urban areas (e.g. communal gardens), via cohousing projects, to creating local currencies.

What all of those have in common is the underlying desire to bring back the positive sides of tribal structures, adapting them into the 21st century.

Cohousing is an excellent example of balancing individualism and privacy with communal living. It originated in Denmark, and is now an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space. Each attached or single family home has traditional amenities, including a private kitchen, while shared spaces typically feature a common house, which may include a large kitchen and dining area, laundry, and recreational spaces.

Shared outdoor space may include parking, walkways, open space, and gardens. Neighbors also share resources like tools and lawnmowers.

Cohousing for the elderly
Cohousing for the elderly

While cohousing integrates tribe-values into the 21st century in the physical sense, others try to re-import other aspects of older societies, specifically local trade.

The Bristol Pound (£B) is a form of local complementary currency, or community currency launched in Bristol, UK on 19 September 2012. Its objective was to encourage people to spend their money with local, independent businesses in Bristol and the former County of Avon. As of September 2012 it is the largest alternative in the UK to official sterling currency (though it is backed by Sterling).

By issuing the £B the people of Bristol ushered back the local trading model. Such model, as mentioned earlier, encourages trust and fair trade, let alone its positive influence on the prosperity and stability of small business within the community. In a sense, Bristol has adopted an aspect of the tribal (local) trading model benefiting from its upside while not wanting as the general economy goes.

But it is not confined to monetary instruments or living quarters. Urban tribe-like initiatives carry a deeper more subtle tune. Once you cohouse, or go out to buy at your local store, you take part in something else. You meet the people.

In the modern network-connected, 1-click checkout, one-day-shipping world it seems as something of chore. Quite the contrary. Going out, making everyday human bonds satisfies our deepest desire to interact and belong and positively affects our happiness.

Margie did so with a sigh. She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather’s grandfather was a little boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it. And the teachers were people….

The mechanical teacher was flashing on the screen: “When we add the fractions ½
and ¼—”
Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days.

She was thinking about the fun they had.

Issac Asimov, The Fun They Had

Is Social the New Tribe

No. Well, sort of.

One may claim that all of this is nothing but nostalgia. After all the world has never been so connected. Facebook, Twitter, and smaller but numerous online communities seem to provide the sense of community with all its positive aspects. Do they?

In some sense they do.

Social networks do connect people and allow them to form online (and sometimes offline) communities with relative ease. They do allow each individual to be heard (even though this is a much exaggerated claim, just try to get your message across Facebook without paid promotion). They give voice to people who never had one, and bypass traditional communications and media. Well, as long as it contributes to the bottom line, else your voice is quickly muted (or simply not shown to anyone else).

Social networks are not the town squares they are deemed to be, and you are not allowed to step on a box and talk to the folks of the town, most of which you personally know, hurrying on their daily business. Social networks provide an illusion of community, a false sense of tribalism. As people are not directly face to face empathy is the first one to go. This leads to an ever growing online violent behavior (no one would dare say any of the violent comments they post on Facebook in somebody else’s face).

Some may claim social networks create communities of like-minded people, thus building new sub-cultures, however what they actually create are echo chambers. In the stead of creating common values – a necessary condition for the creation of cultures – echo chambers, amplified by algorithms, are creating anti-cultures. It is in the best interest of social networks to incite controversy and animosity. To raise the flames whenever possible. After all, violent discussions are one of the best ways to keep users engaged (and view ads).

As opposed to original tribal model social networks do not create the social glue that keeps communities together, nor do they encourage social strategies that promote trust, cooperation and the creation of common values so vital for a healthy human society.

So, what do we do?

These, Antithese, Synthese [German]

As Fichte coined (even though it is wrongly attributed to Hegel), we must clash thesis with anti-thesis to create synthesis.

In laymen terms, we need to invent a new model. One that combines the advantages of social networks with those of tribal models and local communities. We need to create a new set of rules, values and consequently culture that does not turn its back on the basic human undying desire for empathy, belonging, sense of acceptance in a community and individualism.

The future lies in a confederation of small communities. Some online, some offline perhaps the better part of which combining both.

Let us have a myriad of local cultures, segregated while interfacing, local while globally connected. Each in its own way celebrating humanity.