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Tribes, as seen by Samuel Guégan, Research Director and ethnologist

What is a tribe?

The notion of a "tribe" has been constantly changing over the centuries, with new definitions and terminology ("tribal society", "ethnicity", "people", etc.). The term "tribe" was initially commonly defined as a single, related society: families living in groups sharing one common ancestor (male or female). Its social ideology is still based on solidarity and teamwork, with an obligation to provide mutual assistance between its members and generations. This means that there is a notion of uniqueness in the "tribe", in line with its primary definition, with a shared and defined group identity that considers individuals to be strangers from outside the tribe: an endogroup rather than an exogroup, "us" versus "others". It can vary in size and duration, with "clans" that may temporarily join forces for religious or military reasons, for example. Some ethnologists have added two further notions: territory and culture. These are particularly represented through shared linguistic elements and a certain way of life or set of values.

Each member represents their tribe and uniqueness.

This means that the tribe is positioned between family (the primal unit based on marriage) and the state (characterised by a "centralised government, territorial sovereignty, specialised administrative staff and the monopoly of the legal use of force" according to S. F. Nadel). A 20th century anthropological movement took this even further. It put the emphasis on the importance of rites of passage, encompassing distinctive elements (shield, crest, scarification, shape-shifting objects, etc.) as the cornerstone and founding function of the tribe, going far beyond any family bond and territorial belonging. A tribe can therefore be summarised as a "cohesive linguistic, cultural, economic or political group with a common destiny and rites of passage". And from the point of view of "primordialist" anthropologists, all these key criteria (family bonds, nationality, history, language, values, beliefs, etc.) are "natural" elements. We have all been part of some kind of a tribe since birth, whether we want to be or not!

The tribe in the 21st century

What has changed in our contemporary societies is the fact that individuals now have the ability to choose which tribes they wish to belong to and leave the ones into which they were born. With institutions in danger of dying out, values and ideologies undergoing change, a move towards a hyperworld consisting of a blend of diverse identities and affinities, the possibility of shape-shifting extraterrestrials... individuals are now seeking new attachments which are no longer inherited but match their own tastes, affinities, needs and common lifestyles. Communities of "people just like them". It could be a passion for skateboarding, extreme hardcore metal, veganism, a football or knitting club, for example.These tribes now convey identities in a more powerful way that primary social frameworks, as they are chosen by individuals who share a common interest (unlike family or nationality, which are inherited); with a cohort of distinctive symbols and affinities, rites of passage, mythology and tales, uniforms, etc. Contemporary ethnologists believe that these new tribes will become even more important in view of the breakdown in age-old ideologies and frameworks.