Op-Ed: A cure for tribal politics? Try learning from actual ‘tribal’ people

Humans may be hard-wired to divide the world into “us” and “them.” But research shows we put at least as much energy into forging alliances as we do into closing ranks.
(Kris Connor / Getty Images)

The word “tribalism” has become shorthand for everything toxic and ugly about politics in the Trump era. It’s meant to convey not just brute partisanship, but also how uncivilized and unthinking this divisiveness has made us.

There is good reason, though, to drop the metaphor. “Tribes” were rarely this polarized.

What’s more, an understanding of actual social life among indigenous groups may be just the antidote to what ails us.


Anthropologists used to speak of tribes as age-old social units. But today they know tribes to be constructs of the colonial era. With the expansion of their empires and settlements, Europeans encountered fluid populations composed of crosscutting identities, and immediately tried to make sense of them.

They did so by sorting people into rigid groups, categorizing them by “tribe.” This allowed the newcomers to comprehend social connections that must have struck them as bewilderingly complex and beyond their capacity to control.

It’s not that precolonial people lacked social and political structures. Rather, in most cases, their associations looked more like loosely organized bands than tightly bound tribes. As the anthropologist Morton Fried showed in his classic study “The Notion of Tribe,” groups considered tribal continually contracted and expanded through movement, marriage and trade relations. They were rarely, if ever, closed and unified across kinship, culture, language and politics.

Of course, the idea of tribe, once invented, took on a life of its own. Administrators appointed “tribal” chiefs, missionaries standardized “tribal” languages, and ethnographers codified “tribal” cultures. The more this happened, the more colonized people themselves were forced to make claims and assert rights as members of this or that tribe. Until today, tribal identities are claimed — and occasionally brought into conflict — because of this history.

Even after adopting this framework, though, indigenous societies rarely became as rigid and insular as connotations of “tribe” would suggest. Far more, they have been marked by dynamism and diversity, porous boundaries and constant change. Because of the gap between what we imagine is a tribe and the reality of so-called tribal people, anthropologists have mostly stopped using the term.

Yet today’s colloquial use of the word remains the colonial one. Analysts tasked with explaining the psychology behind “tribal politics” often describe it as intrinsic to human nature, the genetic legacy of our earliest ancestors’ fierce competitions over scarce resources.

Humans may well be hard-wired to divide the world between “us” and “them.” But the essentialist manner in which conflictual identities are traced to our evolutionary past on the African savanna ignores a wealth of research on pre-state societies, including from Africa itself. These studies have found that humans put at least as much energy into forging alliances and seeking new terrain as they put into closing ranks and bearing arms.


Africans, indeed, have long privileged flight over fight, and lived their lives on the move. Here it would be not tribalism but nomadism that defines the human condition. As philosopher Achille Mbembe has recently written, identity in Africa is identity in motion.

This idea finds expression in an Igbo proverb made famous by novelist Chinua Achebe: “The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place.” Absolutism, Achebe often taught, runs counter to precolonial African sensibilities. Its dangers are best mitigated by embracing flexibility and pursuing a plurality of perspectives.

That this outlook is grounded in Igbo thought shows there’s no reason to assume tribal identity leads inevitably to insularity and hostility. For the Makhuwa-speaking people of Mozambique, divisions have long been a feature of everyday life — between village and bush, the living and the dead, one ethnicity and another. But as long as borders have existed, so too have border-crossings. Lines drawn to divide can also be used to connect.

People tend to think I’m describing an African tribe when I talk about my research on the Makhuwa. It’s not so simple. But however one conceives the Makhuwa, their social relations bear no resemblance to the insularity and divisions we see in the United States today.

In our public discourse, “tribalism” is often used to express how far our political and social lives have regressed to something primitive that we should have left behind. This is deeply ironic, for it may be by thinking anew about indigenous people and opening ourselves to their “tribal” ways that we stand our best chance of becoming civil — maybe even civilized — again.

Devaka Premawardhana is an anthropologist and assistant professor of religion at Emory University. He is author of “Faith in Flux: Pentecostalism and Mobility in Rural Mozambique.”