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Saturday, 22 August 2020

Tribe: Anthropological notions


Different words like French Tribu, English Tribe and Latin Tribus were used to designate social divisions among the Roman population. Similarly the Greek word Phule also represented Indo-European Social Organisations. The word "tribe" has a long and ignoble history and remains one of the most variably used terms within and outside of anthropology (Helm 1968). Anthropologists often use it as a catch-all substitute for "primitive," avoiding the invidious comparison of "nonstate." But most who use the term analytically narrow it to mean some form of political unit, as distinct from "ethnie" or "nation," which suggest a cultural identity.

The foundation structure of the tribe is Kinship. The smaller Kinship unites were known as Genos in Greek and Gens in Latin. Scottish people used to call them Clan. One can only be a member of a clan if s/he is connected through kinship relationships. A person is a member of a tribe by birth. Each of these clans had a separate name and a tribe constituted a number of clans. Since, tribal system is pre-state condition, there is no centralised administration among the tribal societies. The social order is maintained by the kinship organisations. Kin rules framed primarily on the basis of systems of affinity and consanguinity were used to determine the right over a geographical location or selection of the headman.

Tribe as a Pre-political and pre-contractual society and in the evolutionary schema

It was L.H. Morgan’s Ancient Society (1861) and Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871) that made investigation on Tribal society a systematic enterprise. Morgan emphasised that even though there is a general absence of state system, yet, tribes are quite organised and disciplined society. He noted that there is a general absence of hierarchical division between Clans and Lineages. Emile Durkheim has termed such solidarity as between clans as Mechanical solidarity.

About a century later than what was written by Morgan, Marhshal Sahalins and Elman Service have tried to classify pre-industrial societies. Service (1962) followed a long tradition in positing tribe as a stage in political evolution falling between more independent BANDS and more centralized and hierarchical CHIEFDOMS. Sahlins (1968b) also saw tribes as evolutionary predecessors of states but was more concerned with mechanisms of integration than boundaries. Here tribes were seen as unified and bounded by kinship or other ties and constituted the broadest level of cooperation in a segmented hierarchy of functions.

They have classified societies according to the relative socio-political complexity into four major categories. These are a) Band, b) tribe, c) chiefdom, and d) state.

Band is the simplest form of social organisation. Its simple amalgamation of a number of families. The population of a band is quite small, usually range between 10 to 50. The concept of a single leader or headman is absent. The leadership is rather situational and it is never transmitted from one generation to the next. A band collects food from a designated locale. Since, band societies are always foragers, they are most often than not seen as roaming from one to place to another to collect their resources. Because of such movement, there is a general lack of the concept of private property system among the bands. Every member of a band has the equal usufructuary rights over every resources of the region where they inhabit. The kinship ties are usually patriarchal, but there is a relative prevalence of gender equality. In India we have Onge, Jaroa, Cholanakan, Birhar as bands. Africa has !Kung (bushmen), Mubti Pygmy. The patriarchal nature of band suggests that the contention that early men had matriarchy may not be true.

Tribe is relatively more complex. Tribe system is also pre-state and pre-inustrial entity. Tribes have team-leaders of headmen but they do not have institutional mechanism to maintain power relations within the society. Their economy is based on animal husbandry or farming. The primary difference between band and tribe lie in the existence of social segments. The presence of social segments and their integration is what characterises a tribe. It should be remembered that state system has developed about 4000 years ago, but human society survived without them for thousands of years. Even today, there are tribal and band societies which is surviving alongside the state. Therefore, it is important to understand what inner system has enabled these people to keep their social system intact for so many years. E.E. Evans-Pritchard has tried to explain this puzzle by his study of Nuer in Sudan, Africa. Prichard shows that Nuer are divided into different lineages. These lineages do not have hierarchy in terms of economy, politics, ideology or economy. They do not have much of interdependence, yet, together they form the tribe Nuer. Using classical Participant Observation method, following Malinowskian method Evans-Pritchard argued that there are conflicts between these lineages but then by some unwritten agreement and rules the conflicts are resolved. Sahalins in 1960s have argued that Nuers could beat Dinkas because of their effective lineage systems.

In india the Nagas, in Africa the Zulus and Asantis represents typical tribal system.

Chiefdom system is formed if one of the lineages among a tribe claims supremacy. For a variety of reasons ranging from natural to technological, it is seen that often among many lineages one becomes more powerful. They can achieve it by acquiring a relatively higher social prestige and position or by winning a war with others. In this way a new family system can be developed. After a few generations this family/lineage can become the king’s family. This is a system of state formation which is evidenced in Peru the Inca family. This has been studied by Robert Leonard Carneiro. Similarly Romila Thapar has studied the formation of state in Ganga-Yamuna valley and argued along this line.  

By contrast, Fried (1967, 1975) disputed the evolutionary existence of such bounded groups, arguing instead that tribes arose from interactions with existing states. Despite their differences, all three agreed that boundedness of tribes was a result of external conflict, or WAR.


Youtube class lectures on Anthropological notions of Tribe:

Class I

Class II

1 comment:

  1. Interesting blog, it reminds me of Singing Dong Tribe, songs and dances are important aspects of Dong community life. All the Dong people can sing their folk songs.
    I tried to write a blog about it, hope you also like it in https://stenote.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-singing-dong-tribe.html.