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Reading :: The Notion of Tribe

Posted by: on Mar 12, 2013 | No Comments
The notion of tribe
By Morton H. Fried

This text was published in 1975 (with a groovy 1975 cover, I should add). It's a slim text, but slim in a good way: concise, focused on its thesis:
Although we are accustomed to think about the most ancient forms of human society in terms of tribes, firmly defined and bounded units of this sort actually grew out of the manipulation of relatively unstructured populations by more complexly organized societies. The invention of the state, a tight, class-structured political and economic organization, began a process whereby vaguely defined and grossly overlapping populations were provided with the minimal organization required for their manipulation, even though they had little or no internal organization of their own other than that based on conceptions of kinship. The resultant form was that of the tribe. (Preface, unnumbered page). 
That is, although we often think of tribes as representing a sort of organization that precedes the State, Fried argues that tribes actually result from the contact between states and less complexly organized societies. Indeed, "tribes, as conventionally conceived, are not closely bounded populations in either territorial or demographic senses. They are not economically and politically integrated and display political organization under hierarchical leaders only as a result of contact with already existing states, although such contact may be quite indirect" (Preface, unnumbered page).

Fried goes on to trace the roots of the term—and concept—of tribe (Chapter 1), demonstrating that in its roots in the Latin tribus and the Greek phyle, it was consistently applied by states to groups outside the state.

The rest of the chapters then address different applications of the concept. For instance, in Chapter 2, Fried examines how "tribe" has been applied to breeding populations, laying out the evidence that (for instance) supposedly endogamous tribes aren't strictly endogamous (p.14). In Chapter 5, Fried attacks the notion of tribe as economic system, demonstrating that "there was no tribal mode of production in pre-state societies" (p.47). In Chapter 9, he questions the understanding of tribes as ideological groups, arguing that "all self-declared tribes are secondary tribes"—tribes that are named and delineated after "contact with state-organized societies" (p.74). Indeed, Fried argues that "pre-state social structures were more frequently open than closed, and generally looser knit rather than tightly woven (so much so, in terms of economic and political organization, as to lack clear-cut boundaries, except in unusual circumstances)" (p.76).

Although it's a slim book, Fried marshalls a broad array of evidence for this thesis. Importantly, Fried doesn't see himself as convincing cultural anthropologists—who had long ago abandoned the idea of tribe (p.11)—but rather physical anthropologists and the general public.

If you're interested in the concept of tribe, this slim book is well worth your time—if you can find a copy. The UT library had one, but I see that copies go for $99 on Amazon. That's about 73 cents per page!