Tribe Research Paper

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The notion of tribe emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the course of colonial expansion. Abandoned increasingly by the majority of anthropologists from the middle of the twentieth century onward, the term nevertheless lived on in certain anthropological constructions, until waves of criticism dealt final blows to a concept that is now largely defunct as a general comparative category. Those anthropologists and historians who retain the contested concept of tribe use it mainly as an equivalent to vernacular terms referring to certain local conceptions of collective sociopolitical identity, while agreeing that a precise general definition is almost impossible. This results in working definitions which see tribes as medium-sized, centralized, or acephalous entities displaying a combination of basic characteristics:

(a) They are usually associated with a territory, homeland, or tribal area, while using nonterritorial criteria to distinguish between members and nonmembers. The degree of control of the tribal territorial base, and its extension and location, tend to change as a result of struggles with states or other opponents. To the outside world, access to territorial usage appears to be confined to members of the tribe, although neighboring groups and superior authorities may also enjoy rights of usage, of tribute, or of taxes. Internally, access to territorial usage may be differentiated according to gender, age, status, wealth, and other aspects of power.

(b) Ideologically and socially, tribal members usually share some dominant idiom of common origin, such as descent from a single ancestor, emphasizing group cohesion over outside interests and internal differentiation. This may also serve to legitimize a preference for ‘marrying within the tribe,’ which in practice, however, is observed far less often than it is upheld in theory. On the contrary, some amount of intertribal and interethnic marriage is indispensable to ensure all kinds of (political, economic, social) alliances with other groups.

 (c) Although part of the tribal population live more or less permanently in the tribal territory, a considerable portion may live in the world outside. Ritual and kinship ties and obligations are enacted to ensure and strengthen intimate networks among ‘home’ groups and ‘outside’ groups, serving as one among several inventories of group adherence within a wider world. In the course of these interactions, tribal group membership may change in many ways: individuals or groups may enter or leave a specific tribe; and whole tribes may also collapse or be created.

1. Tribes And Colonialism

The concept of tribe dates from the earliest phases of anthropology’s history, carrying assumptions that are now being criticized and questioned inside and outside academia. Most governments of colonial times used the term for their specific practical interests of administration and dominance, while often constructing such ‘tribes’ themselves for that purpose. Beyond these practical interests, colonial settler regimes also valued the term ideologically, since it tended to portray local groups as ‘backward’ and ‘primitive,’ which helped to justify a colonial ‘mission’ of development and civilization. For basically the same reason, many post-colonial governments and national elites reject the term as being counterproductive to their own claims toward national unity, progress, and modernity.

During decolonization, the term tribe therefore attained a largely negative and pejorative meaning in dominant opinions in many parts of the world. In public discourses concerning these areas, the terms ‘ethnic groups’ or ‘indigenous peoples’ are usually preferred to ‘tribes,’ although the latter usually designates smaller groups. Legal terminology nevertheless may continue to apply the term, and in many regions even native speakers may use it with dignity.

In parts of central and western Asia, however, as well as in North Africa, particularly in those areas influenced by Islam, the term tribe and its local equivalents have never had a predominantly pejorative meaning. On the contrary, the term here is usually associated with notions of pride and autonomy, of honor and of independence from colonial and local states. Also, notions of ‘indigenous’ or ‘ethnic’ groups do not apply well to many of these specific ethnographic contexts. Both of these factors are therefore responsible for the continuing, stronger importance of the term tribe in academic and public discourses inside and about these regions.

2. Tribes In Anthropology

Before anthropology’s emergence, travelers, missionaries, and scholars had used the concept since the seventeenth century in describing those indigenous peoples whom European powers were about to colonize. Ancient Middle Eastern and Graeco-Roman literature served as sources of reference to depict the newly colonized peoples as representing some kind of forerunners to the ‘advanced nations,’ equivalent to the tribus of the ancient Mediterranean world. The construction of this ‘forerunner’ image could follow either more sympathetic lines, by emphasizing the enlightened aspect of a noble savage who basically was ‘like us,’ or it could enhance the more discriminating image of backwardness.

Both ideas presupposed a search for origins, taking European culture as the climax of humanity. In its basic conceptualization, a tripartite world had thus already been constructed, which early anthropology inherited and further elaborated. ‘Primitive’ cultures consisted of foragers, and pastoral and agrarian ‘tribes,’ whereas ‘oriental’ cultures were associated with agrarian states, cities, and with writing. Anthropological evolutionism (e.g. Morgan 1877, Smith 1903) elaborated and specified this conceptual inventory, in which, by and large, tribes constituted the decisive transitory stage between early hunters and gatherers and the rise of agrarian states. In a long-term archeological perspective, this may still serve as a valid distinction for certain regions and periods, if liberated from its earlier ideological underpinnings.

Classical anthropological evolutionism collapsed, however, because the increasing body of empirical data showed the failure of any general laws of development, including those regarding tribes. By contrast, the new school of ‘historical particularism’ or cultural relativism that came to dominate US anthropology around 1900 emphasized the situated, fluid contextualization of each local and tribal group. While this prepared the ground for an empirical orientation that is still valid at the time of writing, the inherent relativism rejected almost any comparative meaning for the concept of tribe. The comparative aspect, by contrast, was elaborated explicitly by anthropological functionalism, largely of British and Northern European provenance. In an earlier variant, Evans-Pritchard (1940) outlined the ‘structural relativity’ of many tribal group relations around a basic social organization of ‘nested’ group segmentation.

In fact, such segmentary relations do represent a dominant model among many local (tribal) groups in Africa and Asia, often being expressed in the prevailing idiom of unilineal genealogy. In these terms, the ‘descendants’ of one ancestor are contradistinguished, under some conditions, against those from another ancestor, while under different conditions the same group of descendants may split up and oppose each other. Mutual threat, equality of group status, and reproduction of social equilibrium are inherent to this indigenous model, taken up and reconstructed as an anthropological model. Major critiques, however, pointed to implications of timeless stability and secluded cohesion, which to some degree corresponded well with the ideologies of late colonialism.

Gellner (1981, 1990), who was most influential in transferring the segmentary model from Sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa and the Middle East, reacted to some of that criticism with an increasingly more refined variant. According to him, Middle Eastern tribal societies interact constantly out of the peripheries with each other and with the states in their centers, sometimes being absorbed or reshaped in the course of these interactions, and sometimes themselves destroying and recreating central states. These processes always promote tribal centralization, inequalities, and tendencies to fusion and fission, which are simultaneously more or less countered by applying the local segmentary model. Jamous (1981) has shown in more detail than Gellner how these tendencies to feuding and conflict may be embedded in idioms of ‘honor and shame.’ His account illustrates how these tensions, which favor the emergence of ephemeral ‘big men,’ are countered through mediation by third parties, who in many cases are of superior, holy status.

While Marxist, late functionalist, and neo-evolutionist critics (for example, Fried 1975, Godelier 1973, Southall 1970) were the first to radically criticize current ideas about tribes in the 1960s and early 1970s, a few anthropologists held on to a general, neoevolutionist conception of tribe. Sahlins (1968) elaborated a distinction between acephalous ‘segmentary lineage’ tribes and more centralized ‘chiefdoms.’ On the other hand, in Middle Eastern studies the concept gained new respect in the Gellner Jamous variant, by its consideration of formerly neglected aspects, such as historical dynamism; ideological, political and social factors; and some hierarchies and contradictions. A second wave of academic criticism throughout the 1980s and early 1990s came from feminist, postmodern, and postcolonial writers, who deconstructed profoundly the colonial legacy in the concept, and exposed the complete negligence of economic factors and of female lives in the ‘tribal’ model (Abu-Lughod 1986, Gilsenan 1996).

3. Current Readings

In present discussions, the debate is therefore oscillating between complete rejection of the term ‘tribe’, and its more or less restricted, critical elaboration for specific times and regions. Most scholars, however, would agree that the concept is obsolete as a general comparative category outside particular areas. In addition, historical and archeological research might continue, for parts of Africa and Asia at least, to find some conception of tribe to remain useful. Such a restricted, critical elaboration of the concept would, of course, have to take into account seriously previous critiques.

Some of the more recent criticism was creatively synthesized by Bonte and Conte (Bonte et al. 1991). Their late structuralist and post-structuralist approaches basically privilege historical change over repetition, interaction over system, status rivalry over group equality, and, most importantly, marriage and other forms of alliance over descent and ancestry. This helps to outline internal hierarchies among local tribal groups, including the constraints and fields of agency encountered by women, while demonstrating simultaneously how tribal organization is used to defend states, to support struggles for central power, or to engage in civil war for various interests (Gingrich 1995).

The postcolonial condition seems in fact to encourage such a restricted, critical elaboration of the concept, rather than discarding it totally. Under the conditions of advanced globalization after the Cold War, and of increased competition within as well as among weakened local states (ranging from Mauritania, Algeria and Somalia to Afghanistan and Bangladesh), ideologies of ethnicity, but also of tribalism, are gaining significance in many local arenas. It would amount to a strange paradox if anthropologists limited themselves defensively to deconstructing completely the concept of tribe, while many parts of the world in fact go through retribalization of some sort. In view of these developments, an active reformulation of the concept seems to be a more productive alternative. With this alternative, ideological movements of ‘tribalism’ will have to be distinguished more clearly from ‘tribes,’ parallel to concepts of nationalism and of nations. Tribalism and its activists strive more or less successfully to create imagined communities of tribes, with ideological pretexts of ‘origins’ and of ‘cohesion’ that serve competition over power and resources. In this perspective, anthropologists are as critical and skeptical about tribalist ideology as they are with regard to nationalism. All the same, they would not deny from the outset that nation states and tribal groups exist: rather, they would insist on exploring the inter-relations between such local entities, their ideological activities, and the world around them.


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  2. Bonte P, Conte E, Hames C, Ould Cheikh A W 1991 Al-ansab: la quete des origines. Anthropologie historique de la societe tribale arabe. Editions de la MSH, Paris
  3. Evans-Pritchard E E 1940 The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford University Press, London
  4. Fried M H 1975 The Notion of Tribe. Cummings, Menlo Park, CA
  5. Gellner E 1981 Muslim Society. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  6. Gellner E 1990 Tribalism and the state in the Middle East. In: Khoury P S, Kostiner J (eds.) Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  7. Gilsenan M 1996 Lords of the Lebanese Marches: Violence and Narrative in an Arab Society. Tauris, London
  8. Gingrich A 1995 The Prophet’s smile and other puzzles. Studying Arab tribes and comparing close marriages. Social Anthropology 3: 147–70
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  10. Jamous R 1981 Honneur et Baraka: Les Structures Sociales Traditionelles dans le Rif. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and Editions de la MSH, Paris
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  12. Sahlins M D 1968 Tribesmen. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
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  14. Southall A 1970 The illusion of tribe. Journal of Asian and African Studies 5(1–2): 28–50
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