From synonymic, to systematic, to comparative, to evolutionary usages
Because of the significance of tribal (aka “T”) forms of organization in the TIMN framework, I've monitored usages of words like tribes, tribal, tribalism, and tribalization for over 20 years, albeit informally. The usages I’ve seen have evolved from being simply synonymic for many years, to lately becoming increasingly systematic and, better yet, comparative. Analysts and journalists recognize better now than a decade ago that tribal dynamics are significant — not just in preternaturally tribal societies, like Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in complex postmodern societies, including right here in America.
I’m pleased to see this conceptual progress. Nonetheless, most usage is still not nested in an evolutionary understanding of some kind. The more that the evolutionary (and devolutionary) significance of the tribal form is perceived, the more its meaning and implications will become evident for policy and strategy as well as theory.
But before I get into the meat of this post, I have an old bone to kick first: In my experience, few Americans cotton to the words tribe, tribal, tribalism, and tribalization — the last one isn’t even in the dictionary yet. Americans don't use them in common parlance, except to talk about Indians or other old tribes elsewhere. The one academic field that should honor these words — anthropology — has long avoided them, partly for questionable conceptual reasons, but also for reasons of political correctness and ideology. Moreover, national security analysts tend to balk at using these terms to understand what’s going on in America today — to them, the terms seem too archaic, jargony, narrow, or otherwise inappropriate. So we all mostly use other words about how people can be divided up and categorized — words like race, ethnicity, and identity, or like partisans, factions, gangs, even fans. These are good words too, but once you get the hang of thinking and analyzing in terms of the tribal form, the T words become more illuminating.
The organizational form I call "tribes" or "T" will thus continue to be a part of TIMN, for I’ve found no better conceptual term for this form. Every alternative — e.g., kinship, family, clan, community, solidarity group, affinity group, club, clade, phyle — conveys part of what this form is all about; but each has its own limitations and is no more suitable as a replacement for the “T” in TIMN. I’ve written about this before, but I figure it is worth reiterating briefly here.
For TIMN to take hold, understanding the T form is essential. I have yet to find a sweeping portrayal of how tribal (and, except for one author, clan) forms of organization and behavior have permeated social life across the ages. Political and economic histories often provide such portrayals for the institutional (I) and market (M) forms. And there are all sorts of writing about networks (N) these days. But there is nothing comparable for the tribal (T) form, not even in cultural theories and histories. So it behooves me — hopefully, us — to persist with urging better recognition and understanding of this form, for it’s the first and forever form, the form on which all societies are grounded. Feel free in your own mind to use another term for this form (sector / layer / stage) — just don’t fail to recognize how essential it is, and to always ask how one development or another may affect its bright sides and its dark sides.
Progress advancing from synonymic to systematic usages
For decades, ever since I became aware of the importance of the tribal/T form, the usage I’d see most often for matters here at home was synonymic. Tribe-related words cropped up as substitutes or synonyms for words like partisanship, faction, incivility, polarization, in-group / out-group behavior, and divisiveness, not to mention identity politics. Words like tribal and tribalism were tossed into write-ups and talks more as synonymic flourishes than as distinct concepts about significant patterns of thought and behavior. Tribe-like words seemed weighted with old anthropological baggage; few analysts saw merit in applying them to modern society. (But there were prominent exceptions: e.g., Joel Kotkin’s Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy (1993), and Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World (1996)).
Most conservative and many liberal/progressive analysts have long preferred other concepts and categories — e.g., race, ethnicity, family, culture, identity — when writing about matters that I fit under the tribal form. For example, studies of identity politics in America pretty much began with Samuel P. Huntington’s book Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity (2004), and peaked recently with Mark Lilla’s “The End of Identity Liberalism”(2016). Neither uses a “T” word. Yet, these kinds of studies, along with prominent writings by Charles Murray and by Robert Putnam, plus J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016), not to mentions scads of other writings, show that attention has increased to tribal (and tribalizing) conditions in our society, even though these authors rarely or never use any T words.
Over the past few years, the usage of “T” words has become more systematic. Writers are increasingly recognizing that a distinct form of organization and behavior is at work, and that American society is becoming more tribalized. Explicit usage of T-words is increasing. I’ve see this in opinion columns in the New York Times (e.g., by David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, Sabrina Tavernise), in articles I happen across or that colleagues point out to me (e.g., lately by such ideologically and politically diverse voices as Danah Boyd, Jonathan Chait, Deepak Chopra, Kathy Cramer, Michael Gerson, Jordan Greenhall, Jonathan Haidt & Ravi Iyer, Charles Murrray, Robert Reich, David Roberts, Glenn Harlan Reynolds, Ben Shapiro, Daniel Shapiro, Charlie Sykes, Stephen B. Young). Also, a handful of fairly recent books have advanced people’s understanding while explicitly referring to the tribal form — e.g., Seth Godin’s Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (2008), Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), Mark Weiner’s The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom (2014), and Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016). Plus, some blogs I follow — e.g., The Archdruid Report, The Augean Stables, Cliodynamica, Contrary Brin, The Evolution Institute, Fabius Maximus, Global Guerrillas, Harold Jarche, The P2P Foundation, Social Evolution Forum, Spinuzzi, and Zenpundit — have increasingly and explicitly attended to the distinctive nature of tribalism and the deepening tribalization of America. (Actually, David Brin at Contrary Brin and John Robb at Global Guerrillas deserve special mention for writing about tribes and tribalism in modern societies since at least ten years ago, ahead of almost everybody.)
By “systematic” — there's probably a better term, but I just haven't thought of it yet — I mean that the writer is treating tribes as a distinctive form of organization and behavior, and isn't using the term simply as a synonym. In the examples noted above, usage is generally limited. Tribalism or one of the other T-words always gets a sentence or two, and sometimes a paragraph or two; it may even be the theme of the entire writing. Except for a couple cases, the writer doesn't provide a full analysis of tribal formations, tribalism, or tribalization. But the trend toward increasingly systematic usage is evident among analysts and journalists.
Usages by politicians
As for political leaders, I've not seen any Democrats refer to tribes, tribalism, or tribalization in a systematic way — with one exception. President Obama has sounded TIMN-ish notes about tribalism. While speaking at a press conference in Athens on November 15, 2016, he said:
“I do believe, separate and apart from any particular election or movement, that we are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an ‘us’ and a ‘them’.”
He hit the same note a few days later in Berlin. Indeed, he warned about tribalism several times in 2016, treating it as a reaction to globalism and a cause of Trumpism. He surely doesn’t have TIMN in mind, but his explicit recognition adds to my argument here.
To my knowledge, no leading Republican politician has voiced similar concerns. Yet, as I’ve noted before in past posts, the conservative movement is rife with tribalists; the Republican party is now split between tribalists and institutionalists (the Establishment). As marks of their tribalism, the former constantly dwell on the nature of identity — what it means to be a conservative, what conservatism stands for, why “we” are different from and better than “them” — even as they deride liberal progressives for playing identity politics. Republican rules (e.g. the “Hastert Rule”) that no Republican shall speak ill of any other, nor shall any negotiate with a Democrat, are more than merely partisan — they are deliberately tribal rules. Moreover, many litmus-test issues that conservative politicians and pundits keep bringing to the fore — such as immigration, marriage, abortion, gun ownership, religion — pertain more to the T than to any other TIMN form. Trump’s rise as a kind of charismatic warlord with tribal appeal reflects this (see my post about this here). Thus tribalization deepens in American political circles even as its conceptual grasp remains elusive, particularly among its archest political practitioners.
(I posted an earlier version of this write-up on my Facebook page, on Feb 3.)
Intermission: My part-3 post will be about getting beyond synonymic and systematic usages, in order to get to comparative and evolutionary usages that can provide deeper insights and lead to TIMN’s implications for policy and strategy. But unfortunately, I got bogged down while trying to complete it. So, it will be delayed.
However, for the sake of keeping up some kind of momentum over at Facebook, I turned to posting a still-underway series of readings about tribes, tribalism, and the tribalization of America. I’m bringing them over here next. I hope that makes sense.