Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Incidentals (1st of 5): apropos definitions of “tribes” (and TIMN)

While I’ve been remiss at advancing TIMN and STA here for several months, I was more active than usual posting incidental comments elsewhere. This “incidental” post begins a belated set of five semi-organized catch-up posts — reprises — to log some of those comments left elsewhere, in case I want to re-use them for advancing STA or TIMN here in the future, and/or in case they can help others think better about TIMN and STA.

A few of the comments — like the first one below — reflect new reading or other research on my part. Most just reiterate points I’ve made before, mainly in other posts here, but sometimes a new angle is added.

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I remain a fan of Steve Pressfield’s blog It’s the Tribes, Stupid!”, and of Jim Gant’s paper posted there on “One Tribe at a Time.” Pressfield’s blog and Gant’s paper comprise a singularly significant effort to urge attention to the enduring, strategic significance of the tribal form of organization — in their case, regarding the conflict in Afghanistan. I’m pleased and proud that my past writings have assisted their efforts.

Gant’s paper (not to mention Pressfield’s blog) has been controversial. It advocates a bottom-up, pro-tribal strategy in Afghanistan, whereas many mainstream analysts prefer a top-down or a middle-out strategy, or else a different kind of bottom-up strategy. A large part of the controversy has revolved around competing views about the definition and significance of “tribes” in the region.

Renown for Gant’s vision has spread through write-ups in the New York Times and Washington Post. Pros and cons have been debated in various posts and comments at the Small Wars Journal (SWJ) blog, as well as in scattered posts at other blogs, e.g., Combined Arms Center, Free Range International, Captains Journal, Blackfive, and Al Sahwa. Relentless criticisms have arisen at such blogs as, Ghosts of Alexander, and The Security Crank. Gant has fielded effective, thoughtful replies to many issues in comments he has fielded in posts at Pressfield’s blog as well as at the Small Wars Journal blog.

Interesting as all this is from a TIMN perspective, I have kept my distance. However, a Small Wars Journal post praising Gant’s paper prompted a critic to recommend an interesting counterpoint paper — “My Cousin’s Enemy Is My Friend: A Study of Pashtun Tribes” — issued by an Army-related research center in the Human Terrain System (HTS) at Fort Leavenworth. That and other matters eventually led me to leave the following TIMN-related points in a December 2009 comment in the SWJ post noted above:
By now, I’ve read both Major Gant’s paper and the Leavenworth/HTS paper noted above. As one who has tried to learn a lot about tribal forms of organization, ancient and modern, I think Gant’s paper is on the right track, aiming in the right direction.

The HTS paper makes useful points too. But do they truly contradict or counter Gant’s?

The HTS paper finds that “‘tribal engagement’ should not be pursued in Afghanistan like it was in Iraq, mainly because tribes in Afghanistan are quite different from those in Iraq.” That’s surely true, but to my knowledge no one (Gant included) is perceiving or calling for an exact replication.

The HTS paper also finds that “tribe” is an inadequate concept for analyzing Afghanistan, and that terms that emphasize what’s “local” would be better. This may be true to an extent in some areas. But exclusion of the term “tribe” and its complete replacement by “local” is entirely inadvisable.

The seeming disparity between the two papers derives partly from the fact that the HTS paper uses a narrower definition of “tribe” than does Gant’s. In the HTS paper, the term refers to a group of kinfolk who espouse a shared identity, have a chief, act as a unified group, and have informal but reliable modes of governance, as in Iraq. As the HTS authors point out, much of this does not apply in Afghanistan. But that shouldn’t be the key point.

There are many tribal areas around the world, including in Afghanistan, that do not exhibit such tight, structured solidarity. Yet, they are still rife with tribal dynamics. Kinship bonds, codes of honor, ancient narratives, ties to the land, respect for elders, and collective longings and identities still matter to a significant degree. And people caught up in such dynamics often shift their ties flexibly and pragmatically, alternating between fusion and fission. This may mean that, compared to Iraq, Afghanistan is loosely, qualifiedly tribal -- but it’s still rife with tribal kinds of patterns and dynamics. The HTS paper repeatedly substantiates this, even as it denies that Afghanistan reflects an idealized tribalism.

The HTS paper identifies alternative terms that it deems more appropriate than “tribe”: e.g., “qawm” (an Afghan term), “faction,” “solidarity group,” and “patronage network.” Yet, these are still tribe-like concepts. And the discussion about these alternatives still shows that large parts of Afghanistan remain fraught with classic tribal dynamics, albeit of a rather fractured, tempestuous sort that may not be unusual in high-conflict zones.

Gant may have been fortunate as to the specific tribe and chief that he got to work with. But even so, his paper is keenly attuned to the nature of tribal patterns and dynamics, in terms of both theory and practice.
With this in mind, I remain convinced that selectively, sensibly working with and through “tribes” should be made into a strength of U.S. strategy there. Seeking to repair and restore positive tribal patterns should be helpful.

(As an aside, I note, apropos the two sentences on p. 5 relating to fns. 3 and 4 of the HTS paper, that the authors misread my 2007 Rand paper on tribes. It does observe that tribes precede states in the long sweep of social evolution, but I never claim that tribes per se are primitive. The authors also appear to prefer a questionable view that tribes arise historically often only after states intrude into a region. Thus the HTS report seems to reflect a bias in current anthropology to disavow tribes as a general concept.)

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While wondering about such matters earlier in November 2009, I spotted a post at an unfamiliar blog, Strategic Social, that aspired to define a “tribe” as “any group of people united by their recognition of organizational hierarchy within their group, who share a cultural identity and make up a unique speech community.” At least this blog was trying to raise attention to the significance of tribes in various areas of society. But this definition of the concept seemed misguided, and I blurted as much:
As one who’s interested in concepts about tribes, occasionally scouts the Net to see what others are saying, and finds myself here for a change, I’d like to offer a quick passing comment:

I like the fact you recognize that tribes are a modern as well as ancient form of organization. But in my view, it’s not wise to start a definition of tribes with a reference to organizational hierarchy. That’s not what’s most important about tribes. Tribes may or may not have much hierarchy; hierarchical institutions are a later form to arise from social evolution. I’d suggest moving the other parts of your definition up front. I’d also suggest broadening the “speech” part, maybe make it “symbolic” instead.
After this led to a defensive rejoinder, indicating my comment would have little to no effect, I tried to elaborate:
It often makes a difference what is placed up front in a definition, especially when there is no statement about the weights of different components. But even if you fix that, I’d still propose that it’s inadvisable to define tribes in a way that leads the eye first to hierarchy. The consideration you gave to another pattern — consensus — may apply better to the nature of classic tribes.

According to your definition, with its lead-off emphasis on “organizational hierarchy,” wouldn’t the Catholic Church or a Special Forces unit qualify as a “tribe”? Do you mean for that to be the case? Also, one of your examples of a tribe with a hierarchy — Survival International — isn’t really a tribe; it’s an NGO that represents tribes, not a tribe itself. Its own web pages offer a definition of “tribes” that says nothing about requiring a hierarchy. I would suggest opting for a definition that can identify the tribal qualities that may persist in such organizations . . . but that does not allow for turning all such organizations into examples of tribes.

The “power structure” of a tribe resides less in a hierarchy it may have than in the codes of honor and other codes of conduct that are embedded in the tribe. A tribe’s people are not primarily “united by their recognition of organizational hierarchy” but rather by their sense of identity, kinship and solidarity (as in the second, far-more-essential part of your definition). Furthermore, your definition of hierarchy posits “a decision making apparatus that creates rules members must adhere to in order to remain in good standing with their tribe.” But that’s more like a definition of an administrative, judicial, or bureaucratic hierarchy than a tribal hierarchy. For everyday matters, classic tribes have a cultural apparatus (the best term?) that sets codes and rules, more than a political decision-making apparatus. If issues arise that require a tribal council, then some hierarchy may well come into play — but so do norms for consensus.

Apropos this, you note that you “would be interested in any examples you or anyone else had of people organizing independent of leadership/hierarchy.” I presume you mean in reference to tribes. But is that really a key question? Instances of leadership or hierarchy normally crop up sometime somewhere in most all forms of organization, tribes included. and it’s conventional for modern analysts and strategists to go looking for leaders and hierarchies in all organizations. But according to the literatures I’ve scoured, classic tribes may not even have full-time chiefs, just the episodic “big man” depending on the matter at hand. And chiefs, when present, may not wield much hierarchical power. Where tribal chiefs do exist, it’s crucial to recognize them (as in conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan); but it’s also crucial to recognize what lies behind them (e.g., Pashtunwali codes). Beyond that, the more a hierarchical chiefdom is present and enforced atop a tribe, the more that society lies somewhere between being a tribe and becoming a state or element of a state.

I’m reminded of a documentary about a bad-ass low-life motorcycle gang in a city back East that was organized as a club and had an elected president who ran meetings and organized club activities. True to classic tribal dynamics persisting into the modern era, the president noted that he really didn’t run anything and couldn’t enforce anything on his own; anybody could do pretty much as he or she pleased, as long as they remained true to the club. So much for the importance of organizational hierarchy; it’s there, but not in the way or to the degree your definition presently poses. Tribes tend to be anti-hierarchical as much as, if not more than, pro-hierarchical. Indeed, your definition may fit a warlord and his clan better than a classic tribe.
I hope this helps clarify aspects of the tribal form for other possible readers.

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In this post and others in this series, I have corrected capitalization and other orthographic errors that exist in my comments as originally posted elsewhere. Also, in many instances I abridge or excerpt only part of my comment.


Jay Taber said...

Maybe this will help to clarify things.

Jay Taber said...

This is a more philosophical response.

Tom Haskins said...

Hi David
It's great to have you back to your own blog. Regarding your experience stated as "After this led to a defensive rejoinder, indicating my comment would have little to no effect, I tried to elaborate:" -- I would frame this as a "tribal encounter" where the author experienced being dishonored by your clarification. That frame revisits my fascination with your TIMN framework at the micro scale of response patterns, practices and mental states. If the author was less defensive, it might have been taken as a policy violation (I-), rival proposition (M-) or disconnect (N-).

David Ronfeldt said...

thanks, jay for the two references that you wrote. good points in the first one about tribalism, humanism, and cosmopolitanism sometimes reinforcing each other. and in the second one, about the people needing identities that enable them to survive, if not thrive, amid “a constantly shifting patchwork of cognitive relationships between tribes, institutions, markets and networks.” also, thanks for the nod to TIMN there!

David Ronfeldt said...

tom, it's been a while. many thanks for stopping by. hmm, that's a novel way to analyze a defensive rejoinder.

i just visited your blog for first time in months. i'm pleased to see my name on the side-bar. but more to the point, i see you are working on "loners" a bit. so you may be interested in a comments that crop up in post 4/5 in this series, maybe next week, about lone-wolf types who run amok.

Tom Haskins said...

I'm looking forward to what you write about "lone wolves". As you suggest, it may relate on several levels to what I'm currently exploring on my blog.

There's a pattern you encounter repeatedly of people wanting to contaminate the Tribal form of social evolution with the Institution form. What if those people are changing the conversation from "societal forms" to "evolutionary processes"? That suggests they would be speaking of intermediate forms between each development from monoform to quadriform societies, not bungling the characterization of the pure Tribal form. Their persistent contamination of tribe and hierarchy would be seen as a characterizing the process of "taking form" (i.e. proto versions of what's coming next, 0.5 prerelease assemblies, embryonic phases of development, etc. )

David Ronfeldt said...

tom -- interesting points about how tribes can get contaminated by hierarchical actors. i suppose cults with strong charismatic leaders are especiallly prone to what you point out.

it also sounds as though you are saying to keep a close watch on language, on how particular actors may try to shift the nature of the narrative to manipulate whether their real interests are communal or hierarchical. yes? no?

in any case, figuring out the nature of the intermediate forms in the timn transitions is a crucial task. i've no definitive answers yet, so let's keep thinking about this. -- david

Tom Haskins said...

Thanks for continuing this conversation.
I meant something other than "hierarchical interests" when I mentioned the contamination of tribal forms. I was referring to the common confusion you repeatedly clear up re: failed states vs. failed tribes, clashes of civilizations vs tribal feuds or religiosity vs. tribalism. In those instances, your TIMN analysis needs to enforce purist, binary categories. When actors are confusing T and I, they may be mistaken about the differences between those societal forms and your corrective input is valuable.

There are other instances where actors are not confusing or contaminating the pure societal forms. Rather, they are exploring the complexity of multiform societies and the transitional forms between stages of societal evolution. In other words they may be trying to frame their evidence of mixed communal and hierarchical dynamics as a "T+I bi-form societal combined with regressive tendencies to -T" or as a "T monoform society with proto +I forms emerging". They are exploring process variables of transition, change, evolution and emergence, rather than classification scheme to correctly identify a current state of affairs. They are shifting the narrative from forms to processes and this may be a welcomed occurrence.

David Ronfeldt said...

tom -- if i understand your point better this time, it’s focused more on process than on structure. while neither of us ignores structure or process, my emphasis for TIMN has been on structure, yours on process.

i’d try out the following idea: for TIMN to succeed, at best, the forms must give rise eventuallly to distinct realms where only one form dominates. but along the way, the more successful processes behind the formation of each realm may involve combinations of the forms. i dunno for sure, but in a way, that’s reflected in an earlier notion i posited that the advocates of each form are often quite tribal at first.

somehwhat apropos all this, i’d point out to you a blog about “network weaving” whose recent posts might be of particular interest you and your blog (if you don’t already know about it):

it departs from a broader concept of networks than i use in TIMN. but it offers a lot in the way of understanding network processes. -- onward, david

Tom Haskins said...

I've followed network weaving sporadically for several years. Something has always felt "off" to me about their approach until I looked at their latest "relational grammar" of Infancy-Childhood-Adolescence-Adulthood. (Thanks for bringing it to my attention!) I now see some of how I disagree with their premises. In my own relational grammars, there is a final Interdependence Phase after Independence that I equate with the Network phase of TIMN. In their terms, I combine Infancy and Childhood into "Dependence" and match up Adolescence with "Counter-dependence". Their omission of Interdependence and their discernment of differences between Infancy and Childhood are very telling within my frames of reference. There are two instances where this outlook would b congruent: in Biform societies with no market or network or through the Institutional lens in Bi, Tri or Quadriform societies. In those instances, I'd expect a parental viewpoint toward others to dominate. Institutions embody that protective/nurturing premise and enable those it employs and serves to maintain their dependencies on the institution. Thus the dependency is not an isolated trait of those who are "not yet independent", it's a co-created phenomena with cyclical dynamics between those who "are" dependent and those who "frame them" as dependent.

This is not how "relational grammars" look through Market or Network lenses (at least, according to me). Counter-dependence is a powerful force for change, evolution and innovation at every phase. I suspect that Institutions form by breaking the cultural dependency on Tribes to provide order, continuity and a sense of belonging. Likewise Markets form by breaking their economic dependency on Institutions to plan production, distribute outputs and allocate scarce resources. Finally Networks form in defiance of Market controls over competition, property and distribution channels. Thus I share your insight about "successful processes behind the formation of each realm", starting with this argument for "pervasive counter-dependence". Similar arguments could be made for pervasive Dependence and for Independence behind each evolutionary stage.

This suspect there are many differences between the emergence of a market economy in countries with state controlled production and the emergence of specific markets, as in a market for heavy equipment repair services, equipment, expertise -- once there are markets for the equipment itself and uses of the equipment by other enterprises.


David Ronfeldt said...

thanks for adding that, tom.

re your final parag, eventually i hope to do a chapter about the market form. but it won't be anytime soon . . .