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In anthropology, a tribe is a human social group. Exact definitions of what constitutes a tribe vary among anthropologists, and the term is itself considered controversial in academic circles in part due to its association with colonialism. In general use, the term may refer to people perceived by a population to be primitive and may have negative connotations. The concept is often contrasted with other social groups concepts, such as nations, states, and forms of kinship.
The word tribe first occurs in English in 12th-century Middle English-literature, in reference to the twelve tribes of Israel. The Middle English word is derived from Old French tribu and, in turn, from Latin tribus (plural tribūs), in reference to a supposed tripartite division of the original Roman state along ethnic lines, into tribūs known as the Ramnes (or Ramnenses), Tities (or Titienses), and Luceres, corresponding, according to Marcus Terentius Varro, to the Latins, Sabines and Etruscans respectively. The Ramnes were named after Romulus, leader of the Latins, Tities after Titus Tatius, leader of the Sabines, and Luceres after Lucumo, leader of an Etruscan army that had assisted the Latins. In 242–240 BC, the Tribal Assembly (comitia tributa) in the Roman Republic included 35 tribes (four "urban tribes" and 31 "rural tribes"). According to Livy, the three "tribes" were squadrons of cavalry, rather than ethnic divisions.
The term's ultimate etymology is uncertain, perhaps from the Proto-Indo-European roots tri- ("three") and bhew ("to be"). The classicist Gregory Nagy says, citing the linguist Émile Benveniste, that the Umbrian trifu (equivalent of the Latin tribus) is apparently derived from a combination of *tri- and *bhu-, where the second element is cognate with the Greek root phúō φύω “to bring forth” and the Greek phulē φυλή "clan, race, people" (plural phylai φυλαί). The Greek polis ("state" or "city") was, like the Roman state, divided into three phylai.
In Europe during the late medieval era, the Bible was written mostly in New Latin and instead of tribus the word phyle was used, derived from the Greek phulē. In the historical sense, "tribe", "race" and "clan" have often been used interchangeably.
The term and concept of a tribe is controversial among anthropologists and other academics active in the social sciences. The term tribe was in common use in the field of anthropology until the late 1950s and 1960s, during which time scholars began to reassess its utility. In 1970, anthropologist J. Clyde Mitchell writes:
- The tribe, a long respected category of analysis in anthropology, has recently been the object of some scrutiny by anthropologists ... Doubts about the utility of the tribe as an analytical category have almost certainly arisen out of the rapid involvement of peoples, even in the remotest parts of the globe, in political, economic and sometimes direct social relationship with industrial nations. The doubts, however, are based ultimately on the definition and meaning which different scholars give to the term 'tribe', its adjective 'tribal', and its abstract form 'tribalism'.
Writing in 2013, scholar Matthew Ortoleva notes that "like the word Indian, [t]ribe is a word that has connotations of colonialism."
Tribes and nations
Considerable debate has accompanied efforts to define and characterize tribes. When scholars use the term, they may perceive differences between pre-state tribes and contemporary tribes; there is also general controversy over cultural evolution and colonialism. In the popular imagination, tribes reflect a way of life that predates, and is more natural than that in modern states. Tribes also privilege primordial social ties and are clearly bounded, homogeneous, parochial, and stable. Tribes are an organization among families (including clans and lineages), which generates a social and ideological basis for solidarity that is in some way more limited than that of an "ethnic group" or of a "nation". Anthropological and ethnohistorical research has challenged all of these notions.
Anthropologist Elman Service presented a system of classification for societies in all human cultures, based on the evolution of social inequality and the role of the state. This system of classification contains four categories:
- Hunter-gatherer bands that are generally egalitarian
- Tribal societies with some limited instances of social rank and prestige
- Stratified tribal societies led by chieftains (see Chiefdom)
- Civilizations, with complex social hierarchies and organized, institutional governments
In his 1975 study, The Notion of the Tribe, anthropologist Morton H. Fried provided numerous examples of tribes that encompassed members who spoke different languages and practiced different rituals, or who shared languages and rituals with members of other tribes. Similarly, he provided examples of tribes in which people followed different political leaders, or followed the same leaders as members of other tribes. He concluded that tribes in general are characterized by fluid boundaries and heterogeneity, are not parochial, and are dynamic.
Fried proposed that most contemporary tribes do not have their origin in pre-state tribes, but rather in pre-state bands. Such "secondary" tribes, he suggested, developed as modern products of state expansion. Bands comprise small, mobile, and fluid social formations with weak leadership. They do not generate surpluses, pay no taxes, and support no standing army. Fried argued that secondary tribes develop in one of two ways. First, states could set them up as means to extend administrative and economic influence in their hinterland, where direct political control costs too much. States would encourage (or require) people on their frontiers to form more clearly bounded and centralized polities, because such polities could begin producing surpluses and taxes, and would have a leadership responsive to the needs of neighboring states (the so-called "scheduled" tribes of the United States or of British India provide good examples of this). Second, bands could form "secondary" tribes as a means to defend against state expansion. Members of bands would form more clearly bounded and centralized polities, because such polities could begin producing surpluses that could support a standing army that could fight against states, and they would have a leadership that could co-ordinate economic production and military activities.
Archaeologists continue to explore the development of pre-state tribes. Current research suggests that tribal structures constituted one type of adaptation to situations providing plentiful yet unpredictable resources. Such structures proved flexible enough to coordinate production and distribution of food in times of scarcity, without limiting or constraining people during times of surplus.
- Gregory Nagy,Greek Mythology and Poetics, This article cites its sources but does not provide page references. (December 2017) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
- Émile Benveniste, Origines de la formation des noms en indo-européen, This article cites its sources but does not provide page references. (December 2017) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
- Mitchell, Clyde J. 1970. "Tribe and Social Change in South Central Africa: A Situational Approach" in Gutkind, Peter C. W. Editor. The Passing of Tribal Man in Africa, p. 83. Brill.
- Ortoleva, Matthew. 2013. "We Face East" in Goggin, Peter N. Editor. Environmental Rhetoric and Ecologies of Place, p. 95. Routledge. ISBN 9781135922658
- Morton H. Fried (1972) The Notion of Tribe. Cummings Publishing Company
- Benveniste, Émile. Indo-European Language and Society, translated by Elizabeth Palmer. London: Faber and Faber, 1973. ISBN 0-87024-250-4.
- Benveniste, Émile. Origines de la formation des noms en indo-européen, 1935.
- Fried, Morton H. The Notion of Tribe. Cummings Publishing Company, 1975. ISBN 0-8465-1548-2.
- Helm, June, ed., 1968. Essays on the Problem of Tribe, Proceedings, American Ethnological Society, 1967 (Seattle: University of Washington Press).
- James, Paul (2006). Globalism, Nationalism, Tribalism: Bringing Theory Back In. London: Sage Publications.
- James, Paul (2001). "Relating Global Tensions: Modern Tribalism and Postmodern Nationalism". Communal/Plural. 9 (1).
- Nagy, Gregory, Greek Mythology and Poetics, Cornell University Press, 1990. In chapter 12, beginning on p. 276, Professor Nagy explores the meaning of the word origin and social context of a tribe in ancient Greece and beyond.
- Sutton, Imre, Indian Land Tenure: Bibliographical Essays and a Guide to the Literature (NY: Clearwater, 1975). Tribe: pp. 101–02, 180–82, 186–87, 191–93.
- Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008.
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