The Culture of Tribalism

The culture of tribalism is one of continual friction between tribes who want to retain their autonomy and are competing for territory.

‘Tribe’ is used here as an umbrella term to refer to groups of people with shared lineage or at least a strong affinity with each other.  Tribalism is characterised by a strong sense of honour and loyalty to the tribe, a desire to protect territory, and a potential for confrontational relations with other tribes.  A Utopian vision of governance within a tribe would emphasise the security and solidarity of a large family, but in practice tribalism has drawbacks.

It works best when each tribe has its own land.  There is a strong sense of loyalty within each tribe but there are tensions on the boundaries between tribes, as described in Philip Carl Salzman’s book Culture and Conflict in the Middle East:

“Salzman notes a pattern of contingent partisan loyalties, which results in an inbred orientation favoring particularism: an attitude of my tribe against the other tribe, my ethnic group against the different ethnic group, my religious community against another religious community. For each affiliation, there is always an enemy.”

This is a description of Self-Protection rather than governance.  Two patterns of power, of affiliation (4.3.2) and the potential for ethnic conflict (4.4.5), were described earlier.

Tribes do not want to offer fealty to a leader who belongs to a different tribe, so the culture of tribalism sits badly with the Western model of national democracy – as is apparent in Afghanistan.  Stephen Grey’s article, Cracking on in Helmand, described how the Western attempt to install a central government in Kabul, and the narrative of fighting an enemy called the Taliban, run counter to the reality of a nation of tribal leaders who have their own scores to settle:

“US counterterrorist efforts made matters worse, as special forces swept across Afghanistan in the next few years, time and again haplessly being used to settle tribal scores.”

Perhaps some of Hobbes’s thinking about the benefits of governance (2.3.2) can be applied to tribes.  If one replaces independent individuals by tribal units in his thought experiment, it is possible to reach similar conclusions: all the tribes might benefit from agreeing to support a single government that undertook to keep the peace between them.

If there is a strong culture of tribalism though, a political system which gives formal recognition to tribes might be more appropriate than a strong central administration.  The BBC article, What is a loya jirga?, explains how this traditionally worked in Afghanistan.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6631.htm.