(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6631.htm)

‘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 problem at tribal boundaries, where tribalism offers “endemic, often pre-emptive, low-level violence and never-ending mutual distrust”.[1]  This is a description of Self-Protection rather than governance.
  • Tribes do not want to offer fealty to a leader who belongs to a different tribe, so tribalism sits badly with the Western model of national democracy – as is apparent in Afghanistan.[2]

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 tribal tradition though, a political system which gives formal recognition to tribes – as with the Afghani loya jirga – might be more appropriate than a strong central administration.[3]

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014



[1] Stanley Kurtz, who is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, characterised tribalism in an article entitled I and My Brother Against My Cousin, which was a review of the book Culture and Conflict in the Middle East by Philip Carl Salzman, published by Humanity Books.  The article was published in the Weekly Standard 04/14/2008, Volume 013, Issue 29, and was available in May 2018 at https://www.weeklystandard.com/stanley-kurtz/i-and-my-brother-against-my-cousin.

[2] 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.  Stephen Grey, in an article entitled Cracking on in Helmand which was published in Prospect magazine in the September 2009 edition, observed:

“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.”

This article was available in May 2018 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2009/08/cracking-on-in-helmand/.

[3] On 1 July 2002, BBC published a brief explanation of a loya jirga; this was available in May 2018 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/1782079.stm.