On the concepts of “tribe” and “tribal society”


Fried, M. H. (1968). On the concepts of “tribe” and “tribal society”. Essays on the problem of tribe. J. Helm. Seattle, University of Washington Press: 3-20.

Fried addresses the problem concerning the concept of tribe and classification of ethnic unit.  There are three important points that anthropological geneticists must consider when we are analyzing the genetic variation of modern populations.

First, similar to the concept of “race”, “tribe” is typological way of categorization of human groups based on language, culture, and political organization.  However, he thinks tribe is a very fluid entity with no clear boundary and inter-tribal marriage is common.  Self-identification is problematic, because mixed individuals have to choose the tribal affiliation, if the policy allows them to be a member of only one tribe.  Also, two linguistically distinct groups can form a tribe 

Second, tribes can be heterogeneous groups because of various factors, but not necessary because of cultural changes occurred as the ‘tribal societies’ come to contact with western societies.

Third, many tribes were formed from previously unorganized groups responding to the external pressures, such as European colonization and expansion of modern state/nation.

Since this paper was published, anthropologists began to avoid using the term, tribe.  Today, anthropological geneticists and human population geneticists rarely use the term, but the way they view non-Western societies are similar to the problematic concept of tribe that Fried questioned in this article.

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One thought on “On the concepts of “tribe” and “tribal society”

  1. Pingback: What is a definitive scholarly work that explains tribal dynamics? - Quora

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