Neo-Tribalism

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Neo-Tribalism is a modern sociological phenomenon that has developed in response to civilization, or the modern corporation/state society, wherein smaller social groupings of like-minded or themed communities are formed. These smaller groupings, loosely referred to as tribes, are bound by common practices, values, beliefs or goals, with varying degrees of adherence to traditional tribal practices ranging from the purely aesthetic to the radically orthodox. The key delineating factor of Neo-Tribalism is the commonality that binds the tribe together.

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Urban tribes

The most casual form of Neo-Tribalism is the urban tribe, a term first coined in 1985 by French sociologist Michel Maffesoli in Le temps des tribus: le déclin de l'individualisme dans les sociétés postmodernes. According to Maffesoli, urban tribes are microgroups of people who share common interests in metropolitan areas. The members of these relatively small groups tend to have similar worldviews, dress styles and behavioral patterns. Their social interactions are largely informal and emotionally-laden, which stands in sharp contrast to the formalized Machiavellian constructs of corporate culture. The term was expanded upon by author Ethan Watters in Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment as “an intricate community of young people who live and work together in various combinations, form regular rituals, and provide the support of an extended family.”

The premise of Watters' book was to explore the “tight-knit groups of friends [that] fill the increasingly wide stretch between college and married life” in the social phenomenon he calls “never-marrieds”—unmarried urbanites in their 30s and beyond. The urban tribe is one of the outcroppings of the so-called “Creative Class”, the class of young, mobile, educated professionals--first identified by sociologist Richard Florida in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class--who agglomerate in major urban centers where social, cultural and economic opportunities exist in greater numbers. Traditionally, urban tribes were commonly found in the gay and lesbian community, where members often find themselves estranged from their birth families and communities.

Other forms of Neo-Tribes

Moderate forms of Neo-Tribalism believe that a tribal social structure can co-exist within modern society, and often, take advantage of the products of civilization, such as technology, to support their Neo-Tribal associations. Examples include countercultural groupings like punks and those that grew out of the Burning Man and Rainbow subcultures.

The yearly Burning Man festival, built in opposition to the social and commercial structures of modern civilization, refers to itself as “a gathering of the tribes”, and incorporates tribal motifs in its organizational structure, in the layout of Black Rock City, and in many of the practices and pastimes associated with Burner culture, such as art, ceremonial rituals, fire dancing, lexicon, and the costume aesthetic characterized by bones, feathers, long hair often dreadlocked, leather, piercings, tattoos, and earth toned fabrics. This whole milieu is meant to pay homage to traditional tribal culture, even though many do not engage in orthodox practices in their lifestyles.

Although many Neo-Tribalists live in shared communities like art collectives--defined by sociologist Sue Heath as “peer-shared households consisting of unrelated individuals living in self-contained houses and apartments”—this version as well is more homage to traditional tribalism than it is a return to it. Little binds these groups together for extended periods of time, as they tend to be more transient and the bonds they form temporary.

Radical to orthodox forms of Neo-Tribalism include intentional communities, eco-collectives and communes, anarcho-primitivism, the “back-to-the-land” movement, and various "off-the-grid" survivalist sects. Most of these belief systems view modern civilization—which includes the nuclear family at the micro level and the corporation/state at the macro—as inherently detrimental and unsustainable, and see tribal structures as the natural state of humanity and the form we will return to following any crash of civilization.

Optimal Neo-Tribe numbers

Neo-Tribalists see the optimal living arrangement and social grouping as being no more than 150 people in a “clan”, broken into “bands” or working groups of 30-50. This they believe was the dominant human ordering principle for hundreds of thousands of years, as 150 people is the maximum number of individuals any one person can get to know well enough for meaningful social interaction. Tribes then consist of several clans comprising 1000-2000 individuals. As environmentalist Dave Pollard writes, “bands were the optimal size for short-term collective action, clans for mutual knowledge and learning, and tribes for buffering (to optimize inter-tribal physical and cultural diversity and to minimize inter-tribal conflict, both Darwinian advantages).”

The modern equivalent of a clan, such as an intentional community, should ideally replicate 150 people comprising several bands, who, according to Pollard, “love each other (you can't spend 15-20% of your life physically grooming people you don't love) and live together, their society cemented by rites and shared principles.”

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Author: Charles Shaw