Tribalism refers to customs and beliefs transmitted and enacted in groups (tribes) sharing a common identity and in which centralized political organization and authority are absent. Academic and public references to tribalism have been expanded to refer to behaviors and beliefs associated with diverse populations, including those that share any one, or all, of the following: race, ethnicity, language, religion, ways of life, kinship, attitudes, worldview, and generation.

Sociological interest focuses on aspects of ethnicity and stratification. In response to ”degeneration theory” – a biblically derived idea that non state societies had degenerated from a previous civilized state – late nineteenth century anthropologists theorized tribal organization as the second stage of social and political formation in an evolutionary sequence moving from the simple to the complex (band, tribe, chiefdom, state). By the early 1900s, anthropologists discredited these theories and focused on patterns of tribal life to define and differentiate these groups from other social and political entities. Patterns included participation and belief in a way of life where social and political formations are composed of kin based groups associated with a constellation of societal traits, including non industrialized modes of subsistence, reciprocal modes of economic exchange, and common group ownership of natural resources. As groups, tribes consist of single populations or small communities living within a limited geographic range that can arrange themselves as a single entity for common purposes. Societal institutions, including economics, religion, and politics, are incorporated into the activities of everyday life. Political processes are significantly egalitarian and include power conferred as authority upon specific individuals on the basis of personal merit. Political positions are not permanent and decisions cannot be imposed by force or other systems of control. Tribes can exist within larger political entities,  including states and nation states.

Changes in the use and meaning of tribalism in part reflect the ways in which members of societies living outside such systems seek to categorize and classify them, as well as the ways in which these populations, often pressed by outside interests, redefine and reassert ethnic, regional, and generational identity. Historically, the term tribe was derived from the Latin tribus, traced as a reference to the three original divisions of the Roman people 2,500 years ago. In translations of biblical texts into Latin (and later into English), tribes referred to the 12 subdivisions of the peoples of Israel constituted through common kinship and custom. By the late sixteenth century, references to tribalism extended to behaviors and beliefs of races and ethnic groups.

In the nineteenth century era of Western European expansion, tribalism took on significantly negative connotations as a reference to indigenous populations in non state societies viewed as inferior, which were to be “civilized” by colonialist regimes. This definition was widely extended to non western societies even where highly centralized states existed (e.g., the Aztecs). In the US, tribes were given legal status as autonomous political entities with inherent powers of self government by Chief Justice John Marshall (1831) as ”domestic, dependent nations,” although they remained subject to the authority of the federal government.

In the early 1950s, tribalism was extended to refer to the behaviors of any group of people characterized by strong group loyalty to an array of characteristics and institutions, including attitudes, language, religion, social causes, political leanings, economic interests, race, and ethnicity. In the 1960s, references to tribalism became increasingly problematic and complex. In anthropology, experts in tribal societies argued that the term had become too ambiguous to be useful (Fried 1967; Helm 1967). Vail (1989) argued that while many academics in the US claimed that tribes did not exist and the term tribalism was a racist label imposed on non western populations, young Africans in emerging nations were asserting themselves as members of tribes and reasserting historical and existing regional and ethnic identities, as well as enmities between and among such groups. Emerging African governments used accusations of tribalism to denounce groups that objected to the position of the dominant party (Wiley 1981; Vail 1989). Wiley (1981, 1990) argued that group identity along ethnic lines was given positive meaning in western settings, but was referred to as tribal and negative in Africa, Latin America, and indigenous American populations, leading to misdirected foreign and social policies.

Since the 1990s there has been a resurgent use of tribalism in terms similar to those found in the period of colonialism and in the 1950s. In political science and in public rhetoric, Huntington (1993, 1996) has argued that tribalism based on ethnicity, religion, and/or language is the dangerous result of the end of the bipolar enmity of the Cold War. From this standpoint, tribalism is a negative reference to groups seen as inferior and insular that resist and oppose other forms of organization and political authority claimed as legitimate and found in nation states and global systems.


  1. Fried, M. H. (1967) On the Concepts of ”Tribe” and ”Tribal Society.” In: Helm, J. (Ed.), Essays on the Problem of Tribe. University of Washington Press, Seattle.
  2. Helm, J. (Ed.) (1967) Essays on the Problem of Tribe. University of Washington Press, Seattle.
  3. Huntington, S. P. (1993) The Clash of Civilizations. Foreign Affairs 72: 22 8.
  4. Huntington, S. P. (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Touchstone, New York.
  5. Vail, L. (Ed.) (1989) The Creation of Tribalism in South Africa. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  6. Wiley, D. E. (1981) Using ”Tribe” and ”Tribalism” Categories to  Misunderstand
  7. Wiley, D. E. (1990) Capturing the Continent: US Media Coverage of Africa. Africa News.

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