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Strange Concepts and Terms 1: “Tribe“ and “Tribal”

The age of colonialism and the age of racism have left some strange concepts to us. While scholars are now increasingly avoiding them (to a differing degree) due to a paradigm shift that happened in disciplines like cultural anthropology during the 1970s and 1980s, many of these concepts are still floating around in the heads of many of us in the general population, including teachers, parents, writers, journalists and bloggers, and even some scholars and scientists.

This is the first article of a series I am planning in order to sensitize my readers for these concepts and terms in order to suggest that we stop using them actively.

The first of these is the word “tribe”. You can still meet this word a lot in journalist’s articles and TV programs, in blogs and even from “tribal people” themselves. (What I am writing here also applies to terms with almost identical meaning in other languages, e.g. the German word “Stamm”).

A very good explanation of what is wrong with this word can be found in Christopher Ehret’s book “The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800“ (a very highly recommended book by the way, the best introduction to older African history I know), so I give you here a longer citation from page 7 and 8 of that book:

The problem with the words “tribe” and “tribal” become overtly clear if we ask a series of questions. Why is it that during the period of the Nigeria Civil War in the late 1960s, the more than 10 million Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria were called a tribe in all newspaper articles dealing with the war, when the 200,000 Ruthenians (who reside in Slovakia, Poland and Belorus) and the fewer than 400,000 citizens of Malta are called nationalities? Why was the war called a “tribal” war, anyway, instead of the civil war that it actually was? Why, time and again, do we see newspaper articles and news reporters on television add the qualifiers “tribe” or “tribal” to their descriptions of people and events in Africa? Why is Shaka, the famous nineteenth-century ruler, called a king of the Zulu “tribe” when he was actually the king of a centralized and militarily powerful state? Why are Africans in “traditional” dress said to be engaging in “tribal” dancing, when Europeans garbed similarly in the clothes of an earlier time are said to be performing “folk” dances? Why is the work of African artists, done in the styles of previous centuries, called “tribal” art? Is in not simply art fashioned by Africans? Why is rural African man of today, who is more attuned to rural culture and less caught up in the modern-day African urban milieu, called a “tribesman”? Isn’t he just a man, the same as any other?

Clearly, “tribe” is an appellation Europeans have reserved for non-European ethnic groups and nationalities and most especially those of Africa. So pervasive was the use of “tribe” during the colonial era that even Africans themselves often unthinkingly use that word or its equivalent today when speaking English or other European languages. By “tribe” they translate words in their home languages that mean simply ethnic group or sometimes clan. But the English word conveys much more that that. For the native speaker of English, it takes only a moment of thought about a phrase such as “tribal dancing” to realize that we are being presented with a value judgement on the activity and the people involved in it. They are exotic, strange, acting perhaps a little out of control, culturally or technologically backward in comparison to us, and sometimes dangerous to boot.

I could not express this more clearly. What Prof. Ehret is writing here about Africans also applies to People in other parts of the world as well, like, for example, Australia and the Americans.

I strongly suggest phasing out active use of the words “tribe” and “tribal” and their equivalents in other talking and writing. These words are part of the vocabulary of colonialism and racism and do not belong into our time again.

Where you see or hear them being used, point out to the speakers or authors that and why these terms are problematic.

4 thoughts on “Strange Concepts and Terms 1: “Tribe“ and “Tribal”

  1. The terms tribe and tribal, if not put into opposition to nationalism and are contextualized and conceptualized properly can, in my opinion, still be used in different occasions. Although I agree with the fact that in common sense these terms carry a negative and/or preconceived meaning that is heavily related to colonialism and the image of non european societies as exotic and primative.
    Great article. =)

  2. I agree Nannus. In reality the word “race” should never even be used to differentiate between various ethnic groups. There are no separate “races” within the species Homo sapiens.

    There is only one race, the human race.

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