MADRE Articles

What's Wrong with the Word "Tribe"?

Posted on: Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Keywords: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Africa

In much of the world, discussions of African affairs are tainted by racist assumptions and stereotypes. Using the term “tribe” to describe African ethnic groups sometimes reflects this trend.

The following analysis is excerpted from “Talking about Tribe,” an Africa Action paper. The full text is available here: http://www.africaaction.org/bp/ethall.htm.


Tribe has no coherent meaning. If by tribe we mean a social group that shares a single territory, a single language, a single political unit, a shared religious tradition, a similar economic system, and common cultural practices, such a group is rarely found in the real world. Tribe promotes a myth of primitive African timelessness, obscuring history and change. Westerners often conclude that they have not changed much over the centuries, and that African poverty mainly reflects cultural and social conservatism.

In the modern West, tribe often implies primitive savagery. When the general image of tribal timelessness is applied to situations of social conflict between Africans, a particularly destructive myth is created. Stereotypes of primitiveness and conservative backwardness are also linked to images of irrationality and superstition. This image resonates with traditional Western racialist ideas and can suggest that irrational violence is inherent and natural to Africans.

Images of timelessness and savagery hide the modern character of African ethnicity, including ethnic conflict. Over and over again, conflicts are interpreted as “ancient tribal rivalries,” atavistic eruptions of irrational violence which have always characterized Africa. Recent economic developments and political rivalries will loom much larger than allegedly ancient and traditional hostilities. Ironically, some African ethnic identities and divisions now portrayed as ancient and unchanging actually were created in the colonial period.

Tribe substitutes a generalized illusion for detailed analysis of particular situations. Accurate information about particular African states and societies takes more work to find than some other sorts of information. Using the idea of tribe instead of real, specific information and analysis of African events has never served the truth well. It also serves the public interest badly.


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