Sunday, October 11, 2009


Tribe, a group of people speaking a common language, observing uniform rules of social organization, and working together for common purposes such as trade, agriculture, or warfare. Other typical characteristics include a common name, a contiguous territory, a relatively uniform culture or way of life, and a tradition of common descent. Tribes are usually composed of a number of local communities (e.g., bands, villages, or neighbourhoods) and are often aggregated in clusters of a higher order called nations. The term is seldom applied to societies that have achieved a strictly territorial organization in large states but is usually confined to groups whose unity is based primarily upon a sense of extended kinship ties, It is no longer used for kin groups in the strict sense, such as clans.

All of the elements in the above definition are subject to exceptions. Thus the Amba of Uganda are considered one tribe though they speak two mutually unintelligible languages; the Zuni “tribe” comprises only a single community; the Kiowa Apache constitute one band of the larger Kiowa tribe; the Dorobo tribe of Kenya live scattered among the Nandi and Masai, for whom they hunt and perform ritual services.

The criterion of political integration, in particular, is inapplicable to many primitive peoples (e.g., of Australia, Melanesia, Amazonia, and western North America) among whom each community may be politically autonomous. Anthropologists, nevertheless, are accustomed to divide such peoples into “tribes” on the basis of linguistic and cultural resemblances.

Sometimes a cluster of independent local groups forms an intermarrying unit or maintains peaceful trade relations or is unified by a common cult or age-grade organization, despite the lack of political integration; but oftentimes all that distinguishes it from other clusters is a common dialect and culture. For this reason there has been a discernible recent trend toward employing the term tribe for any group that can be isolated as the carrier of a distinctive culture, at least in the absence of territorial states. Where such states have developed, it is preferable to use the term nation to designate the comparable but larger culture-bearing groups. Ivan Prostorovski


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