Excerpt: Tribe and State in Asia through Twenty-Five Centuries

Tribe and State in Asia through Twenty-Five Centuries (Sumit Guha)
Tribe and State in Asia through Twenty-Five Centuries (Sumit Guha)

Sumit Guha holds the Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professorship in History at the University of Texas at Austin and is author of Tribe and State in Asia through Twenty-Five Centuries, the latest Asia Shorts title released by AAS Publications. In this volume, Guha analyzes the history of the term “tribe,” excavating the different ways the label has been used in various places and times. While current-day academics tend to eschew “tribe” for other terms, the word continues to appear in both common discourse and legal or administrative settings, such as the “Scheduled Tribes” of India. It is important, therefore, to understand the origins of “tribe” as a concept, as well as the many ways it has been deployed over the centuries. Through Guha’s narrative, he elucidates how “tribalism is a recurring political phenomenon in history, not a long-past phase of human social evolution.”

The excerpt below is adapted from the introduction of Tribe and State in Asia Through Twenty-Five Centuries. To read more, you may purchase the book from AAS Publications distribution partner Columbia University Press. AAS Members save 20% on their orders; log in to our Members-Only Benefits page to view the discount code.


Tribes are in the news today. Their primordial existence is routinely invoked by journalists and academics to explain mass behavior in our own time. This Anglophone use of “tribe” is of course not new. We shall consider its deeper history later in this volume. The idea of “tribal feeling” as something primitive, a throwback to a bygone era, was current and respectable in the great age of modernization theory that set in after World War II. At that time, “tribalism” was frequently invoked to explain the political behavior of “not yet modern” (read non-Western) peoples. In the early 1960s, for example, the well-regarded anthropologist Clifford Geertz argued that in “modern’’ (i.e., Western) societies, calls to “blood and land” had been transcended by civic sentiments. It was only (he thought) new nation-states that had seen the reemergence of explosive “tribalism” among other forms of primordial identity.

For thinkers on both the Right and the Left, modernization, which included the rise of industrial capitalism, was supposed to dissolve all primordial associations. Three hundred years ago, John Locke wrote that at the beginning of history, all the World was America. Three centuries after him, Francis Fukuyama wrote that at the end of history, all the world would be as America too. History has proven to be more complex, and back in the USA, “tribalism” is the new word of the day. A Yale law professor, Amy Chua, has recently published a book claiming that it was rising tribalism in America that “propelled Trump to the White House.” She then uses “tribal instinct” to explain pretty much every contemporary conflict known to readers of the New York Times’s headlines. The term “tribe” has indeed acquired an unprecedented prominence in the last two decades. This is even after social scientists declared it to have little analytic value. A widely read tweet from the previous president of the United States recently justified a decision to abandon US allies in Syria by saying, “it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.” It must be evident that a concept of the “tribe” as irredeemably irrational and endlessly violent is implicit in this statement.

The term has thus retained a solid presence in everyday discourse in the early decades of the present century. But we should remember that it is a sociological label, a word describing the supposed collective behavior of some persisting social group. It does not describe some innate trait of any group of people. Indeed, in the late twentieth century, professional anthropologists – members of the scholarly discipline that had long used “tribe” to label a type of social organization—were advocating the replacement of “tribe” with “ethnic group.” But academic discussion of ethnic groups has then rolled into itself many of the “primordial” traits  contained in the popular idea of tribe. The much-cited political scientist Donald Horowitz published Ethnic Groups in Conflict in 1985. It analyzed fierce forms of ethnic identity as characteristic of the failure of democracy in non-Western or “Third World” countries. The book assumed, however, that in the enlightened West, a calm civic nationalism had replaced all that. That was also what Geertz had believed.

Ethnic and national sentiment are now routinely described as “tribal” in order to emphasize their irrational character. This bifurcation is why, disregarding academic critiques of such terminology, popular culture has usually demonized “tribe,” even as it has often valorized “ethnic.” The latter term is now something interestingly exotic (another word whose connotations have gone from negative to positive). “Ethnic” in the United States is often a neutral or positive characterization. Possessing “ethnic” traits is a selling point for clothes and cuisines alike. The valence of the term has indeed changed from the time when the Church of England’s authorized translation of the Bible rendered the Greek word “ethnos” as “heathen.” But since there is always a psychological need to project societal violence on an exterior “other,” the negative, irrational side of “ethnic” loyalty is still described as “tribal.”

This is why, despite the rejection of the word by scholars, “tribes” across the world have been in the news in recent years. The tribes of Iraq apparently persisted through Ba’athist single-party rule despite the wealth of the oil boom and the resultant modernization. They were reenergized by the weakening of the Iraqi state following the 1991 Gulf War. They remained important elements of the strategic calculus even under US military occupation. They were significant enough that the United States Congressional Research Service prepared a report on what the author described as Iraq’s approximately 150 tribes as of 2007.

The mobilization of the “tribes” was also an important strategy to be employed by US commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. Leading government functionaries in Iraq, in their moment of supreme crisis, likewise turned to the mobilized “tribes.”In 2014, after the failure of the regular army to contain the Islamic State, a press release by the official Iraqi news agency quoted the defense minister who pinned his hopes on a new brigade of 2,000 volunteers. This brigade was drawn from the recognized social organizations whose Arabic names were rendered in the press release as “clans” and “tribes.” “It was agreed to form / the elite brigade /  [which] consists of 25 clans includes / 2000 / fighters from the sons of those tribes.” Similarly, the BBC published an analytic report on politics in oil-rich Libya in 2011 that took the superiority of tribal cohesion over military discipline for granted. The report stated:

tribal rivalries are evident within the armed forces, where Mr Gaddafi’s own tribe, the Qadhadfa, are pitted against Magariha . . . which are close to the Warfalla tribe, said to number one million people. In turn, the Warfalla are close to the Al-Zintan.

Such terminology was not confined to disturbed regions and collapsing states. Amnesty International described how the political and judicial authority of what it described as “tribal” assemblies and chieftains continued to exist in the much more stable sociopolitical setting of central Pakistan.

 “Tribe” is, therefore, clearly “good to think” (to borrow a phrase from Levi-Strauss). It is a term that repeatedly surges up into popular media discourse to describe certain kinds of sociopolitical organization and collective behavior. It is, therefore, necessary to think about it too. This book will seek to induce the reader to think about this common noun and its historical denotations in order to better understand its use and abuse in the present. My goal is to extract the rational kernel from a loosely used term while also demonstrating the mutability of all social organization over time.

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