Alternative Culture Articles
May 6, 2004
By Royce Carlson
As people flock
to the cities and life in the Western world becomes more crowded and
alienating, some people are creating new social structures that
resemble tribal structures. Why are people
doing this? What does the tribal social structure offer that our
modern world doesn’t? What are new tribes and how are they created?
All of us have
ancestors that lived their lives as part of a tribe. For some of us,
that may be the case now, but for most in the western world, our
tribal past was many generations ago.
There are good
and bad aspects to traditional tribal culture. On the one hand, a
member of a tribe knew where he or she belonged. The traditional
tribe is a relatively small and intimate community when compared
with modern western culture. This intimacy provides a level of
psychological security. The traditional tribe is culturally
homogeneous. This is to say that everyone in the tribe believes in
the same things. The social rules are consistent from member to
member and modes of behavior, dress, play, and work are the same.
This adds to the feeling of security and safety. It leads to a
strong sense of self as identified with a particular tribe.
On the other
hand, traditional tribal membership is restricted by blood,
ethnicity, and geography. A down side to this is that sometimes a
person is born into a tribe with interests and maybe a destiny that
lies outside of the tribal culture. For this person the intimacy and
homogeneity of the culture can feel like a prison. Their
individuality is challenged and they may be pressured to conform.
culture today, we have a somewhat different situation. Although
there is a general culture to which we can feel we belong, it has
become impersonal and is becoming increasingly fragmented. This is
mostly because of the sheer size of country and population. It is
possible to be relatively intimate with people in numbers under 1 or
2 thousand, but try being intimate with 300 million. It’s
culture is not monolithic like tribal cultures are. America is a
melting pot of cultures. An individual has a greater degree of
choice of cultural behavior. One has the opportunity to learn about
and interact with many different cultures. This is good for reducing
fear of “the other” but only if a person feels psychologically safe.
But it can be difficult to feel psychologically safe in today’s
culture. Many people feel like they are being tossed on a sea of
change. They want something to cling to.
structures that have traditionally been meeting the need for
intimacy and community in the West have mostly been churches, clubs,
and civic organizations. Instead of belonging to a group of several
million people, a person has the option of joining a church, for
In the last
hundred years, several technological developments have changed the
playing field when it comes to cultural choices. First, with the
advent of modern transportation – planes, ships, automobiles – we
have become extremely mobile. No longer is geography a barrier.
Second, we have the recent boom in the development of communication
technology. The Internet has been the greatest advance yet because
of the potential to connect people.
Out of this
comes the new tribalism. Now we have, at our fingertips, access to
hundreds, if not thousands, of cultures and subcultures. Instead of
feeling like the isolated weirdo in your hometown, you can connect
with others who are weird in the same way you are. Not only can you
communicate with like-minded people, you can visit them and maybe
even live with or near others like yourself. It is now possible to
create tribes by choice rather than tribes by birth. This is what’s
takes many forms but they all provides a way that people can feel
like they belong yet can express their individuality. It is my
contention that there is no one who is so strange that there aren’t
at least a hundred people out there somewhere who are strange in the
same way. Everyone can be a part of a tribe. There is a good and bad
side to tribal thinking. The continuing fragmentation of western
culture scares some people into joining hate groups like the Ku Klux
Klan or neo-Nazi organizations. They want to reverse the evolution
of culture and go back to the times when geography and ethnicity
were the defining factors for their culture.
the diversity and see the fragmentation of western culture as an
opportunity to create a new culture – one that more meets their
interests and needs. They are creating Urban Tribes, Taste Tribes,
and more. Here are some examples:
The people who
regularly attend the Burning Man Festival are becoming a tribe -a
very large tribe. The growing Burning Man tribe is large enough that
“clans” or sub-tribes exist within it based around particular “theme
camps”. The culture being created by Burning Man participants is
spreading over the western world. There are regional events in many
U.S. states as well as several countries.
modern tribe is the Rainbow Tribe. They also call themselves the
Rainbow Family. Since 1970, they have been gathering in wild places
all over America to celebrate the summer solstice.
On a different
tack, there are the RV people who gather every winter in places like
Slab City and Quartzsite, AZ. These are mostly retired people who
travel the country in motor homes and converted buses. They form a
loose-knit modern nomadic tribe. Harley-Davidson owners are another
semi-nomadic tribal group, their activities based around riding
their motorcycles to different destinations together.
are a smaller scale development. In large cities, small groups of
people with similar interests get together regularly or even live
together. Ethan Watters has written a book about this phenomenon
called “Urban Tribes.”
Here's a quote from his web
“Rather than settle down into
traditional families, he and his friends have formed an Urban Tribe
-- an intricate community of young people who live and work together
in various combinations, form regular rituals, and provide the
support of an extended family. Across the country, these tight-knit
groups of friends are what fill the increasingly wide stretch
between college and married life. While social commentators and
parents wring their hands about the plight of "never-marrieds," the
real story is that these young adults are spending those years
living happily in groups of their own making. In the process,
they're changing the landscape of modern cities, as well as their
own prospects for the future.”
Some of these
loose groups of people constitute what are called “taste tribes.” Say you walk
into a store wearing your Megadeth t-shirt and see someone else
with a similar shirt. You automatically have something in common.
This may seem really superficial, but often something trivial like a
mutual interest in heavy metal may mean that you have other
interests in common since there is a kind of metal-head subculture.
If you meet enough people like this, you could have a tribe.
There is a
diverse and sometimes confusing variety of themes that new tribes
embrace. Here’s a few, just for example: New Age hippies, skaters, urban bikers, hackers, street gangs, goths,
punks, skinheads, etc.
tribalism is an attempt to take the best aspects of traditional
tribal culture and the best aspects of modern western culture, and
combining them into a support group
for individuality. In a consciously chosen or created tribe you can
be fully your unique self and, at the same time, have the
psychological safety and support that comes from belonging to a
like-minded group of people.
of modern tribes may be the Phoenix that will rise from the ashes of
a possibly disintegrating culture. It’s an exciting time to be
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