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Alternative Culture Articles

May 6, 2004

New Tribalism
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.

In American 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 impossible.

American 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.

The social 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 example.

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 happening.

New tribalism 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.

Others embrace 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.

Another large 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.

Urban tribes 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 site:

“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.

The new 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.

The development 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 alive!

 

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Thanks!

Royce Carlson