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The concept of tribalism, like that of the tribe, is difficult to define precisely, as it is closely interwoven with the context in which it is used. Tribalism may be defined as the maintenance by a tribal society of its organization, ways, and autonomy in the face of change. But tribalism may be defined differently when a tribe’s claim of identity has less to do with its primitivism or indigeneity than with its ethnic discreteness and cultural distinctiveness for gaining material or political advantages. In fact, tribalism does not exist in any objective sense—hence the problem in defining the concept.
Early ethnographic writings offer examples of “we-feeling” among the members of a particular tribe that set it apart from neighboring tribes. Ethnographers called this tribalism and linked it to the notion of ethnocentrism, but particularly associated with tribal people. For example, when the Zulu people of South Africa name themselves as isizwe, meaning a nation or a people different from other tribes, or the Birhor of India distinguish themselves as hor or people from diku, an explicit reference to tribalism is made. Therefore, tribalism is the manifestation of a collective group identity based on common natural impulses such as fear, desire, necessity, or ethnic distinctiveness.
Vine Deloria Jr. proposes in his 2003 book that, from the Native American perspective, tribalism has four dimensions: spatial, social, spiritual, and experiential. The spatial dimension connects the tribes with their land, which is for them a precious possession. The social dimension refers to the social cohesion that binds the members of the tribe together. The spiritual dimension refers to the idea of the people as a religious conception. The experiential dimension is the sharing of history, culture, rituals, and traditions. For Deloria tribalism has to be practiced; it is more than a philosophy, it is a way of life.
Since the late twentieth century, tribalism in the Middle East, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia has generated some dangerous and divisive tendencies. Tribalism is positive when the complete allegiance of a collectivity is geared toward the collective good—nation building, preserving the group identity as a single cohesive unit that fosters ethnic solidarity, seeking new dimensions of development. Contrarily, tribalism is negative when it generates ethnic hatred and war. The intertribal warfare and ethnic divide in Africa is tribalism’s worst manifestation. Another example of negative tribalism is the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s into smaller competing states. Whereas positive tribalism needs to be fostered for the sake of collective tribal identity, negative tribalism that threatens to give rise to terrorism and political turbulence must be thwarted. The genocide of nearly one half million Tutsis by the Hutu extremists in 1994 in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s are painful commentaries on negative tribalism.
Given both its positive and negative manifestations, tribalism is closely related to ethnic solidarity and ethno-centrism. But it is one step ahead of racism, as the conflicts of the early twenty-first century in Somalia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Indonesia are between ethnic groups or tribes rather than between the races.
In his 2006 article, Howard Campbell discusses two major approaches to tribalism that suggest revisions to anthropological notions of tribes and indigeneity from a Native American perspective. According to one approach, “ethnic identity is never essential and … identity change is quite common” in tribal cultures; the second approach asserts that native tribes persist “by production of symbolic representations” rather than through the “performance of aboriginal traditions in everyday life” (Campbell 2006, p. 296). In view of the rising trend of neotribalism in India, with similarities to the Native American experience, “protective discrimination” has consolidated hitherto dispersed tribal groups into organized pressure groups to fight for their legitimate constitutional rights. In 2005 the Indian state of Sikkim recognized the Lepcha community as the “Most Primitive Tribe”—a distinction that signals the tribe’s relatively high standard of living and confers status and privileges. Sometimes it becomes necessary for a tribe to reinvent itself, as in the case of the Ngati Kuri of New Zealand, whose name did not appear in the list of the country’s recognized tribes. Tribalism, therefore, is a fluid concept with both positive and negative connotations that must be understood with reference to specific contexts.
- Adhikary, Asim. 1991. The Tribal Worldview: Changing Perspective. In Tribal Thought and Culture, ed. Baidyanath Saraswati, pp. 105–120. New Delhi: Concept Publishing House.
- Campbell, Howard. 2006. Tribal Synthesis: Piros, Mansos and Tiwas through History. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12 (2): 293–311.
- Deloria, Vine, Jr.  2003. God Is Red: A Native View of Religion. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.
- Lewis, I. M. 1968. Tribal Society. In International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, vol.16, ed. David L. Sills, pp. 146–151.New York: The Macmillan Company.
- Mafeje, Archie. 1971. The Ideology of “Tribalism.” Journal of Modern African Studies 9 (2): 253–261.
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