Re: tribes

thomas w kavanagh (tkavanag@INDIANA.EDU)
Fri, 16 Aug 1996 08:44:45 -0500

In a post yesterday, I commented that Fried "did not really address" the
Sahlins-Service use of 'tribe.' Well, I knew I was going to be wrong when
I wrote it. When I got home, I went back to an analysis I had done some
years before:

But although Fried's basic argument is important -- "tribe" is indeed,
used carelessly -- there are difficulties with specific aspects of it; I
wish to discuss four of them here.

Fried's initial argument recognized that from the time of Lewis Henry
Morgan and the founding of anthropology, the word "tribe" has been used to
refer to the units of primitive peoples. However, there has been no
detailed consensus about the actual meaning of the term.

In making that point, Fried used three modes of argument. The first
compared a variety of dictionary and anthropological definitions, listing
their attributes tribe as biological population, as linguistic unit, as
political unit, and so forth, piling definitional inconsistency upon
inconsistency. The second mode contrasted particular definitional
attributes with counterexamples of "tribes" that failed to exhibit those
criteria. The third mode simply pointed out the difficulties in drawing
boundaries around cultural or political units. From all this confusion,
Fried drew a seemingly inescapable conclusion: tribes, at least as
ill-defined by anthropology, did not exist.

However, that kind of definitional argument addressed only the formal
properties of the definition, not whether those properties were valid, nor
whether they were appropriately applied in particular cases. There can be
no doubt that the traditional conceptions of tribes as bounded social,
political, biological, or cultural units are problematic, but conflicting
definitions and inappropriate usage do not automatically indict the
terminology. At the very least, they emphasize the need for specificity;
as Robert Lowie noted, "It is necessary to be clear whether the term
'tribe' is to be understood politically or linguistically" (1982:7).

Fried's second point took issue with the Sahlins and Service dynamic
notion of tribe. But here his argument was not about consistency -- he found
their usage "precise, clear, and consistent" (1968:11) -- rather, Fried
argued that "tribe in this conception is one form of a series comprising a
cycle, rather like the cycle of family forms that have been described in
certain societies, and is not an aspect of any general evolutionary
process" (1968:12). But it seems to me that here Fried has confused the
specific evolutionary histories of individual tribes as defined by Sahlins
and Service with the concept of tribe as an emergent level of integration
in general cultural evolution. Indeed, a basic argument for the
distinction between specific and general evolution is that the specific
evolutionary trajectory of a particular group does not march in lockstep
with general evolutionary stages, that having attained a particular
evolutionary stage, be it tribe, chiefdom, or state as proposed by Sahlins
and Service, or egalitarian, rank, or stratified as proposed by Fried, a
specific society might not evolve further, but might reorganize downward
or even collapse, based on its own historical circumstances, while the
general evolution of culture continues.

Fried also raised the boundary issue against the Sahlins and Service
concept of tribe, noting that the "boundaries separating [Sahlins and
Service] tribes are no clearer than those separating bands." As an
example, he noted that several ethnographers of New Guinea described
tribes there as "unstable, . . . shifting alignments of clans, phratries,
and parts of phratries" (1968:13). There is an important point here, but
one that both Fried and the New Guinea ethnographers seem to have missed
[although Phillip Guddemi knows it]: as dynamic phenomena, the boundaries
of political organizations shift with changing political situations,
sometimes so far as to include formerly alien peoples, as well as to
exclude former friends.

Finally, against the traditional conception of tribes as the primordial
and basic units of society, Fried first agreed with Sahlins that although
"the tribal level may have emerged in a few exceptionally favorable
environments in the food-collecting, Paleolithic era . . . it was the
Neolithic Revolution that ushered in the dominance of the tribal form"
(Sahlins 1961:324). Fried then took that a step further, asserting that
*all* tribes however defined were secondary phenomena, the results of
interactions with more highly organized groups. Although not wanting to
"press the extreme view that all contemporary tribes are the result of
contemporary political and economic forces" (1968:16), he also argued that
"most tribes seem to be secondary phenomena in a very specific sense. They
may well be the product of processes stimulated by the appearance of
relatively highly organized societies amidst other societies which are
organized much more simply" (1968:15). Fried noted several situations out
of which tribes could "precipitate":

There may be direct intervention by an existing state ... beginning
to enlarge itself, probing into its physical surroundings. Some of
the people it encounters may be transformed into citizens, others
into slaves, all within the expanding system. Beyond, some of the
people may resist ... and find new organization as tribes:
*secondary tribes.* Indeed, some states with somewhat greater
sophistication may create tribes as a means of ordering the areas ...
outside immediate control. ... Secondary tribes can ... also arise
as a consequence of economic penetration. [1975:101-2]

Once again, although the basic point is important -- tribes are not
necessarily primordial -- it is overwhelmed in polemic; Fried merely
replaced the assertion that tribes were primordial with another, equally
broad, from the other end of time: tribes were the products of states. But
there is nothing in Fried's list of "precipitating situations" of which
only states are capable; certainly, encounters with states can induce
political organizations, but so can encounters between other types of
organizations. Indeed, it is hardly conceiveable that a social border
could be so absolute that a society on one side could be unaffected by the
society on the other, regardless of whether one or the other is state or
nonstate. Eric Wolf has said that explicitly: "All the human societies of
which we have record are 'secondary', indeed often tertiary, quaternary,
or centenary" (Wolf 1982:76).