Author Topic: What is Tribe? What is Identity?  (Read 3684 times)

Matt Koeske

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What is Tribe? What is Identity?
« on: June 29, 2011, 12:40:03 PM »
I am not trying to suggest a definition of the term tribe that is superior to others or to which others should conform.  I am also not using the term tribe in an anthropological or sociological sense, but as a psychological term.  Although I would have to qualify my not conventionally Jungian definition of archetype, in a general Jungian sense, tribe (as I use it) would be like the "archetype of human sociality".  In other words, the sociality "instinct" of our species is "tribal".  We have a predisposition to relate to one another and to form groups according to specific trends and patterns, the majority of which are not consciously determined, but effectively "self-organized".

Along with evolutionary psychologists, I feel our species is inherently tribal, that the patterns of our sociality have evolved to be what they are now.  Which is to say that tribal sociality must have been adaptive in its own environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA).  The modern environment of human sociality is arguably less suited to our sociality instinct, and although the "mismatch" between the instinct and the current environment it operates in can be problematic and anxiety-producing, it may well be the case that, overall, tribalism is still adaptive.

I suspect this is the case because tribe was never really about social organization and cooperation alone.  What makes a group of individuals a tribe (as I define the term) is not its method of social organization or the size or technological sophistication of its population.  Tribe is an expression of identity most of all, and identity continues to be as essential as ever to human sociality and survivability.  And as much as social environments have changed since the agricultural revolution, the institution of identity has faced far less evolutionary pressure.  My hypothesis is that so-called cultural evolution has always been relatively fixed by and kept in the service of the institution of identity.

In other words, the operative trait on which human sociality is exercised is a psychological one.  So long as identity is maintained with relative stability, humans can adapt to a vast array of social and cultural conditions.  But where identity is destabilized, human individuals and human groups face the very real risk of extinction.

Tribe is the engine, or even the entire mechanism, of identity construction and maintenance.  I find tribe to be the most functional term because it connotes pre-modernity and the focus on identity better than any other.  But there are various general factors we can take from anthropology that help express the characteristics of tribalism.  A true tribe (as social rather than psychological construct) is a survivable unit.  Its organization is by no means haphazard.  In fact, its organization is all-important.  The laws, codes, rituals and rites, myths, beliefs, totems, taboos, and habits of a tribe serve to adapt the survivable unit to a specific environment and will ideally drive its success.  The stuff of identity construction and maintenance is the vehicle of evolutionary fitness of a group.  And the fitness of the group is what functions to spread the genes of the individuals of that group.  Evolutionarily speaking, this dissemination of genes is what really matters.

So, the individual members of the tribe have to be able to create and participate in successful groups in order to be successful homo sapiens.  How group vs. individual selection works has always been a matter of great debate.  I don't expect to resolve this debate, but I do think that it is subject to restrictive oversimplification much of the time.  If we can understand the psychological relationship between identity construction and sociality, I believe we can take an important step forward in understanding the relationship between individual and group selection.  Individual and tribal identities co-construct one another, feeding back into one another.  From a more depth psychological perspective, the tribe can be seen as an externalization or container for a projection of the individual psyche.  That is, each individual is a tribe unto him or herself.

The principle of organization for the psyche is the Self system, and it is mediated, facilitated, or impeded by identity (as ego).  This is one way of saying that the role of identity in an individual personality is relational.  It relates to various aspects of the personality that are experienced as "other".  And it may also form a relationship with the autonomous organizing principle of the psyche.  Where identity stands against or in the way of this organizing principle, the personality suffers anxiety and some degree of dysfunction or maladaptive behavior.  Therefore, a relationship to the Self that accords with or facilitates its organization principle is likely to lead to more functional and adaptive behavior.

Psychologically speaking, the Self system is conventionally perceived and interacted with via its container or imprint: tribe.  And we are indoctrinated into tribe from the beginning of our lives through the construction of identity.  The maintenance of a functional identity keeps individuals in touch with the tribe and keeps identity in touch with the Self principle.  In a functional tribe, so long as identity is successfully maintained, the tribe will function successfully and is likely to survive and perhaps even flourish.

But the maintenance of identity within a tribe is very complex.  One of the primary tools of identity maintenance can be expressed with a term Jung liked to use and adopted from Lucien Levy-Bruhl: participation mystique.  Jung clung to this term even when Levy-Bruhl did not . . . and I think Jung was right to do so.  But Jung's construction of participation mystique (like many of Jung's theoretical constructions) is marred somewhat by a social prejudice Jung upheld regarding the "unconsciousness" and "childlikeness" of "primitives".  Although Jung also had strong neoprimitivist tendencies and a great deal of respect for tribal peoples and cultures, this prejudice is no longer tenable, and should be filtered out of any current use of the term.  Participation mystique has nothing to do with "primitivism" and cultural evolution.  It is, in fact, a function of identity maintenance that operates and is predisposed instinctively in all humans and in all human forms of society.  What it indicates is that human participation is governed by many autonomous or unconscious laws and trends and is not consciously determined.  This is not to say that consciousness of the nature of participation is impossible, only that the cognitive process tends to resist (often powerfully) much consciousness of this nature.

Essentially, most of the time, "consciousness" is bad for healthy (survivable) participation.  Therefore it is common (and probably even universal) for tribes to uphold very strong taboos protecting the unconsciousness and autonomy of participation.  To ask "Who am I outside of my affiliation/s with my tribe/s?" is to potentially threaten to destabilize identity, which balks at equivocation.  In modern society, of course, this kind of question has become central to our identity constructions.  It can still be a dangerous question to ask, but typically, the answers we respond with are entirely toothless.  On one hand, the answers we give today are the same old traditional answers always given (albeit often ritualistically and unconsciously).  For instance, "I am" what I believe in, what I value, who I am related to, who I love, who I learned from, who I associate with, who I respect, who I worship, where I am from, where I am, what I know, what I have experienced, what I remember, what I do, what my role in society is, etc.  We can answer all of these questions honestly, providing many details, and yet never threaten to destabilize our identity and our affiliations with tribes.

And this is because, again, tribe is a psychological thing.  It is contained within identity, and identity exists in the medium of psyche.  That we commonly no longer affiliate with only one tribe, but with many (our affiliations are divided up among our various tribes) is, at least superficially, moot.  In the construction of identity, these affiliations are collected and "filed" just as they would have been if they had all come from one identity source or tribe.  They add up to one individual identity . . . albeit a more diverse and fragmented one.

But not everything is the same.  The major difference between premodern and modern identity is that for modern identity there is not one organizing principle or Self that embodies the organization of identity and can be "seen" objectively and empirically like a physical tribe or some other totem or vessel containing/catching a projection.  The idea of the Self (or the innumerable ideas of Self) in modern psychology is no longer associated with a thing in nature or in the material world.  It is an idea only, and often enough, a wholly unconscious one.  Not uncommonly, identity (or ego) itself is considered to be the organizing principle of the psyche.  "I am who I am" . . . or "What I know of myself is what I am".  Self is then a purely subjective thing . . . and it may not even include relationality or sociality.  It may be a set of laws or scripts or beliefs that supposedly doesn't pertain to anyone else.  We moderns pride ourselves on our uniqueness.  And it's true that each of us is genetically and experientially unique.  But rarely do we exercise our uniqueness in unique ways.  We busy ourselves doing the same old things humans have always done, relating, socializing, and thinking in the same old ways.

In other words, the cry of modern individualism barbarically yawping its song of self over the rooftops of civilization amounts to a lot of smoke and fury, signifying nothing (if I can be forgiven for mixing my Whitman with my Shakespeare).  More pointedly, the concept of modern individualism is itself an arbitrary identity construction, a script that says more about our environment, our time and place, than it does about any "true self" unique to one individual or another.  Modern individualism is a core myth of modern culture . . . and not necessarily a bad one.  Like any lasting identity construction, it facilitates survival and keeps identity from destabilizing.  But, psychologically or analytically speaking, it is entirely artificial.
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