Tribes – Collaborative Essay

“A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.” – Seth Godin

Evolutionary biology (Dunbar, 2009) indicates that our need to connect, co-operate and display empathy has been part of tribal pattern formation and Homo sapiens success. This paper questions the role of tribes as part of our evolutionary narrative as we move into a digitally connected society; a society where humans have never been so connected and able to communicate amongst those with shared interests (Howell, 2012). Access to an abundance of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) platforms give rise to the formation of countless mini tribes, “We belong to many little tribes and not one tribe” (Cova et al., 2007), with 50% of modern youth interacting and creating within social media networks (Reingold, 2008, pg97).

The ethical responsibility of tribal leaders is discussed in light of Godin’s call for anyone to be a leader (Godin, 2009), with evidence suggesting that leaders “play an important role in developing and sustaining ethical cultures and ethical conduct.” (Grojean et al., 2004 cited (Avey et al, 2010). Identity and the question of how we identify is also taken into consideration. Information and Communication Technology platforms shoulder the weight of our modern self-actualisation, highlighting a struggle of personal identity. Evidence suggests that this moving sense of identity is further distancing the individual from their actions, and creating a less self-aware group of tribal members who perceive their morality as external to them (Smiley, 2005).

Following this, the paper investigates whether modern tribal culture is disconnecting humans from each other. It is suggested that the disillusionment with physical tribes is seeing a retreat into virtual ones, (Bennett, 2008, pg2) where empathy is attempted through emoticons and likes. The issue of consumer ‘tribes’ and the unethical hijacking of the idea of tribes by the business world is addressed with evidence suggesting that branding has morphed into the idea of ‘brand communities’ as a subset of ‘consumer tribes’ (Cova et al., 2007).


Anthropologists have classified the traditional tribe (Becher and Trowler, 2001)

as a people with shared aspects; genealogy, environment, culture, values and inclusiveness. (Godin, 2009) states that humans have been tribal for millions of years. Historically humans have formed tribal living patterns and bonds regardless of culture and beliefs, indeed, evolutionary biology (Dunbar, 2009) indicates that our need to connect, co-operate and display empathy has been part of tribal pattern formation and Homo sapiens success. Shared interests were communicated in a sense of duty, rituals, shared consciousness of kind and traditions, and a sense of both community and individual obligation.

Formica, (2008) highlights that unlike other species, humans have evolved to have a self-awareness of their shared ability and their mental representation of tasks, common goals and intentions. This allows a shared cooperation and empathy within a group; the foundation of our ancestral tribe.  Awareness of shared mental representation allowed the raising of children, hunting and gathering, empathy within the tribe and collectively attacking outsiders if threatened. This same shared interest also drove tribal war for the most basic resources; goods, territory and women (Zyga, 2008). These tribes had a social structure and an internal hierarchy, whether illusory or practical. Moreover, tribes did not need their connection to be purely biological, but could be linked by communication through survival, rituals and geography. It made evolutionary sense to avoid sharing your limited food supplies with outsiders and to instead apply bias or prejudice. As wider and more diverse tribes developed, it became apparent that alignment to a tribe was linked to ethical and moral perspectives. Humans still operate in large co-operative tribes locally, nationally or in E-tribes. Survival, ritual, geography, ethics and morality still impact tribal make-up.

There are many types of tribal connections in contemporary culture; #hashtags, facebook, clubs, personal issues, activism, sport etc. Some social scientist (Kabiri, 2016) questions the quality of  tribal connections in modern society; however (Howell, 2012) states that bonds, connections and empathy are notable today, that humans have never been so connected and able to communicate amongst those with shared interests. Individuals can now easily locate and connect with others with a shared interest through digital communication. According to (Kozinets, 2001), E-tribes or virtual communities of consumption can be characterised by the three core aspects of traditional community – shared consciousness of kind, rituals and traditions, and a sense of duty or obligation to the community as a whole and individuals within it (Kozinets, 2001).

The importance of hierarchy in tribal culture must necessarily be reflected in the need for the quality and morality of a leader. Tribes connected by a core group of giant banks and corporations, or elite tribes such as the Bildenberg Group dominate the entire global economic system but do not operate within a framework of traditional tribal morality. This sense of moral neutrality is becoming an issue for ethical leadership within the digital age. (Godin, 2009) urges anyone with a spare twenty four hours to become a leader, to start a movement as long as it meets people’s desire for connection. Lessig’s (Lessig, 2014) assertion of the internet being a neutral platform, which implies ethical emptiness, brings Godin’s call for leaders into question.

The internet does not hold a sense of responsibility towards the vulnerable, which is where Godin fails, as he does not advocate right and ethical use of this neutral space in his invitation for ‘anyone’ to become a leader, “connect a tribe of people who are desperately wanting to be connected….you don’t need permission from people to lead them, they are waiting” (Godin, 2009).

Although the area of ethical leadership is fragmented in scholarly research (Avey et al, 2010) the question of what actually constitutes ethical leadership is still widely debated. The research area has been growing steadily in the past decade, with this increase in growth believed to be due to the result of the scandals involving corporate and public sector leaders (Mahsud et al, 2011). Jim Jones and Charles Manson both created and led groups of like-minded individuals. Considering the distressing results of these cases, the importance of advocating “ethical” leadership becomes more apparent. It is understood in scholarly research that leaders “play an important role in developing and sustaining ethical cultures and ethical conduct” (Grojean et al., 2004 cited Avey 2010.) This is important because “leadership which lacks ethical conduct can be dangerous, destructive and even toxic.”  (Shamas-ur-Rehman Toor George Ofori, 2009).  The leadership of Jim Jones and Charles Manson, leading to the mass suicide of 918 people during the Jonestown massacre, and the murders of nine people by the Manson family, are extreme but clear examples of ‘dangerous’ leadership lacking ethical guidance.

The importance of ethics for leaders to ensure effective governance has been emphasized by religious leaders, philosophers, and thinkers from ancient times (Shamas-ur-Rehman Toor George Ofori, 2009).  As we move into a digitally connected society where the role of leadership becomes even more accessible to ‘anybody’, the call for ethical leadership becomes even more important.

Moral framework in the digital era and its fulcrum, ethical leadership, are having devastating effects on our national and international interactions and policies. In the 2008 paper, ‘Bad News For Refugees’, it is argued that common misconceptions perpetuated by the media around refugees and migrant workers create a sense of “moral panic” (Majavu, 2014), and that “media coverage of such issues in the United Kingdom corresponds to public fears and anxieties which are themselves featured in and also generated by the popular press and other media” (Majavu, 2014). This media constructed creation and subsequent manipulation of a group of individuals connected by nationalist ideals may be driven by perpetuation of suspicious attitudes towards outsiders. A suspicion of outsiders alongside a yearning for community can be the connecting factor and the impetus for the formation of groups which engender specific, often far-right ideologies (Blee, 2007).

The combination of lack of community combined with false media constructs, could in turn be creating a feeling of “us” versus “them”, which serves only to further divide people on the “tribal” basis of race and religion, and could be pushing people towards more extreme political affiliations in the search for a tribe. Could this internal conflict be a contributing factor to the extremism our democracies are witnessing, as individuals scream for clarity in the sea of transnational identity? Is the ‘Brexit-Trump’ protest the climax of internal conflict that seeks its tribal elders?

The assertion that, “defining oneself as a member of a social category is the precondition for group behaviour”, (Reicher, 1996) suggests that the self-identification with a “tribe” could itself be the stimulus for collective action. A group is considered capable of collective action, (Smiley, 2005) which then reduces individual awareness of personal responsibility for the actions of the group as a whole. This represents a shift in identity, (Reicher, 1996) which presents a negative perception of tribal culture, in the sense that “it associates both causal responsibility and blameworthiness with groups and locates the source of moral responsibility in the collective actions taken by these groups understood as collectives.” (Smiley, 2005). This raises the question, ‘how do we identify?’ What creates tribal identification and how can we self actualise within globalization as it redefines our traditional tribes?

Tribes centre around the collective identity of groups filled with individuals. Identity in the naturalist sense of the word gravitates towards ‘common origin’, shared characteristics and a unifying goal, ideal or purpose (Hall,1996, pg1-13). The process of identity actualisation is more fluid than definition infers. It requires an evaluation of history or tradition and the origins of this desire. If a solidarity of shared traditions and cultures creates our identity, then that implies we invent our history and it can be reinterpreted at any given point. It becomes a ‘process’ that evaluates ‘who we are’ and ‘where we have come from’ but poses the equally valid question, what are we becoming and what traditions will we collectively create? (Hall, 1996, pg1-13). This is interesting in terms of corporations and governments, a corporation could be considered a tribe, it is a group of connected people with a leader (Godin, 2009). In terms of responsibility for actions taken by that tribe, it almost appears that the larger the tribe, the less individual responsibility can be placed on individuals within it (Smiley, 2005).

Introduce ICT platforms and this concept of external influences becomes a global, postcolonial, tribe of forced cultural migration that fuses traditions and values. With 50% of modern youth interacting and creating within social media networks (Reingold, 2008, pg 97), it is a reasonable assumption that the extent of external influence on internal identification has evolved exponentially from the campfires of our ancestors. Facebook ‘selfism’ and Instagram life-pictorials shoulder the weight of our modern self-actualisation and highlight the struggle of personal identity. Collective identity has seen that a “shift from individual to group behaviour involves a shift from personal to social identity” (Reicher, 1996). This moving sense of identity is suggesting that the created connection is more important than the action or outcome itself, further distancing the individual from their actions and creating a less self-aware group of tribal members who perceive their morality as external to them; as if membership of the group negates immoral behaviour. Is modern tribal culture in fact disconnecting humans from each other? Are extremes birthing from the parents of an incoherent tribe and technologies that move faster than any stage of human evolution has encountered previously?

ICT platforms provide a vehicle for this collective identification and lend themselves to the propagation of social protest. Though its ‘influence’ on participation in social or political movements is contested, the reality that it reduces costs of participation, creates community and, in turn, a sense of communal identity is a reasonable assumption (Garrett, 2006, pg5). A facet of participation in modern protest is the nature of collaborative shared research. Knowledge comprehension, once the proviso of the scholar is now disseminated through blogs and tweets. The dilution of academic integrity may alarm traditionalists, but its mobilising effect on society is clear.

As global internet access has reached >40% (>3,500,000), a massive increase from the 1% who had access in 1995, (“Number of Internet Users (2016) – Internet Live Stats,” n.d.) it has created an unprecedented amount of people who can, at the touch of a button, find a like-minded group of others who share their interest and passion for almost anything that can be named (Google Now indexes some 620 million groups on Facebook). Obviously, most of these do not belong to the previously defined version of a tribe as a ‘group of people who share the same language, culture and history’ but the more contemporary one of digital tribes (Facebook allows users to belong to up to 6000 individual groups). This is just one social media platform among many, and one method of connection. “We belong to many little tribes and not one tribe” (Cova et al., 2007).

This shared connection can organically beget a movement (Burning Man), or deliberate activism (NoDAPL), that did have founders with a goal, and spread through word-of-mouth and social media to become ‘successful’. The younger generation, born into a world of Facebook and Twitter, have access to global political tribes and the idea that we as a global species share the notion of ‘commons’ as a collective responsibility (Barlow,2001, pg3) has become the preferred politics of today’s youth. This aversion to the democratic process and the image of modern politicians sees them engaging through SNS platforms in forms of civic responsibility or NGO work rather than the ‘dirty business’ of democratic politics.

The other side of this aversion to politics is the creation of online tribes of gaming, social media sites and online entertainment. The disillusionment with their physical tribes is seeing a retreat into virtual ones, (Bennett, 2008, pg2) where empathy is attempted through emoticons and likes. The need for a tribe to relate to is primal, but could the political apathy of our youth be a sign that the tribe of its elders has little to offer its technological progeny? If the next generation reject the culture and traditions that create the tribe, then identity’s path becomes unclear in the fog of uncertain evolution. The globalisation and communities of humanities web could see the decline of classical tribes. Like the introduction of mass production print, we are only glimpsing the impact of technology on our species.

This notion of tribes has been seized on by the business world, where branding has morphed into the idea of ‘brand communities’ as a subset of ‘consumer tribes’ (Cova et al., 2007). Godin, himself an entrepreneur and successful author actively champions companies fostering brand communities through non-traditional marketing campaigns and strong leadership. There is cynicism around these ‘astro-turf’ campaigns as they seem to hijack the feeling of belonging in the name of consumerism.

It can be hard to separate the idea of tribes and consumerism. Every time you make a choice of a product, a service or an experience, you demonstrate your affiliation to one group over another. Business leaders like Bill Gates or Elon Musk, are seen as part-visionary and part-entrepreneurial. Those who buy Apple or Tesla products have huge brand loyalty (90% and 85% respectively), (“Apple has brand loyalty that most companies can only dream of,” 2015, “Are Tesla Motors Inc Model S Owners The Most Loyal Bunch?,” n.d). Sites such as Kiva, Etsy and Airbnb have been founded by activists, makers and artists to bypass large corporations and sell directly to the consumer; all have legions of devotees.

Companies who combine activism and consumerism such as TOMS Shoes (‘one for one’ concept) have come under fire for exploiting poverty as a marketing tool, being unclear about their production standards and also for the huge profit they make, while tapping into people’s idea of community and sharing (“Toms Shoes,” 2016). Philosopher Slavoj Žižek cited Toms Shoes (and also Starbucks) as ‘an almost absurd example’ of postmodern ‘cultural capitalism’ which places the burden of ethical obligations on the consumer who feels like he must ‘buy redemption’ from the act of consumerism, thus delaying necessary systemic changes (The RSA, n.d.). By buying into the need to feel like we are doing something positive, and feeling loyalty to companies that espouse that belief (but which are unmistakably for-profit), we might be neglecting the opportunity to truly adopt the ideal of creating a new paradigm with like-minded people.


In conclusion, similar to the nature of evolution our understanding of the label “tribe” is evolving in the current digital era. Our collective consciousness is bombarded by media and tailored advertising that is aware of our preferences and desires. Targeted consumerism understands the human need for connection and is shaping our consciousness as we self-actualise identities in an era of unprecedented technological advances. In this age of emoticon empathy, could our primal evolutionary needs be under threat? Or are we seeing a natural process that currently defies conclusion? We seek leaders in the sea of digital opinions, subcultures and shared knowledge, and their ethics or lack thereof are magnified through the twitter lens. The consequences are showing a trend towards extremism in a bid perhaps for internal identity control. For if there are no boundaries or rules, in the wild west of the world-wide web, those whose voice is loudest will be heard, and our traditional need for hierarchal leadership could see us fall prey to the populism we are being fed. Regardless of the outcome, tribal needs, the epigenetic driving forces within us, still crave the process of identity that we need to understand ourselves and our worlds. This perceptive lens is very much filtered and coloured by the technological platforms that live in the smart-phone pockets of our daily lives.




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