What is a tribe?
A tribe is a group of people that care for each other and look out for each other no matter what. They are bonded by a strong sense of shared values, meaning, and purpose in life. In most cases, they are even willing to fight and die for each other.
In the new book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, journalist Sebastian Junger shares his experiences and research on what it means to be a part of a tribe. The book shows how we’ve lost our tribal mentality and this is greatly hurting our ability to find happiness and meaning as a people.
The book opens by describing how before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin noticed a strange phenomenon between English settlers and American Indians. There were many cases where English settlers would voluntarily join the tribes of American Indians, but very few where the reverse would happen. Even when settlers were kidnapped by American Indians, they would sometimes refuse to be returned to their settlements when given the opportunity to escape.
Why did many choose to stay with the American Indians, despite their lack of technology and modern day civilization? Franklin theorized that it had to do with their tribal mentality and their strong sense of belonging built into their way of life. He knew that if American society was going to persist, it needed to somehow adopt a similar tribal mentality and sense of unity.
While Sebastian Junger makes it clear that we shouldn’t romanticize the American Indians’ way of life (and they were certainly far from perfect), this difference touches on a fundamental human need that has very much been lost in modern day civilization.
What social changes led to the loss of tribal mentality?
The book covers the main sociological findings behind the lost of our tribal mentality and how modern civilization has arose.
Throughout most of our evolutionary history, humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies where people were much more dependent on tight knit relationships and cooperation. However, the forces of agriculture and industrialization are a big part of what led us away from these close communities.
- “First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day – or an entire life – mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”
These two forces have brought a lot of good to the world. Agriculture has drastically increased the amount of food available to the world and decreased famine and starvation. Industrialization has also brought a lot of technological advancements like faster transportation, better communication, and countless other appliances that have made life easier and more comfortable.
At the same time, these luxuries have come with costs. Because people can live more independently than ever before, we no longer rely on close groups to sustain ourselves. This is a big reason the tribal mentality has decreased, especially in Western civilizations.
From a materialistic standpoint, many people are better off than ever before. But we have also become increasingly atomized and individualistic and have lost a bigger sense of group identity.
How a wealthier society can lead to isolation and loneliness
Interestingly, in poorer societies, people are much more dependent on each other to survive as a species – and this may be something that actually feeds into a stronger tribal mentality and feeling of group unity. Here Sebastian Junger elaborates more on the mechanisms of a poorer society and why they foster greater group cohesion and cooperation:
- “The mechanism seems simple: poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Inter-reliant property comes with its own stresses – and certainly isn’t the American ideal – but it’s much closer to our evolutionary heritage than affluence. A wealthy person who has never had to rely on help and resources from his community is leading a privileged life that falls way outside more than a million years of human experience. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society – but a trade it is.”
The wealthier a society, the easier it is for individuals to live independently. This can be an amazing blessing, especially if you don’t fit in with your current society’s norms and values. It allows for more individualism, diversity, and creativity.
At the same time, this wealth creates a trade-off between individualism and collectivism. A highly individualistic society can often lose its tribal mindset, and this leads wealthier societies to feel increasingly more isolated, alone, and disconnected from each other.
This is definitely a trade-off of modern day agriculture and industrialization that can’t be ignored, even if it’s ultimately worth it to maximize human life and sustainability among larger populations.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is a fascinating look into what creates and destroys our “tribal mentality.” Sebastian Junger shares his own experiences as a journalist in war zones such as Afghanistan as well as the psychology and sociology research into what binds people together and provides people with a commonsense of meaning and purpose. This book will definitely get you thinking about what it means to be in a “tribe” and how we’ve often lost this sense of group cohesion and unity in our modern day society.
Disasters and catastrophe bring people together
There’s an old cliché that nothing brings people together like a common enemy, and there turns out to be a lot of truth to this.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim was one of the first to notice that when European countries went to war, mental health issues like depression and suicide would often decline dramatically. War often gives people a common mission and purpose that is very conducive to a tribal mentality – a powerful feeling that one is needed by others (especially their family, their community, and their nation).
These findings have been corroborated by a lot of other research. For example, during World War II, psychologists discovered how those most affected by war experienced the strongest boost in civilian morale:
- “American analysts based in England monitored the effects of the bombing to see if any cracks began to appear in the German resolve, and to their surprise found exactly the opposite: the more the Allies bombed, the more defiant the German population became. Industrial production actually rose in Germany during the war. And the cities with the highest morale were the ones – like Dresden – that were bombed the hardest. According to German psychologists who compared notes with their American counterparts after the war, it was the untouched cities where civilian morale suffered the most.”
Interestingly, the regions that most experienced the effects of war seemed to exhibit the most social resilience and civilian morale. Reading this reminded me of how New York felt after the devastating attacks of 9/11 – I had never seen so much patriotism and pride in being an American before in my entire life.
The psychologist Charles Fritz was surprised by these findings and began studying other forms of disaster and catastrophe. He discovered that these bonding effects didn’t just happen during war, but any type of disaster – such as natural disasters or economic crises – also had a powerful bonding effect that created social resilience.
Disasters often break down social boundaries like income, race, religion, and socioeconomic status, and they force people to come together and depend on each other for survival – not too dissimilar from our evolutionary history as hunter-gatherer communities.
The book describes disasters as creating a “community of sufferers”:
- “Fritz’s theory was that modern society has gravely disrupted the social bands that have always characterized human experience, and that disasters thrust people back into a more ancient, organic way of relating. Disasters, he proposed, created a ‘community of sufferers’ that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others. As people come together to face an existential threat, Fritz found, class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group. It is a kind of fleeting social utopia that, Fritz felt, is enormously gratifying to the average person and downright therapeutic to people suffering from mental illness.”
Wars, disasters, and catastrophes of all types seem to have a power effect on creating group cooperation and a tribal mentality.
These disasters don’t always devolve into anarchy and chaos, instead they often bring people back to their evolutionary roots of banding together in tight-knit groups, having each others backs, and taking care of one another.
Does this mean we need war and disasters to come together as a people? I hope not, but these effects are tremendously interesting to think about.
Perhaps if we can identify other forms of a “common enemy” (like saving the planet from climate change or fighting global poverty), we can use this power of a “common enemy” to bring people together without needing to create our own conflict and strife.
The most important question: Who are you willing to die for?
When you’re part of a tribe, it means you’re willing to do anything for its members. It’s a deep-rooted sense of community and belonging that, in many cases, you are willing to die for if necessary.
According to Sebastian Junger, “Who are you willing to die for?” is one of the most important questions you can ever ask yourself, especially as it relates to a tribal mentality.
- “What would you risk dying for – and for whom – is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. It is a loss because having to face that question has, for tens of millennia, been one of the ways that we have defined ourselves as people.”
When you ask veterans of war what they were fighting for, they won’t usually tell you some abstract principle like “freedom,” or “democracy,” or “equality.” Instead, they fight for real people. They fight for their comrades. They fight for their families back home. They fight for their neighbors.
Tribes are unbreakable connections between real people.
One of the most interesting findings within the book is how many war veterans actually end up “missing the war” when they come back home. They miss the unbreakable ties they had with their comrades, and the sense of a shared meaning and purpose. They miss the “tribal mentality” that gave their lives a mission.
Worst of all, when they come back home they rarely feel that their sacrifices are appreciated. In fact, not having “social support” is one of the most powerful factors in the onset of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
- “Virtually all mammals seem to benefit from companionship; even lab rats recover more quickly from trauma if they are caged with other rats rather than alone. In humans, lack of social support has been found to be twice as reliable at predicting PTSD as the severity of the trauma itself. In other words, you could be mildly traumatized – on par with, say, an ordinary rear-base deployment to Afghanistan – and experience long-term PTSD simply because of a lack of social support back home.”
This doesn’t mean we need to blindly support every war our country goes into, but it does highlight the importance of social support and a tribal mentality.
While saying “I support the troops” is better than nothing, it’s often not enough to help reintegrate these veterans into our society and make them feel wanted. What we really need to do is give them a chance to tell their stories, make them feel heard, and let them know we truly appreciate their sacrifice.
We also need to give our veterans a new sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. The fundamental desire of every human being is to feel that they are needed and to feel that they are contributing to society. Many veterans lose this sense of meaning and purpose when they come back home and find themselves jobless and unnecessary.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is a very insightful look into what it means to be a part of a tribe. It’s a fundamental human desire to feel needed by your society and feel that you can contribute to a greater good. While the book doesn’t have all the answers on how to create a tribe and cultivate this “tribal mentality,” it does leave you with a lot of food for thought that will enlighten your view of human nature and what it takes to create shared meaning and purpose.
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