I recently read the book “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger. Here’s the blurb:
We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding – “tribes.” This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.
Readers will probably be familiar with the overarching narrative – modern society is too atomized, individuals don’t have a shared sense of meaning or reciprocal bonds of dependency. Junger’s main contribution is to look at some societies that seem to provide more of these tribal bonds, especially with regards to their war veterans.
Junger opens the book with an interesting claim: in the colonial era, European settlers often ran away to join Native American tribes, but the reverse almost never happened. This happened often enough that people like Ben Franklin wrote worried letters about it. Why?
Junger claims that Native American society was more attractive because it has a more egalitarian setup. The higher-status members of the tribe only consumed slightly more resources than lower-status members. Most primates have much more egalitarian societies than we do, which suggests we are not evolved to thrive with modern levels of inequality. There was less top-down authority and more self-determination. Coming-of-age initiation rites were common for all males and provided a shared sense of meaning.
Some other interesting, not-super-relevant nuggets: infant care was a shared responsibility in Native American tribal society. There was almost always an adult at hand to pick up and soothe a crying baby. War leaders were chosen separately than peacetime leaders, and it was the peacetime leaders that had the responsibility of negotiating terms of victory or surrender.
So Native American tribes provided more of a sense of belonging. What about modern society? Can we ever replicate that sense of tribal community?
Good news: yes, we can. Bad news: we only seem to be capable of doing that in response to a crisis.
Junger describes a few examples including London during the Blitz and Bosnia during the Bosnian War. During the Blitz, Britain had prepared for a big surge in people seeking psychological help and for unrest in the bomb shelters. But they found the opposite – suicides and reported psychiatric disorders actually decreased! People cooperated in maintaining order in the shelters and stepped forward to share their resources. Inequality tends to decrease during times of crisis, and the crisis creates a shared “us vs. them” narrative for the community.
Similar effects were reported in German civilians during the Allied firebombing campaign, and during civil wars in Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. The cities with the highest morale were the ones that experienced the most of the fighting; the untouched ones seemed to suffer from a sense of helplessness.
In fact, this effect is so strong that people report missing the crisis after it’s over. “It was better when it was really bad,” reads one piece of graffiti in Bosnia.
A third part of the book talks about the effects of PTSD, differentiating an acute trauma response from a chronic response. Junger claims that some rate of acute trauma response is expected and constant across societies, but our atomized, less tribal modern societies show much higher long-term PTSD rates when compared to others. I was less personally interested in this portion, so I won’t go further into it.
Actually, quite a lot of the book was focused on the experience of being a soldier in a war, both the positives and the negatives. I only noticed afterwards that the word “Tribe” on the cover has a camouflage background. Someone with more military connection might get more out of it.
Overall I was a bit disappointed with this book. I’ve been floundering about for awhile trying to figure out what exactly it is that I want from a community and how to build it, and by first appearances I had been hoping that this book would provide more of that.
The book implies two paths for proactively building a tighter-knit community, although it doesn’t explore either of them. These are egalitarianism and shared crisis. All of the crises brought up in the book are wars or large-scale natural disasters; only a true psychopath would consider triggering something like that to build a sense of tribal community, and anyways, the community in that case only seems to last slightly longer than the crisis.
Egalitarianism as an ideal may be more achievable, although Junger doesn’t talk much about modern attempts to replicate it. It’s important to note that here he means equality not just of resources but also of power. What separates the colonists from the Native Americans was not so much the distribution of wealth but rather the structure of society. One white woman who joined a native tribe is quoted as saying “Here, I have no master, I am the equal of all the women in the tribe. I do what I please without anyone’s saying anything about it.”
There’s an interesting tension here between this and the idea that armies in war also form tribal bonds. Isn’t an army about the most hierarchical structure you could imagine? Unfortunately this isn’t explored at all in the book.
Another tension that occurs to me now: one problem that communitarian societies face is the existence of freeloaders. It becomes important to police the boundaries of your community, since you don’t want outside freeloaders to approach in times of need and then walk out. But a structure to enforce this kind of boundary seems like it could become hierarchical in itself.
Anyways, Tribe was an interesting read, just not what I had hoped for. I suspect it also suffers from the standard pop-sociology flaw of cherry-picked data, but I don’t know the field well enough to point to the omissions. It is very short though, at just 192 pages, and I read it in just two sittings. I’m very interested in books in this vein, so I’m happy to have read this one, and eagerly look forward to any related recommendations any of you might have.