Chun: We’ve Never Left the Tribe

An anthropological look at tribalism helps explain campus social life.

by Steven Chun | 4/27/17 12:35am

We once used tribalism to describe the circumstances of ethnic conflict or to explain warring factions in failed states, but now the word is just as commonly thrown around in the political op-ed pages of the New York Times as it is in academic papers on foreign policy. It’s a useful term — a succinct way of explaining humans’ proclivity to group, categorize and create social identity. And it’s been remarkably apt at describing the worst parts of our political climate: hostility toward immigrants, anti-globalization, “America First” policies, bans on Muslim immigration and the increasingly visible white supremacy of the alt-right. All these issues clearly demarcate an in-group, such as whites or Americans, showing hostility to an out-group, such as Muslims.

The effect of tribalism on these matters is hard to understate. This fundamental human instinct renders common sense irrelevant — research showing the overwhelmingly positive economic impacts of immigration and globalization holds no sway over our DNA. But I don’t want to talk about policy so much as I do about human nature, and there are few better microcosms to look at the peculiar phenomena of tribalism than Dartmouth.

College is a never-ending series of categorization. We join clubs, rush Greek houses, organize into dorms and floors, get tapped for societies, form friend groups and even get sorted into housing communities. These become our tribes.

Tribalism itself isn’t fundamentally bad. Indeed, the social identities and communities we form provide us with the networks of support and guidance that we need as social creatures. Our ability to form complex, purposeful groups very well may be one of our species’ defining characteristics. It’s a potent substance we crave without fully recognizing the side effects.

In the 1970s, Henri Tajfel pioneered the idea of social identity theory, which uses a person’s social identity to explain how in-groups treat out-groups, especially in situations of perceived unequal social standing. His experiments showed that even in arbitrarily formed groups that would never meet again, tribes formed. These tribes would then allocate resources to maximize their gain relative to other groups, even sacrificing absolute gain for a better relative result. This is both the failing and triumph of tribalism; we feel better about ourselves when we can elevate our social group above others — even if it is at our own expense.

Exclusivity, a tenet of collegiate tribes, is a way of forming strong social identity. Yet inclusivity has become a rallying cry for campus reform. My fear is that those fighting hard for inclusivity don’t fully recognize the 200,000 years of evolution that they’re up against. Furthermore, strength of social identity and exclusivity may be very close to a zero-sum game. This is not to say that inclusivity is not a worthy goal. It is simply to say that we are not built for it.

We shouldn’t abolish tribalism, and we couldn’t if we tried. While its ramifications have left the European Union on thin ice and flown in the face of good sense, tribalism is a fundamental part of our identity. The best we can do is to be vigilant about the moments when our tribalistic instincts lead us down the wrong road. National pride is good for building unity and patriotism within a country, but not when that pride convinces us to shoot ourselves in our collective feet just to “win” against an out-group. We have to realize that, in all likelihood, conservatives and liberals aren’t the demonized straw men each side likes to imagine — Tajfel’s research led to the finding that people tend to greatly exaggerate differences between groups and similarities inside groups.

No amount of administrative action can outlaw tribalism. To quote Jeff Goldblum’s character in “Jurassic Park,” “Life, uh … finds a way.” We must therefore be cautious not to waste resources on fruitless assaults on human nature. For the current evolutionary horizon, we are stuck with the way we are. But I think we can all gain from an increased awareness of our tribes and how they affect our reasoning. They simultaneously provide us with community, safety, identity and validation while at times clouding our better judgement.

As we discover more about the human psyche, we gaze into a window to our own reasoning. Through this, we’ve found odd structures such as confirmation bias and tribalism. No other organism that we know of is privy to its own machinations. Maybe if dogs knew their anatomy better, they would realize the futility of chasing their tails. Probably not, they’re dogs. But let’s not chase our proverbial tails in pointless attempts at changing human nature. Rather, we should work creatively within the constraints we know exist to accomplish those goals of modernity and inclusion that natural selection failed to acknowledge. We can accept our natural inclinations without falling victim to them.