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On Tribes

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009


John Robb has been thinking about tribes. So has David Ronfeldt. So has Seth Godin.


John Robb  writes:

If you are like most people in the ‘developed world,’ you don’t have any experience in a true tribal organization.  Tribal organizations were crushed in the last couple of Centuries due to pressures from the nation-state that saw them as competitors and the marketplace that saw them as impediments.  All we have now it is a moderately strong nuclear family (weakened via modern economics that forces familial diasporas), a weak extended family, a loose collection of friends (a social circle), a tenuous corporate affiliation, and a tangential relationship with a remote nation-state.  That, for many of us, is proving to be insufficient as a means of withstanding the pressures of the chaotic and harsh modern environment.

The advantage of tribal structures in my view, compared to hierarchies, markets and networks discussed by Ronfeldt revolves around the certainty of mutual trust as a psychological motivator, especially vis-a-vis “outsiders”.  Loyalty to all members of the tribe ( primary loyalty) is paramount which is not the case in hierarchies ( loyalty flows upward, downward not so much), markets ( nonexistent) or networks (potentially  non-reciprocal loyalty to hub). As such, tribes function very well at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which means they are good insurance for physical survival. It does not matter if the tribe is one of blood or cultural heritage or artificial political, religious or military brotherhood. Militiaman, monk or gang member is irrelevant; what matters is the establishment of unreserved mutual trust as a core of personal identity.

The implicit trust present within the tribe and the flexible sense of authority gives individual tribesmen room for individual initiative to react, knowing “the tribe has their back”. They are a more centralized unit of power than a network but more fluid and mobile than a hierarchy. A tribe is a safety net or a bodyguard. Great enterprises require something else as an organizational form but behind a great enterprise should be at least some kind of life preserver.


Col. Pat Lang – “ How to Work With Tribesmen

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