Community and Connectedness: Extending our understanding of “tribe”

Sociologist Geert Hosfede* has a set of cultural dimensions (which you can look at here) that helps us understand broad differences in culture. These aren’t absolute by any means, but they do give us some baseline indications of how cultures differ for the purpose of understanding intercultural communication. One of these cultural dimensions is his concept of “individualism” which indicates the extent to which a culture is based on individualism (focus on the self) vs. the community (which could be a family unit, a tribe, a town, or even a country). But in today’s blog post I really want to focus on this idea of individualism and collectivism, and the shades of gray between these two binary terms. (*As an aside, Hosfede’s other dimensions are equally fascinating, for those of you interested in these kinds of things.  Hosfede’s dimensions do work under binary assumptions, that is, the opposite of individualism is collectivism.  False binaries aside, its still a useful rubric through which to consider these issues, even if it does simplify them.)


Druids around the fire at the latest OBOD East Coast Gathering (photo from John Beckett)
Druids around the fire at the latest OBOD East Coast Gathering (photo from John Beckett)

The United States and many other western industrialized nations seem to be very highly individualistic societies, which manifests itself in our culture in the idea of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, individual rewards for individual actions, a focus on individual achievement, and, especially in the latter part of the 20th and early 21st century, a whole lot of isolationism and solitude. In my experience in living in four different states in the USA, we don’t seem to have strong bonds, even within our families, and most of us these days barely know our neighbors. We seem to have more loyalty to company brands than we do to people–and everything in our culture is structured this way purposefully, to get us to buy and consume. The idea of “me” and the “self” seems to be the most important to us; narcissism is a key American quality among our younger generations. This seems to be exacerbated by current technology which emphasizes the individual and his/her actions (Facebook’s wall, Twitter, etc.).  I make these observations partially just as someone living in this culture, but also as a professional who teaches college-age students for a living. I see the difficulties these students face with defining themselves, with their relations, and their uses of technology that seem to isolate more than they bring together.


Collective cultures, on the other hand, work on the level of the family or the tribe, where bonds of community are central. This leads to things like strong family bonds, extended families living and taking care of each other, and family/tribal honor. I had the opportunity to spend time with a group of close friends who were students from Korea while in graduate school–I was amazed by the bonds that they formed, their gift-giving and kindness.  One said to me once, “Dana, why is it that everyone in America asks ‘How are you?’ but nobody actually wants to know?”  The OBOD East Coast Gathering, which I blogged about last week, is another example of a tribe forming–its something that transcends the individual, and allows a supportive community to grow.


The USA used to have a more collective culture in its past. This is particularly true when communities had to work together for mutual survival.  Families and communities banded together, raised structures together, found/grown/hunted and preserved food together, ate meals together, and so forth, because being isolated from the community in times previous to this one likely meant death. (You can see the remnants of this in old colonial dances, where you danced with everyone in the community to build communal bonds rather than with a single partner, or older fraternal orders, like the Grange, who banded together to aid rural communities and farmers.  Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels also have great examples of community-oriented experiences.)


I’d like to propose that individualism causes particular kinds of troubling trends, and would like to suggest that if we draw upon the idea of the “tribe” and extend that “tribe” quite far, it gives us positive ways of interacting with the world.  One of the problems I see with a heavy focus on the self is that it makes us lose the bonds of community and connectedness; and these two qualities are really what make us human and make life worth living.  If we disconnect ourselves from other human beings, we have less altruism, less care and compassion.  We end up with political movements like the present-day Tea Party, which is essentially an exercise in selfishness.  Since when did helping out fellow human beings become a problem? Since when is altruism a dirty word?  Another problem with the heavy focus on self is that it disconnects us from the healing power of nature–we see ourselves as disconnected from the whole, we don’t see the consequences of our actions, and we begin to treat nature like something that is ours to own and exploit rather than our mother and nurturer.


Traditional cultures throughout the world were also much more collectivist–the idea of “tribe” or “clan” (such as those in ancient Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) all followed this collectivist model.  We can see these tales of tribe, of clan, of family, woven into so much of the mythology and folklore of many peoples (read the Mabinogion with this in mind). We can also see the idea of collectivism reflected in everyday interactions–in its height of power, the Iroquois nation used an elaborate system of consensus-based diplomacy to encourage fairness and equity among its members.  Even though it was made up of five (and later six) different peoples and tribes, its bonds of brotherhood were solidified by rituals and discussions in order to maintain stability and peace amongst its members (although how outsiders were treated was a different subject of discussion). In this, the bonds of family and tribe are central to living and interaction in the world.


What is part of our tribe? Wood sorrel?
Wood sorrel is part of my tribe! 🙂

Some cultures, such as most of those indigenous to the Americas, took the notion of tribe a step further and went so far as to include non-human persons (animals, plants, stones, etc.) within their idea of tribe.  This is the concept of animism, and remains central to understanding much indigenous cultural interaction (such as those examples provided by Dale Everett in his interactions with the Pirahas his book Don’t Sleep There are Snakes).  A basic animistic philosophy suggests a “belief in spirits”, the idea that every living being (and sometimes rocks and other so-called “inanimate” objects, have a spirit and a soul).  In his book Animism: Respecting the Living World, Graham Harvey examines four groups: Native Americans, Maori, Aboriginal Australians, and Eco-pagans to show how their animistic philosophy is enacted by expanding the concept of tribe, where being with, speaking, interaction, and engaging in magic surrounding the living, spirit filled world is a critical part of the human condition.


Can we once again build tribes among our fellow humans? Can we expand our own notion of the “tribe” to include all life on this planet? If we do this, what do we gain?  I would like to think that by doing this, we gain a great deal, and we begin to shift some of the destructive trends in human thinking and action; trends in thinking that have caused substantial environmental destruction, the destruction of whole peoples and cultures, and the inevitable loss in diversity that goes with such destruction.  Instead, we can focus on our connection to each other and to the land, and the community that such connection brings.


  1. Hi Dana.

    I’m no fan of the Tea Baggers, but I am close to some of my extended family who are, for better or worse, involved with that drag of a party. The one in question is a small business owner. We often get in good spirited debates at family gatherings. His point about the government doling out money, the welfare state, etc. is that, this in part has lead to (or is another result of?) the erosion of families/ extended-families. And it is on this point where I agree. Altruism should indeed not be a dirty word, but part of returning to a tribal/clan based way means we have to pitch in to take care of our own…. instead of getting on the states welfare system, we will need to band together (especially as it all continues to unravel) to help take care of each other. So, while not subscribing to a dual party view myself, I also see how the extreme liberal mindset is also potentially disempowering when it promotes a handout from a stranger -those ties are still not being forged.

    I had a good example on the other side of my family: instead of putting my grandparents into nursing homes they got to live in their own house into their 90’s but that required the active participation of their children and grandchildren. We need to see more of that!

    Thanks for another great post…

    1. Hi Justin,
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Interestingly enough, the Tea Party and the Occupy movement have a lot in common, and I think both of them are about less government intervention. As someone who has had run-ins with the law about my own tending of the land, I happen to agree (and like you, I don’t fit into either party’s agendas). And I’m all about communities taking care of each other, and power in the hands of local citizens and local governments, rather than disconnected federal agencies.

      Although I do think its harder to take care of one’s own if the upper 5% of Americans control 95% of the wealth…..which is one area where I do support government regulation and the redistribution of wealth (although more on the side of corporate regulation).

      What I was commenting on, though, was a vein of hatred that seems to undercurrent a lot of that side of the extreme agenda. It seems to be cool to hate these days, and hatred has a loud and clear voice. Regardless of where one sits on the political spectrum, I’m all about compromise and respect. We don’t have a lot of that these days, and that creates division and controversy. I blogged about discourse and consensus-building a while ago:

      So these issues are complicated, to be sure. Thanks for the comment!

      1. Great point about Tea Party and Occupy sharing a lot in common. These definitely are tough issues. As a fellow student of non-dual thinking (Tertiary as JMG puts it) I wanted to make sure you were aware I wasn’t trying to spark a political dia-tribe 🙂 And your post was really about so much more than that… Maybe I had too much morning coffee.

        My wife has been reading the Little House books and has commented on her own about how much of them are about laying up food BTW. I shared those posts you wrote about that with her.

  2. Ah yes, tertiary thinking :). I didn’t see your comment as sparking a debate at all, but rather bringing in valid points for consideration! I do think that the only way to return to rationality of thought is to model it, at least in our own communities :). You and I seem to be doing that quite well today! 🙂

  3. Re your point that the US formerly had a more community-based culture, our PBS station recently showed “Jerry Apps Farm Stories.” I only saw part of it but would much like to see the rest. He grew up on a farm in Wisconsin before WWII, without electricity and attending a one-room schoolhouse. He described how the school was a community, how the farmers worked together as a community. Then he tells about the coming of electricity–and it sounds like he practically blames electricity for the failure of many small farms. You had to have more cash to afford the equipment and the bills, and some little farms didn’t bring in that much cash. Very interesting! But my main point here is that this type of community existed within living memory. It’s not that long gone.

    1. The schoolhouse is an interesting concept. That’s back when citizens had direct control over the curriculum in their schools. John Michael Greer talked about this in his blog some months ago–how regulation and federal oversight has stripped a lot of decisions away from the communities where those decisions matter and off to state capitals or Washington. So I wonder if part of what was holding our communities together was communal decision-making…

      1. Jerry Apps described how, since the different ages were all together, the younger kids were hearing a preview of their future lessons, and the older kids were available to help younger ones. He thought that helped all of them learn better. Since they were all together every day, they really felt like a community. Then came the school buses and larger consolidated schools.

  4. Great post. I find most people who want a tribe want a place where they are taken care of and have no obligations to others. Saw this a lot in communes and collectives. The I would not sacrifice to the we. The main problem for real community seems to be money. Only 10% of intentional communities even happen and of those only10%make it five years. Fights about money and work load. Who gives the most wants power? Resentment. Passive aggressive users. Idealists who don’t want to work. Covert power, gossip, cliques, avoiding any rules or structure. Real tribes are all about rules and structure. Very little was decided by the individual for the individual because without the tribe the individual would die. No choice in religion, in hair style, in how you raised kids, in anything. Belonging to the pack, wanting to fit in,to know where in the pack you are, your role,evolutionary psychology and archeology back this is up as normal. Very few modern people will give up total control of their lives to a greater good -especially when they have the option to leave and take their money (and maybe others’) with them. Most marriages end over money issues. If TWO people cannot partner in a lifeway,how can 20 or 200? The trust and faith are gone due to the lies and deceit of this culture. The more the economy crashes the more people will 1. hoard for themselves and 2. need community. Paradox. Community will need to be people that can be trusted ie people just like “us,” not “them.” The more narrow your group’s dogma, the more community it will have. Less choice means more connectedness. Having to prove you are in the tribe with scarring or giving up your income, it’s common to bikers, some religions, and most tribes. Being marked as an US. But most who want tribes are outcasts, the THEMs to the mainstream. Free thinkers and idealists who see the potential for good in others. A trait not wanted by tribes unless the others you see good in are just in your tribe. As much as tribal life is the human survival norm, it also demands there be a Them. Each tribe calls itself a variation of The People. Strangers may have diseases, be demons, or come to raid for women. THEM is unknown thus scary and thus bad. Tribes are very conservative, rarely making any changes. Most modern people could not handle the loss of personal power. As lying is the norm, vows and contracts mean nothing. I would think the first thing a potential tribe would do is create the conflict guidelines as there is so much conflict when getting modern individuals to try to submit to something larger. Many can do it with Nature and Gods but not other humans. Idealists who are misanthropic broken hearted cynics who saw tribe attempts blow up in so many forms… Drug addict need each other to survive and have drugs, they are only tribe I ever saw in action. Submit their will to crack or heroin and the tribe of the drug. Some teenage gangs where people die and kill for the gang are tribes too. But survival desperation seems to be what creates a tribe, not the desire for community. At least the tribes that last…. with their own language, justice, initiations, symbols etc.

    1. Well, certainly survival causes tribes to form–look at most of human civilization before our last 500 or so years. But there are many kinds of tribes, and some are intentional and some are not. Its true that tribes in our culture are often rife with conflict–I would wonder if maybe its because they *aren’t* based on survival.

      But if you look at the very functional tribes of many indigenous peoples, you see a different story. Native Americans, in their many types of variations, had stable communal tribes. The Iroquois nation had one of the most advanced diplomatic and democratic systems in recorded human history. I think as soon as a tribe begins to create a cultural identity for itself–rituals, artwork, music–it ceases to be just about survival and rather about pride and developing a community. Humans need that for survival too, after all :).

      1. Oh yes I agree.The Haudenasee Federation however fought the Algonqin speaking tribes brutally, know for being much more warlike and land owndership interested than their neighbors. One reason the Brits won against the French here is the Mohawk sided with the Brits and Abenaki with the French, who now are on a rez in Quebec, barely recognized in Vermont. Abenaki had councils with ALL members not just chiefs. All ages and genders. Had no idea why the Mohawk wanted to “take land.” I would say the Haundenasee were not very democratic compared to many other tribes.
        If someone left the Haudenasee Federation they would die. If someone left their Abenaki band they’d die. The Haudenasee Fed formed from the five then six tribes that made wars (the pine tree story) against each other,but still killed their neighboring tribes, not recognizing that they had rights too. Very much Us and Them thinking.The Pan-Indian movement has a lot of old baggage like this to deal with, intertribal hatred for eons. But the main thing, is if someone ever left a tribe, they’d die. Being exiled was the worst thing ever.You’d die. Some tribes just pretend to not see the person til they die. Others put them on a boat. Exile from the tribe means death due to economic mutualism.

        As we have no economic mutualism, no NEED for each other, we bail when it gets hard, when our “rights” are denied, when we don’t get our way, when the other people play music we hate too loud or have a junkie boyfriend or a sexual predator appears or finances are handled poorly or so and so has sex with so and so – that gets really messy when people have kids. Fights over cleaning, noise, ideology, sex, religion, status, money, gender roles, power – a tribe never had that as it was set in stone and rarely changed.

        If you have ever been in a artist collective you’ll see backstabbing, greed, paranoia, envy etc because it is about Money. Those who make money and those who do not. Money causes the main break ups. Rent, selling out, whatever, people are vicious behind each other’s backs. Music scene too. People leave when they get famous enough to make a living.

        Money as the individual’s freedom as opposed to economics as the tribe’s glue I think is the problem. Poor people share a lot more than middle class.

        I would like a tribe but in a way I am in many: tribe of patients, people with Medicaid, those with Internet access, with drinking water, white American, Vermont Yankee can-do pride which shames anyone who needs help, my food co-op, Iam part of many Us’s and THem’s who share economic things…. I will think on that more!

        Thank you for such interesting discussion!

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