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Tribes and clans today: a teaching experiment

October 18, 2008

Last week I conducted the following experiment with MA students at Sheffield Hallam University who are taking my Digital Media and Society course. We first quickly brainstormed on the whiteboard all the various kinds of social groupings or social formations we could think of. This resulted in a couple of dozen terms such as gang, peer group, club, nation, society, state, community, network, clan, tribe, political party, and so on. I then divided the class into two debating teams. I asked Team A to discuss how to persuasively argue  – regardless of their own personal views on the matter – that in order to understand our contemporary world we need to focus on the paradigmatic social formation of our era: tribes. Team A were free to define this term as they saw fit in order to make their case. At the same time, I asked Team B to argue an analogous case for clans rather than tribes. The ensuing debate was as highly entertaining (it featured, among others, the Macdonald, Bush and Bin Laden ‘clans’) as I hope it was rewarding.

Regular readers of this blog may have guessed by now – like Olli, one of my students, did –  the point of this exercise. The idea was to imagine what it would be like if instead of our current fixation with ‘communities’ and ‘networks’ as the supposedly paradigmatic social forms (or ‘logics’) of our era we suddenly decided to switch our attention to other forms.

Why so many fields of study, policy and practice feel the urge to reduce our species’ immensely rich social morphology to one or two dominant social forms is, in my view, an issue in urgent need of attention. It has certainly to do with leading practitioners’ struggles over their fields’ key terminology as well as with more general vogues in any given world-historical period (presently, for the notion of networks), but in ways that I think are still poorly documented (at least for Internet Studies). Anthropologists can contribute to the collective task of enriching the general socio-morphological lexicon by resisting the temptation of reducing the social terrains they study to one or two fashionable forms of sociation.

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