AskDefine | Define tribe

Dictionary Definition



1 a social division of (usually preliterate) people [syn: folk]
2 a federation (as of American Indians) [syn: federation of tribes]
3 (biology) a taxonomic category between a genus and a subfamily
4 group of people related by blood or marriage [syn: kin, kin group, kinship group, kindred, clan]

User Contributed Dictionary



From , from tribu, from tribus.



  1. A socially, ethnically, and politically cohesive group of people.
  2. A society larger than a band but smaller than a state.
  3. The collective noun for various animals.

Derived terms


group of people
collective noun
See at the relevant animal entry.

Extensive Definition

A tribe, viewed historically or developmentally, consists of a social group existing before the development of, or outside of, states, though some modern theorists hold that contemporary tribes can only be understood in terms of their relationship to states.
The term is often loosely used to refer to any non-Western or indigenous society. Many anthropologists use the term to refer to societies organized largely on the basis of kinship, especially corporate descent groups (see clan and lineage).


Considerable debate takes place over how best to characterize tribes. Some of this debate stems from perceived differences between pre-state tribes and contemporary tribes; some of this debate reflects more general controversy over cultural evolution and colonialism. In the popular imagination, tribes reflect a way of life that predates, and is more "natural", than that in modern states. Tribes also privilege primordial social ties, are clearly bounded, homogeneous, parochial, and stable. Thus, many believed that tribes organize links between families (including clans and lineages), and provide them with a social and ideological basis for solidarity that is in some way more limited than that of an "ethnic group" or of a "nation". Anthropological and ethnohistorical research has challenged all of these notions.
In his 1972 study, The Notion of Tribe, Morton Fried provided numerous examples of tribes, the members of which spoke different languages and practised different rituals, or that shared languages and rituals with members of other tribes. Similarly, he provided examples of tribes where people followed different political leaders, or followed the same leaders as members of other tribes. He concluded that tribes in general are characterized by fluid boundaries and heterogeneity, are not parochial, and are dynamic.


Archaeologists continue to explore the development of pre-state tribes. Current research suggests that tribal structures constituted one type of adaptation to situations providing plentiful yet unpredictable resources. Such structures proved flexible enough to co-ordinate production and distribution of food in times of scarcity, without limiting or constraining people during times of surplus.
Fried, however, proposed that most contemporary tribes do not have their origin in pre-state tribes, but rather in pre-state bands. Such "secondary" tribes, he suggested, actually came about as modern products of state expansion. Bands comprise small, mobile, and fluid social formations with weak leadership, that do not generate surpluses, pay no taxes and support no standing army. Fried argued that secondary tribes develop in one of two ways. First, states could set them up as means to extend administrative and economic influence in their hinterland, where direct political control costs too much.
States would encourage (or require) people on their frontiers to form more clearly bounded and centralized polities, because such polities could begin producing surpluses and taxes, and would have a leadership responsive to the needs of neighboring states (the so-called "scheduled" tribes of the United States or of British India provide good examples of this). Second, bands could form "secondary" tribes as a means to defend themselves against state expansion. Members of bands would form more clearly bounded and centralized polities, because such polities could begin producing surpluses that could support a standing army that could fight against states, and they would have a leadership that could coordinate economic production and military activities.


Tribe, n. [L. tribus, originally, a third part of the Roman people, afterwards, a division of the people, a tribe; of uncertain origin: cf. F. tribu.], Webster's 1913 Dictionary. cf. Gregory Nagy, Greek Mythology and Poetics, Chapter 12, p.276 and on. On p.278, he says, citing the linguist Émile Benveniste in his Origines de la formation des noms en indo-européen, that the Umbrian "trifu" (tribus) is apparently derived from a combination of *tri- and *bhu- where the second element is cognate with the 'phu-' of Greek 'phule', and that this was subdividing the Greek polis into three phulai.


  • Benveniste, Émile
    • Indo-European Language and Society, translated by Elizabeth Palmer. London: Faber and Faber 1973. ISBN 0-87024-250-4.
    • Origines de la formation des noms en indo-européen, 1935.
  • Fried, Morton H. The Notion of Tribe. Cummings Publishing Company, 1975. ISBN 0-8465-1548-2
  • Nagy, Gregory, Greek Mythology and Poetics, Cornell University Press, 1990. In chapter 12, beginning on p.276, Professor Nagy explores the meaning of the word origin and social context of a tribe in ancient Greece and beyond.

See also

Regional tribes

tribe in Arabic: قبيلة
tribe in Bengali: উপজাতি
tribe in Bulgarian: Племе
tribe in Catalan: Tribu (antropologia)
tribe in German: Volksstamm
tribe in Spanish: Tribu
tribe in Esperanto: Tribo
tribe in Basque: Tribu
tribe in French: Tribu (ethnologie)
tribe in Croatian: Pleme
tribe in Italian: Tribù
tribe in Hebrew: שבט
tribe in Malayalam: ആദിവാസി
tribe in Dutch: Stam (antropologie)
tribe in Japanese: 部族
tribe in Polish: Plemię
tribe in Portuguese: Tribo
tribe in Russian: Племя
tribe in Simple English: Tribe
tribe in Slovenian: Pleme
tribe in Serbo-Croatian: Pleme
tribe in Finnish: Heimo (kansatiede)
tribe in Swedish: Stam (samhällsvetenskap)
tribe in Turkish: Boy (antropoloji)
tribe in Yiddish: שבט (געזעלשאפט)
tribe in Chinese: 部落

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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