The Modern Tribe: Building Community

The word tribe carries all sorts of preconceptions which makes it a difficult word to use to explain a complicated abstract element of our society.  Yet, I do it anyway, and tend to get into all sorts of debates with friends whenever I use the word.  Part of the problem stems from lack of a clear definition that I can point to in order to have a framework for the discussion.  I’ve decided to take up the challenge of clarifying what I mean by tribe and in the process hopefully develop an understanding of a modern tribe.

The questions I am hoping to find answers to in this wordy quest are “What makes a group of people a tribe?”, “How do you know if you are in a tribe?”, “What makes one tribe different than another tribe?”, “Can a person belong to more than one tribe?”, and “What is a healthy tribe dynamic versus an unhealthy tribe dynamic?”  I don’t expect to find clear cut simple answers for any of these questions but they offer a framework for my exploration and a simple way of chopping up such a huge abstract topic into workable pieces.  I know the series of posts are going to touch upon friendship and kinship, as well as the essence of leadership, duty, and commitment.

I have lamented, on occasion, that I ‘lack tribe’.   Too often this lament is interpreted as my saying I don’t have friends which is not true and tends to make my friends feel under appreciated.  While taking notes to start writing these posts, I determined that I didn’t lack a tribe, which should make all my friends feel so much better. I did feel a lack of something, and I will get to that.  Once I realized I did belong to a tribe, I wondered who else belonged to it.

Nothing makes you feel like you are in grade school more than analyzing friendships.  Luckily this analysis wasn’t like that but fairly tedious.  A tribe isn’t just your friends.  A tribe includes friends of friends and sometimes friends of friends of friends. A tribe may include people you’ve only known through the internet or even people you’ve never even met.   Suddenly what seemed like a simple but time consuming act of analyzing all my contacts in my phone, all the friends on Facebook and Twitter, and all the people I see at my local watering hole and tag them like an entomologist sitting at a lab table with a jar of ether and hundreds of pins.  All very cold, aloof, and scientific, yet fundamentally flawed because I can’t account for variables I’m not even aware.

I think here is the point I need to state that all this talk of modern tribes was not originally inspired by the sociological study of neotribalism, yet in my research, I did come across an article relating to a study done in 2006 by Duke University titled Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades. Admittedly it  doesn’t sound like the most stimulating of reading.  The Duke University website provided a summary of the article. The article struck a chord with me as maybe highlight the root cause of my obsession with tribe.

The study paints a picture of Americans’ social contacts as a “densely connected, close, homogeneous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family.”

That means fewer contacts created through clubs, neighbors and organizations outside the home — a phenomenon popularly known as “bowling alone,” from the 2000 book of the same title by Robert D. Putnam.

The researchers speculated that changes in communities and families, such as the increase in the number of hours that family members spend at work and the influence of Internet communication, may contribute to the decrease in the size of close-knit circles of friends and relatives.

What I may be reacting to is an increasing feeling of isolation.  A feeling intensified as friends settled and married, started having children of their own and no longer had time or energy to traverse great distances to ‘hang out’.  Friendships changed into electronic connection and face-to-face on special occasions.  In my desire to ‘belong to a tribe’ I stumbled onto a sociological phenomenon afflicting many people.   I no longer wondered ‘who was in the tribe’ and focused more on ‘how do I stitch a tribe together’.  Again, it probably is a bit more important for me in my circle of friends because I am single, I live far away from my siblings, and both parents have passed on.  This could also explain the exasperation my friends suffer whenever I start on this topic – they aren’t feeling the same isolation.  They may not feel the isolation but I have no doubt they feel the desire for deeper more meaningful connections.

Modern tribes can and do exist. I’ve seen them.  What I didn’t realize was why and how they existed. I had always assumed it was a natural and organic thing as friendships and acquaintances formed comity.   In the olden days, a person’s community truly was defined by their location.  Your neighbors formed your community.  I have close friends spread across the country.  Our social connection can’t be reinforced by a weekend fishing trip, heading to the hardware store together, sharing beers over the barbecue, watching each other’s kids, houses, pets, and plants, and going the the PTA together.  Our world, our friendships are distributed. If we want to build a community and create a modern tribe, it takes effort and skills that may not be readily available to us.  It can be done, though.

I think it is an imperative that it be done.   The alternative is to lose the strong bonds of friendship, to change our view so everyone becomes an acquaintance and to only rely on our kin in times of crisis and celebration.