November 20, 2008

Not of the Tribe

So, last night I was working on a roundup of some of the cool blogs that have been recommended in the responses to our questions on science and science fiction, when I made the mistake of taking a break to check in on some of the blogs already on my blogroll. I was completely derailed.

DrugMonkey had a post up about the tribe(s) of science and action for the common good of the tribe. It was, if I'm reading him right (no guarantee), an introduction to some thoughts on applying humanity's tribalist tendencies to achieve a greater good. It's an interesting idea, and I agree with the goals...but he said, "tribal."

I reacted. Nothing out of line, just a pure emotional response. So, of course, I have to break it down.

I don't belong to any tribes. The whole idea makes me itch.

I belong to a couple of small, manufactured families, but at least in this day and age, that's not the same thing. Knowing with whom I chose to spend my time doesn't tell you much about me. Not the same way that being part of a tribe would. I like my families, but I don't identify with them. I am not them. They are not me.

This isn't true in tribes. The premise of a tribe is that the tribe's welfare is your welfare. In order to make this real, the tribe's identity also has to be your identity. You can have your own place, yes, but only as long as it fits within the tribe.

To take a nice, contentious example, I'm female (physically, genetically). I don't communicate "like a woman." I don't solve problems "like a woman." I don't accept the roles of enforcing social norms or making peace or having or raising children. The majority of my allegiances are to men but are neither sexual nor power-imbalanced. I don't fit comfortably within the feminine tribe.

I could do what others do and try to stretch the tribe itself to fit me better. There are no guarantees, though, that this will happen. Look at the resistance others get when they try. And even if I were to fail, the tribe would have demanded my cooperation during the trial.

I've lost the benefits of being part of a tribe along with the obligations, of course. After all, your welfare is also the tribe's welfare. It could be a lonely type of freedom if I weren't an introvert. Still, I think I prefer this to a lonely belonging.

There is a piece of writing advice that says to claim for yourself the identity of "writer." It's meant to carry the writer through the times when it doesn't feel as though progress is being made--the middle of the novel, incoming rejections, having to practice and practice a particular skill to get it down. So far, so good.

There is also a bit of advice that says simply, "Writers write." It's very practical advice that says you'll never have a finished product worth publishing if you don't sit your butt in a chair and crank it out. Also good advice.

However, these two pieces of advice together have caused some serious heartache for people whose writing has been interrupted for long periods by, well, life. Being one of the few tangible rewards for most people who write, tribal identification is highly prized, but it slips away with every day not spent writing. I've seen an award-winning author ask, "Am I a writer?" because she writes slowly and in spurts.

So, no. I write, but I am not a writer. I geek out, but I am not a geek. I have U.S. citizenship and take an active role in politics, but I am not an American. I am not my school, my hometown, my local sports team, my hobbies, my career, my gender, my body shape, my political beliefs, my socioeconomic status, my health issues, my pet ownership, my musical preferences, my clothing choices, my operating system. These things are part of me. I am not part of them.

I belong to no tribe.


Anonymous said...

I know exactly what you mean. It is lonely, yet liberating at the same time.

May I also say, that though you may not be a "writer," you write very well.

Drugmonkey said...

My conception of tribal affiliation is considerably more fluid than is yours.

Anonymous said...

I find this debate fascinating. I am (literally) a tribal person, but when I look at the history of tribalism in my country, as well as the status quo stuff there is also a long history of upstarts who do not wish to pay attention to the rules and essentially start their own tribes. So fluidity in the concept is important I think - perhaps some of the requirements for starting your own tribe might include a context of oppression and /or underrepresentation, injustice of some kind; skills needed are charisma, the ability to advocate, the gathering of likeminded souls. . . Just thinking out loud here (I liked Drugmonkey's reference to the Calling of the clans) . . .

Stephanie Zvan said...

I guess I can let you say that, Mike. Thanks. :)

DM & Anonymous, it doesn't surprise me at all that you're relating to the concept of tribes very differently than I am. If I were relating to it the same way as everyone else, I wouldn't have had such a strong reaction to DM's post. It's fairly obvious from the comments that no one else reacted as I did.

As usual, don't try to generalize from my experience

Philip H. said...

It read to me as if you are rejecting labeling for yourself. Period. Which does cause me to ask - how do you describe yourself? IS there any classification to which you subscribe? or are you just . . . you?

I'll grant that we are all unique. sometimes well mixed, individuals. We are the sum of all our experiences, our environments, and our actions. Yet you post seems to imply that the unique combination that is Stephanie, because it is unique, is therefore not describable by any classification. I'm wondering how that works practically?

Stephanie Zvan said...

Easy, Philip. I'm complicated.

Seriously, though, I was stumped earlier this summer when I met someone for the first time and she said, "So, tell me about yourself." I opened my mouth a couple of times, nothing came out, and I eventually settled for asking what she wanted to know.

I can tell you what I've done, what I believe, what I like, what I hate, what bores me. A person can try to put those together into a picture that tells them something more about me, like what other things I might believe, like or hate. Chances are pretty good that they'll be wrong, though. I confound people a lot.

Shorter answer: I'm defined by verbs, not nouns.

Becca said...

So what you're saying is, you are not your fucking khakis?
Look, everyone wants to believe they are a beautiful and unique snowflake. In a sense, everyone is.

But humans seem to be poor at judging all other humans simultaneously the true individuals they are. So we make assumptions. And many of the 'tribes' we belong to are more about how others define us than how we define ourselves.

"tribal", as a phrase, also struck me as a little offputting.
However, after much pondering, I've decided I like labels. I like labels with infinite re-stickability. I blame this on my inner lizard/chameleon. I believe in simultaneously embracing and subverting the tribes I might belong to.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Becca, I'm not claiming any special specialness, except an unusual allergy to pressure to conform. I'm not that unique a snowflake, which is why I think there's something wrong that I confuse people as much as I do. It can't be me, so it must be the labels. [/snark]

If you'll look around the blog, you will notice that I use labels. They're part of the standard vocabulary. Not using them sometimes requires more explanation than it's worth. I'm just always aware that that's what I'm doing, and it's generally not a comfortable experience.

Becca said...

But isn't it fun to confuse/confound people?

Maybe I'm projecting here.

The labels are models. They leave a lot out and don't predict everything. But I don't know if that means there's something wrong with them.

Personally, I think I like labels. But my way of embracing them has always been to pick the contradictory ones. To confound on purpose.

Stephanie Zvan said...

It's hugely fun, Becca--for me. For others, it's even educational but probably not much fun. That's part of what makes me uncomfortable.

I told you I was weird.

Anonymous said...

SZ, is it just that you have an allergy to being defined, constrained and simplified? Does it not help to see what I mean by considering a Venn analysis of multiple tribal affiliations?

Stephanie Zvan said...

DM, the allergy is a big part of it but certainly not all.

In practice, tribes are exclusionary as well as inclusive. To use your Venn diagrams, they define themselves as much by what is outside the circle as what is inside, and the closer people are to the core of the circle, the more tightly they tend to draw the perimeter.

Take two circles with just a sliver of overlap. Then draw a second circle inside each of the other circles that is the recognized core of the tribe. Call one of the big circles science. Call the other, say, women. I know you've heard more than enough stories to know that the tribal experience is very different for the overlap group than it is for either core. This is the area where what is given to the tribe is often much greater than what's received.

Yes, there are several ways to deal with this: increase the overlap to push it into the core and expand the core from the inside, encourage the core to expand its definition from the outside, form a tribe in the overlap. All of these are being done, slowly and with much work. This is a good thing, except for the parts about slow work.

Or if you're one of those people who doesn't feel a particular need to be recognized by the tribe, you can wander at will. You can be seen places you "don't belong." You can say things that would get you banished if you were part of the tribe. You can claim an objectivity that won't be believed from someone who wants to be recognized.

Hmm. This comment seems to have gotten away from me. So shorter me: I understand the Venn diagram analogy, but I think it ends up working differently in practice. Also, being unaffiliated with the tribe is not the same thing as not interacting with the tribe or acting against the tribe.

Anonymous said...

"I believe in simultaneously embracing and subverting the tribes I might belong to."

Go Becca! I love this comment. So totally!

Anonymous said...

"tribe" is probably an OK concept to use to the extent that it is a commonly used English word. But I certainly hope that no one is thinking that 'tribe' refers, in any useful way, to anything in real life.

Saying something is 'tribal' (a group, a feeling, a tendency, whatever) in reference to, say, historic groups of American Indians or Africans or whatever (which we are all taught at some point live/lived in 'tribes' or as part of 'tribal society') is a little like the crap we see all over the Internet and elsewhere about this or that recipe for health based on this or that theory of woo.

Tribe, as a concept in most situations, is little more than people playing fast and loose with things that we really do know something about, but that most individuals, as non-specialists, often misunderstand or even misuse in the usual state of ignorance.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Well, to be clear what I'm talking about, I'm using "tribe" as a description of social organization around perceived commonalities. A tribe claims the authority to support, protect, chastise and eject its own on the basis of that commonality. It may also claim some authority over those outside the tribe based on the needs of the tribe. Exercising either authority requires that some obligation be laid on members of the tribe to do the business of the tribe.

That is definitely a nonspecialist perspective, so I'm not sure to what extent is overlaps with a specialist's understanding.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that's pretty much how it goes on those TV's shows.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I should clarify. Using the "tribe" trope (as you have used it) is a great way of describing certain social interactions. But what I often see is 'tribe' and 'tribalism' used as pejorative, which is a bit tricky.

If, for instance, the average American believes in the Primitive Tribal Inferior triad, the negative connotation with 'tribe' or 'tribal' simply reinforces an ignorant and racist viewpoint.

An equivalent would be using female terminology in a perjorative manner, but the object of the denigration is then all women as opposed to all people living in whatever the speaker/listener thinks of as the tribal world (brown people, equatorial people, native people, whatever).

Drugmonkey said...

being unaffiliated with the tribe is not the same thing as not interacting with the tribe or acting against the tribe.

Stephanie, I think with this we closely approach our difference in view. In my conception it is of little importance if one asserts or denies membership. I suppose to my way of thinking if you are interacting with the tribe you are part of it. acting "against" the tribe..well that depends on whether you are really opposing the tribal essence (like being a science denier, say) or are opposing the currently dominant socio-political hierarchy of a tribe (like objecting to aging heteronormative middle to upper class white dudes having all the power)

Greg, chill out. I'm not talking about actually extant or historical entities that are or have been called "tribes" for chrissakes. Neither is Stephanie so far as I can tell.

It is an abstraction.

Anonymous said...

I think categorisation is an essential tool that humans use to make sense of the world, hence we put things/ people into "tribes". Perhaps we should call them boxes?

I have no idea what you are saying Greg in your comment about tribes. However in my experience, belonging to a tribe indeed involves many concepts that could be relevant to the idea of a tribe of science eg shifting alliances (depending on who you are bedding/ networking with, the importance genealogical relationships (e.g.PIs, mentors, students), shifting interdependencies and ideas. I hardly think tribalism is an outdated concept, I'd call it very relevant, even in the sense of people not wanting to belong to one.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Anonymous, my comment to Greg is about the politics of negotiating tribal affiliation. My point is basically that there is more going on in this than just applying labels, descriptors or what have you. There are social benefits and obligations attached to those labels.

DM, the tribe of science is a good one to look at in this respect, at least for me. I am, either way we look at it, not of this tribe. I am not a scientist or a tech or a teacher or whatever. If I were to claim that I were a member, trying to get that claim recognized would take all my time. As good as I am at arguing, I would fail.

What standing I do have in the tribe of science depends on me being an outsider. I can offer the lay perspective (as though there were just one). I can talk about similarities and differences between a life in science and life in the corporate world. I can make mistakes and ask for clarifications that might sound naive. I can claim a disinterested voice in an argument because my status isn't at stake.

I couldn't do any of these as well as a member of the tribe. I can interact with tribe, sometimes very effectively, because I sit at a small distance from its politics. I can do it because I'm an outsider.

Anonymous said...

Greg, chill out. I'm not talking about actually extant or historical entities that are or have been called "tribes" for chrissakes. Neither is Stephanie so far as I can tell.

DM: Actually, I had not read your post, and I certainly wasn't commenting on your use of the term tribe (or Stephanie's). I was making a more general statement, but I admit that I was reacting negatively to our colleague Janet's use of "tribe" to label what are generally identified by her as negative behaviors among scientists.

One could say there's a nigger in the wood pile. But one wouldn't. And shouldn't.

Becca said...

Stephanie- In that case, I think you just need to spend more time interacting with people who are entertained by being confounded.

Although I understand what you mean with the "social benefits and obligations" aspects of tribes, viewing them as "just labels" is a useful process.

Philip H. said...

I'll just add a quote from my Seventh Grade Life Science teacher - Nature is gradational; man classifies.

Drugmonkey said...

Greg when I read Janet talking about Tribe of Science, I usually perceive her as recommending thinking about responsibility to tribe in a more positive way and in the use of tribal / social interactions to shape bad behavior towards good behavior.

I guess this uses what you and Stephanie would see as the more fascist technique of the tribe and is therefore a BadThing no matter the merits of the goal?

Stephanie Zvan said...

Um, DM, what's the point of that last sentence? Greg hasn't commented on anything but the potential for misuse of "tribe" as a term. No comments related to fascism at all.

I, on the other hand, have said nothing about Janet. In fact, I agree with your interpretation of her use of the word. Of course, I can also see that if someone who is sensitized to the use of "tribalism" to mean primitive or unsophisticated behavior came across just a few of her posts under that category, the impression could be very different.

For the record, since we seem to be doomed to forever talk about the old dramas (well, ancient in internet terms), I'm fairly happy with the way Greg phrased it: his reaction to specific behavior, not some implied character fault in Janet. However, the woodpile dig was gratuitous.

Now, I haven't been talking about fascism either. I've specifically said that tribal affiliation confers benefits on the tribe's members. I have said that the benefits likely don't fall evenly, but I also supported trying to change that from inside the tribal structure. Saying that something doesn't work for me is not the same thing as saying it's a BadThing. Look at Becca. She's having a hoot.

We've been having such a lovely little disagreement, and we've turned up a bunch of information and opinions in the process. Why step on it now?

Anonymous said...

DM: No, not really. To me the tribe is a construct, not a thing that has a priori properties (the fascist technique, whatever). Janet's construct, your construct, Stephanie's construct, are all your own thing. My gig has entirely to do with the word itself, not the meaning (thus my nigger in the woodpile remark, less gratuitous than it looks, I think).

I totally agree with you, though, that intentionality is very very important. For example, it is not hard to KNOW that Janet's intentions are quite noble and good, and I certainly wasn't questioning that. But words are words, and that may mean very little, or it may mean very much. A message can be underscored by the words, or it can be sabotaged by the words.

The word tribe has been used so often in the last decade in reference to things other than Native American and African groups, and more in relation to crazy tv shows, corporate structures, pop evol psychology, etc. that it has probably lost most of its older connotation of primitive inferiority to the average American. But I can't help it. As someone who has lived among the 'tribal people' and studied anthropology (not arguing from authority here just explaining my experience) I get a visceral reaction from the word. I hear the 't-word' and I think "oh, racist drivel."

(My colleague Elizabeth used the phrase "tribal" in relation to herself and her family the other day, explaining her concerns about problems in her homeland in East Africa. I felt she was using the term to make herself understood to the Westerner, but also, fairly casually and not being particularly concerned about it. That was interesting.)

In the broad discussion of race, racism, race-based intelligence variation, etc. 'tribal' and 'tribalism' still comes into play quite often. Tribalism is the motivating force for major personal decisions, for small, medium and large scale political or social events, it is invoked as the substrate for activities such as genocide, or as an excuse for paternalism. The world bank has to deal with tribalism. The UN has to deal with tribalism. Tourists to Africa get to witness tribal things, and so on and so forth.

And so on and so forth. Must go to meeting, see you'all later.

Anonymous said...

Ahh. gotcha on the primitive inferiority thing. Thought you were on the us-them leads to genocide thing. The only time I get close to 'primitive' is in thinking tribal structures an inevitable, deeply entrenched feature of our species' behavior. Prime or first rather than inferior.