Home » Tribal society » The Concept of Tribe

The Concept of Tribe

The Constitution of India gives recognition to a category of people designated as the Scheduled Tribes and makes special provisions for their political representation and their economic and social welfare. Anthropologists have since the time of Lewis Morgan argued about the definition of tribe but very little account has been taken of the tribal communities of India.19th century scholars viewed tribal societies in the light of evolutionary theory.

This was true for the anthropologists like Lewis Morgan but also of historians like Fustel de Coulanges.Morgan sought to demonstrate the stages of social evolution by the comparison of contemporary primitive societies.Fustel reconstructed the transformation of Greek and Roman society from a primitive to an advanced type.IN all of this the tribe represented a type of social organization as well as a stage in social evolution.

The evolutionary perspective has been revived in the writings of Marshall Sahlins and in Godelier's critique of Sahlins.Godelier goes back to the writings of Morgan to argue that we can understand the tribe as a type of social organization only if we view it as a stage in social evolution. The trouble with 19th evolutionists was that they too readily believed that the development of a more complex or a more advanced type of society led automatically to the effacement of the tribal type. It is a truism that tribe has preceded state and civilization on the broad scale of social evolution.

In his first essay Sahlins had considered a segmentary structure to be the defining feature of the tribe as a type of society. The significance of segmentary political system was brought to light by British social anthropologists who had worked in Africa. The initial effect of the publication of African Social Systems was to highlight the differences between centralized and segmentary societies characterized by Fortes and Evans-Pritchard as societies of Group A and Group B.However it soon became apparent that the distinction between the tribe as segmentary system and the tribe as chiefdom is relative than absolute.Gluckman published his authoritative work in which he had argued that the difference between tribes organized under chiefs and those which lack chiefs is not as great as it appears to be.

Morgan anthropologists have learnt to distinguish analytically between the band, the segmentary system and the chiefdom. But they have continued by and large to apply the same term tribe to all the three. The several hundred units that comprise the Scheduled Tribes of India cover all the modes of tribal organization from the band to the chiefdom. This was go back to 19th century when the tribal areas began to be systematically opened up by the colonial administration. At the beginning of 19th century the mix of the different modes of tribal organization among those who comprise the STs of today was different. Bands of hunters and gatherers still exist among the Andaman Islanders or on the mainland among the Birhors were more common then now. The segmentary mode of tribal organization was also more common in Orissa, MP, Bihar and other areas. But there were chiefdoms as well in addition to these.

Tribal society faces problem in the context of Indian society. There is first of all the problem of discriminating among related and overlapping modes of tribal organization. There is also problem of drawing clear lines of demarcation between tribal and non-tribal society. In India the encounters between tribe and civilization have taken place under historical conditions of a radically different sort. The co-existence of tribe and civilization and their mutual interaction go back to the beginnings of recorded history and earlier. Tribes have existed at the margins of Hindu civilization from time immemorial and these margins have always been vague, uncertain and fluctuating. Hindu civilization acknowledged the distinction between tribe and caste in the distinction between tribe and caste in the distinction between two kinds of communities, Jana and jati, one confined to the isolation of hills and forests and the other settled in villages and towns with a more elaborate division of labour. The transformation of tribes into castes has been documented by a large number of anthropologists and historians.

The tribe as a mode of organization has always differed from the caste-based mode of organization. But tribes are not always easy to distinguish from castes particularly at the margins where the two modes of organization meet. The distinctive condition of the tribe in India has been its isolation mainly in the interior hills and forests but also in the frontier areas. By and large the tribal communities are those which were either left behind in these ecological niches or pushed back into them in course of the expansion of state and civilization. The isolation of the tribal communities is and always has been a matter of degree. Some tribes have been more isolated than others but at least in the interior areas where the bulk of the tribal population is to found none has been completely free from the influence of civilization. Their isolation whether self-imposed or imposed by others blocked the growth of their material culture but it also enabled them to retain their distinctive modes of speech. Today the most single indicator of the distinction between tribe and caste is the language. The castes speak one or another of the major literary languages; each tribe has its own distinctive dialect which might differ fundamentally from the prevalent regional language. But sometimes this distinction does not work as there are many tribes in western India including the Bhills who do not have any language of their own and adopted the language of the region.

Andre Beteille

Current Affairs Magazine