Tribes and Ethnicity

The concepts of ‘tribes’ and ‘ethnicity’ are among the most-discussed concepts both in socio-cultural anthropology and in the historical disciplines. This Transversal Work Group will be pursuing two aims. First, it will link the respective case studies of the project parts and carefully assess the uses and limits of tribal and ethnic terminology in order to facilitate comparison. Secondly, it will embed these studies in more general theoretical and methodological reflections on the research potential in the field. This TWG extends from working groups in the first VISCOM phase that have studied, among others, Genealogies and other ways of Addressing Community, and builds on VISCOM research about early medieval gentes in biblical exegesis, kinship and ethnicity in the early medieval West, tribal and kin relations in medieval Yemen and its perceptions, the emergence of larger territorial units in eastern Tibet, and late medieval ‘national’ saints in Eastern Central Europe. These studies will be further supplemented by a newly established DOC-team group studying Ethnonyms in Comparison.The concepts of ‘tribes’ and ‘ethnicity’ are among the most-discussed concepts both in socio-cultural anthropology and in the historical disciplines. This Transversal Work Group will be pursuing two aims. First, it will link the respective case studies of the project parts and carefully assess the uses and limits of tribal and ethnic terminology in order to facilitate comparison. Secondly, it will embed these studies in more general theoretical and methodological reflections on the research potential in the field. This TWG extends from working groups in the first VISCOM phase that have studied, among others, Genealogies and other ways of Addressing Community, and builds on VISCOM research about early medieval gentes in biblical exegesis, kinship and ethnicity in the early medieval West, tribal and kin relations in medieval Yemen and its perceptions, the emergence of larger territorial units in eastern Tibet, and late medieval ‘national’ saints in Eastern Central Europe. These studies will be further supplemented by a newly established DOC-team group studying Ethnonyms in Comparison.

The comparison between Yemeni and Tibetan tribes and early medieval gentes, while also revisiting theories of 'ethnicity', 'tribes' and similar notions from both an historical and an anthropological point of view has to meet the challenge of strong counter-currents in both disciplines. The terms central to this TWG are sometimes seen as misleading, while tribes or ethnic groups are often considered to be projections (e.g. by colonial empires) upon “others”, and thus as a form of “othering”. These reductive approaches are hardly adequate, but the underlying conceptual issues need to be taken seriously. Comparison will be usefully pursued here with full regard of the terminological and conceptual problems involved. One issue is the relation of native languages of community to modern scientific terminology: for example, Latin gens, natio, genus; qabīla in Yemen; depa or tshoba in Tibet. These communities differed considerably, and so do the corresponding notions. Still, it remains almost impossible for comparative purposes to avoid the modern terms ‘tribes’ and ‘ethnicity’, in spite of the conceptual problems involved. Thus, they will be explored through main comparative questions such as:

  • Which types of evidence are available for describing these groups in various macro-regions?

  • Which features allowed medieval actors to identify a particular group and to describe its distinctiveness with regard to others (e.g. shared territory, genealogy, history/myth of origin, language)?

  • What were the mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion in various macro-regions?

  • Was membership perceived as primordial or could it be acquired and lost, and if so, how can collective agency be traced? How was consensus and coherence maintained? And how did adherence to these groups relate to membership in other forms of community?

This also leads to the question of whether and how ethnic or tribal communities overlapped or competed with other forms of communities, linking this TWG with the others.

Last Update: 07.10.15