In 2018, I gave a presentation at The International Student Conference for Africa (TISCA) at the University of Leicester. The focus of the presentation was broadly on the legal implications of fundamental constitutional change on the continent of Africa – not constitutional change in individual nation-states, but a wide-ranging reinterpretation of what the continent looks like, how it operates… essentially what the meaning of Africa has been, is and could possibly be. One of the things I touched on in my presentation was the concept of ‘tribe’ in Africa. My contention was, and is, that the sociological space the word ‘tribe’ occupies is problematic in its historical origin and contemporary use. Therefore, it remains an inherently flawed unit and tool of analysis of African realities (or indeed any reality in which ‘tribe’ is deployed as a unit of intellectual examination). Though my presentation was quite broad (… and probably too long!) this was the point that most people wanted to discuss with me about after the talk. Subsequently, I have had conversations about this problematic concept of ‘tribe’, both on-line and offline. While several people engage with the arguments in a reflective way (I do not expect people to agree with me, just hear what I am saying), I also note that a number are often quite adamantly wedded to the questionable expressions sometimes used to give form to our realities. Such people are reluctant to investigate beyond the precarious antecedantal contested narrative ground upon which these realities rest. So, I have decided in this post to basically… show my working. What follows are excerpts from the works of a few researchers, academics and writers who have done the work on the fallacy of ‘tribe.’ It should be noted that there is a nuance here. The arguments do not predicate themselves on the non-existence of the polity designated ‘tribe’, however, they rely on identifying a fundamental schism between the rigidity of what the word ‘tribe’ means and the divergent realities on the ground. These realities diverge, both from the rigid linguistic designation and from each other. Therefore, I contend that deploying ‘tribe’ as a unit of intellectual examination is an unsound academic practice.

It should be noted that from the readings below, the suggestion is that ‘tribe’ has no definition that matches reality. It describes nothing that exists or has existed. Which is why I do not suggest alternatives here. Choosing another word to be co-terminous ignores the fact that it is the social space the word occupies that is problematic and that is what makes the word problematic. Therefore, ‘What word shall we use instead?’ is not the right response.

PS: If there are any readings that you think are important, but that I have not included, please put them in the comments section.


MacEachern, Scott, et al. “Genes, Tribes, and African History.” Current anthropology 41.3 (2000): 357-384.

‘This paper discusses the inherent weakness of the concept of “tribes” and the problems of linking these artificially created units to patterns of human genetic variation. … If the types themselves, in this case African tribes, are incorrectly characterized as static and essentially timeless entities, then the conclusions drawn from these comparisons are certain to be debatable.’

‘Appendix 3 (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994:470–72) includes the “tribal”/ethnic names under which samples were collected, and these ethnonyms make it abundantly clear that such collection sometimes took place with very little knowledge of local cultural milieus and very often involved highly mixed samples. Thus, for example, the “Bantu Hutu” group contains people denominated as Tutsi and Twa as well as Burundian and Rwandan, the “Bantu Maconde” group includes people identified only as “African,” the “Bantu Kenya” group contains Luo people, the “Bantu Nyaturu” group contains individuals identified as Sandawe, the “Fulani” population contains Hausa and Kanuri, the “Nilo-Saharan” group contains people identified as Bantu, the “Nubian” population contains people identified as Egyptian, an “Unspecified [Khoisan]” population is sampled from Zimbabwe, and so on.’

‘For Africanists, however, even more striking may be the uncritical acceptance of dated Western models of “tribal” or “ethnic” identification (the two terms are used essentially interchangeably) in The History and Geography of Human Genes. It has become increasingly obvious over the past 30 years that static, bounded, monolithic anthropological models of group identity are unsatisfactory, failing as they do to capture the dynamic and responsive nature of those sociocultural units throughout the world. It is abundantly clear that many of the “tribes” so beloved of (even modern) Western commentators are not entities preserved unchanged from ancient times but rather the relatively recent products of intense participation in regional networks of political, social, and economic interaction.’

‘“Tribal” and/or ethnic identities have never been primordial and immutable, in Africa or elsewhere, and it is possible in many cases to trace sets of historically and socially contingent processes that have brought these modern identities into being.’

‘ In a number of cases, African “tribes” were the (conscious or unconscious) creations of colonial administrators and professionals, including ethnographers, with other interests in colonial government. The motivations behind this manipulation of identities were various; they included administrative convenience and the establishment of easily governable entities that could be controlled and taxed, divide-and-conquer strategies, and the creation of power bases by local and foreign elites. To these ends, communities were divided or forcibly amalgamated and “tribes” created out of whole cloth. Even languages, the “powerful ethnic guidebook . . . essentially complete” of Cavalli-Sforza et al. (1994:23), were manipulated and modified to support the goals of both indigenous and foreign players in the processes of colonialism’

Tribal Textiles Portfolio © Jamie Marshall

Salamone, Frank A.Colonialism and the Emergence of Fulani Identity.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 20.3-4 (1985): 193-202.

‘Ethnicity is a process and not an event. People use it to achieve desired goals. During the
Colonial period, the groups who became “The Fulani” negotiated and shaped their identity in conformity with British expectations in order to attain and ensure British support in maintaining their favored position in the colonial hierarchy’

‘No ethnic group, however, has impermeable boundaries, for people can and do change ethnic identities (Barth 1969). Neither, moreover, does any group’s boundary remain permanently fixed. If there is a reason for maintaining separation between groups, then even the most minute differences will be exploited in order to sustain the separation.’

‘Ethnic groups, in sum, exist to promote and organize interactions between and within groups organized on the mythic principle of common descent.’

‘Ethnic identity is a type of political identity. It is a means of mobilizing support to attain perceived goals, support which calls upon the principle of ethnicity, or presumed common descent (R. Cohen 1978). That it changes over time to suit various situations has been established in numerous places.’


Lowe, Chris, Tunde Brimah, Peal-Alice Marsh, William Minter, and Monde Muyangwa. “Talking About ‘Tribe’: Moving from Stereotypes to Analysis.” Africa Policy E-Journal (1997)

Tribe is used for millions of Yoruba in Nigeria and Benin, who share a language but have an eight-hundred year history of multiple and sometimes warring city-states, and of religious diversity even within the same extended families.’

‘anyone concerned with truth and accuracy should avoid the term “tribe” in characterizing African ethnic groups or cultures. This is not a matter of political correctness. ..”tribe” does not contribute to understanding identities… ‘

‘“If by tribe we mean a social group that shares a single territory, a single language, a single political unit, a shared religious tradition, a similar economic system & common cultural practices, such a group is rarely found in the real world,”

(The following are the key points outlined in the article – bulletpointed for brevity)

  • Tribe has no coherent meaning
  • Tribe promotes a myth of primitive African timelessness, obscuring history and change.
  • In the modern West, tribe often implies primitive savagery
  • Images of timelessness and savagery hide the modern character of African
    ethnicity, including ethnic conflict.
  • Tribe substitutes a generalized illusion for detailed analysis of
    particular situations
  • Tribe reflects once widespread but outdated 19th century social theory.
  • Social theories of tribes resonated with classical and biblical education.
  • Tribe became a cornerstone idea for European colonial rule in Africa.
  • Commonly when Africans learn English they are taught that tribe is the term that English speakers will recognize. But what underlying meaning in their own  languages are Africans translating when they say tribe? Most words use in African languages would translate to nation, people, country etc
  • Ethnic divisiveness in Africa takes intensely modern forms.
  • Given a choice between words that express truths clearly and precisely, and words which convey partial truths murkily and distortedly, we should choose the former over the latter.


Darden, Keith, and Harris Mylonas. “The promethean dilemma: Third-party state-building in occupied territories.” Ethnopolitics 11, no. 1 (2012): 89

‘Colonial powers in Africa were successful in creating national, ethnic or broad tribal identities out of a diverse patchwork of local kinship ties (Young, 1976). In Malawi, an assemblage of kinship groups was successfully converted into Chewas and Tumbukas (Posner, 2005).’


Gathara, PWHAT IS YOUR TRIBE? The Invention Of Kenya’s Ethnic Communities’ March 5, 2018

For rather than something indelibly encoded into the African genetic make-up and over which one exercises little choice, tribe turns out to be largely an artificial construct. The fact is, there is a marked difference between how ordinary Africans, including Kenyans, think of tribe and its origins and what history and social science has to say about it.

“What is a tribe?” asks Mahmood Mamdani, the Executive Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research. “It is very largely a creation of laws drawn up by a colonial state which imposes group identities on individual subjects and thereby institutionalises group life… Above all, tribe was a politically driven, totalising identity.” “The politicisation of ethnic identity began with the colonial experience,” says Prof. Kimani Njogu in the recent Africa Uncensored documentary titled In Tribe We Trust. According to the book Ethnicity and African Politics by Crawford Young, “although the ethnic labels… have pre-colonial origins, they became comprehensive and rigidly ranked categories only in the colonial period; they were heavily influenced by imperial codifications and further transformed by politicised actions in the last half-century.”

In pre-colonial societies, as Young explains, ethnicity was a fungible cultural artefact, one that was not necessarily encoded into one’s genes, attached to particular homelands or imbued with ideas of political sovereignty. Individuals and even entire societies could navigate in and out of them. In fact, even the ideas of kinship and shared ancestry were “notoriously malleable to serve contemporary social or ideological purposes. But once rooted in the social consciousness, mythology convincingly impersonates reality.”

The important takeaway is that rather than ancient “nations”, today’s ethnicities are a creation of the colonial era – “state-sponsored tribal ethnographies and romantic essentialised notions of tribal culture”, as Parsons describes them.

Recognising that the tribe was a colonial-era invention is empowering because it means it can be disinvented or reimagined; tribe is not destiny.


Mafeje, Archie. “The ideology of ‘tribalism’.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 9, no. 2 (1971): 253-261.

I am inclined to think that the problem in Africa is not one of empirically diversified behaviour but mainly one of ideology, and specifically the ideology of ‘tribalism’. European
colonialism, like any epoch, brought with it certain ways of reconstructing the African reality. It regarded African societies as particularly tribal. This approach produced certain blinkers or ideological predispositions which made it difficult for those associated with the system to view these societies in any other light. 

In South Africa the indigenous population has no word for ‘tribe’; only for ‘nation’, ‘clan’, and ‘lineage’ and, traditionally, people were identified by territory- ‘Whose [which Chief’s] land do you come from ?’

In many instances the colonial authorities helped to create the things called ‘tribes’, in the sense of political communities; this process coincided with and was helped along by the anthropologists’ preoccupation with ‘tribes’. This provided the material as well as the ideological base of what is now called ‘tribalism’. Is it surprising then that the modern African, who is a product of colonialism, speaks the same language?

There is a real difference between the man who, on behalf of his tribe, strives to maintain its traditional integrity and autonomy, and the man who invokes tribal ideology in order to maintain a power position, not in the tribal area, but in the modern capital city, and whose ultimate aim is to undermine and exploit the supposed tribesmen. 

First, it over-simplifies, mystifies, and obscures the real nature of economic and power relations between Africans themselves, and between Africa and the capitalist world, almost in the same way as the term ‘feudalism’, applied to Latin America, camouflages the crucial role played by international finance-capital and imperialism in accentuating and perpetuating the existing social formation in that part of the world. Secondly, it draws an invidious and highly suspect distinction between Africans and other peoples of the world. The patronising concession of’call them the same’ is more likely to produce resentment than to facilitate communication. Thirdly, it is an anachronistic misnomer which impedes cross-cultural analysis.


Manchanda, N. (2018). The Imperial Sociology of the ‘Tribe’ in Afghanistan. Millennium, 46(2), 165–189.

Often used to signal anachronistic hordes of people seemingly resistant to centralised governance, even the New Oxford Dictionary contends that:

‘[i]n historical contexts the word tribe is broadly accepted (the area was inhabited by Slavic tribes), but in contemporary contexts it is problematic when used to refer to a community living within a traditional society. It is strongly associated with past attitudes of white colonialists towards so-called primitive or uncivilized peoples living in remote undeveloped places. For this reason it is generally preferable to use alternative terms such as community or people’


The ‘tribe’ as a concept emerged as a legacy of colonial knowledge but now functions as part of the wider grammar of neo-colonial power. Contemporary imperial practices have reinvigorated these forms of knowledge, something we can see in racialised dynamics and demands of the bolstered ‘far right’ in Western Europe and North America. The tribe as an ‘invented tradition’ is a political project, one which has profound implications for the USA’s longest war. Whilst these ‘imagined communities’ may indeed have salience on the ground, the manner in which ‘tribes’ are denied a synchronicity – they are ‘unchanging’ and ‘different’ to us – contributes to a distancing and reification that does a disservice both to the Afghan peoples and to more fine-grained understandings of ‘tribe’ as a term. In order to overcome these provincial colonial knowledges and the violence they perform in the Global South, we must question what constitutes legitimate ‘knowledge’ and ‘authority’ and be aware of, and agitate against the multiple and layered prejudices, violences, and erasures that structure the lives on the ‘wrong’ side of the colonial equation.



‘‘the British wrongly believed that Tanganyikans belonged to tribes; Tanganyikans created tribes to function within the colonial framework.’’ John Iliffe, ‘A Modern History of Tanganyika’

TribeIn conclusion, you cannot legitimately study something you have created for the express purpose of studying it. You cannot uplift a group when each time you address them, you verbally wrestle them to the ground. My people. My people.



See also

Kasfir, Sidney Littlefield. “One tribe, one style? Paradigms in the historiography of African art.” History in Africa 11 (1984): 163-193.

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