“Tribalism” in political commentary means “social identity”

Henri Tajfel

Recently heard an interesting interview on local radio with author Amy Chua about tribalism in modern politics. While it’s great to hear the discussion of our identities as a driving force between our choices in politics, it’s a little frustrating that the word “tribalism” is being used ubiquitously to refer to social identity. To be clear, social identity is a psychological theory, and we are not psychologists here. But just being familiar with the theory makes it clear to us that when commentators talk about “tribalism” in politics they are discussing the dynamics created by our social identities and described by social identity theory. Presumably, most have no knowledge of social identity theory — or perhaps they simply prefer the popular term “tribe.”

Whether we call it gravity or fall-down-ness, aren’t we still talking about the same thing? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that when Amy Chua was talking about the way pro-gun people will talk about the same statistics in a markedly different way than a group of anti-gun people. This is about conforming your beliefs to your group norms.

No, in the sense that tribes are a specific kind of human society, and we don’t need them to have group norms or prejudices. Social identity theory is founded on evidence that we will favor our in group even if we were literally assigned to our group at random. This favoritism occurs independently of race, language, ethnicity or other fundamental human categories.

Henri Tajfel developed social identity theory in the late 1970s. He was Polish by birth but moved to France for studies during World War II. While almost all of his family and friends, Jews, were killed in the Holocaust, he was spared in Vichy France. This gave him a deep concern for prejudice and how it worked. His development of social identity theory was revolutionary for its time, when prejudices were thought to arise from competition for the same resource, like jobs or land.

Henri Tajfel
Henri Tajfel

One of his early remarkable experiments dealt with categorization. He asked people to sort series of lines from longest to shortest. The errors were random. Then he put the lines into two categories. The errors made in ranking them were no longer random. Instead, people exaggerated the similarities in length of lines in the same category, and overestimated the differences in lines of different categories

This is a critical point: that’s exactly what we do with social groups. We overestimate similarities between members of the same group and underestimate similarities between members of different groups. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about lines or religions.

Another building block for Tajfel was self-esteem. He felt that we all want a positive self image and therefore tend to highlight the good parts about our social identity, which in turn is one of those things that we overestimate in our group. So for him, the negatives of prejudice are genocide and race wars, but these are the offshoots of a positive impulse to feel good about ourselves.

Tajfel was credited with predicting actual tribal warfare such as between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda. But what he was saying was that these conflicts do not arrive from the tribal structure itself, rather from our own mental categorization processes.

Tajfel’s most famous work is called the minimal group studies. In these, he deliberately tried to take away any reasonable rationale for prejudice. He sorted a group of schoolboys supposedly based on which of two abstract painters they preferred, but in reality they had been sorted completely by random. He then allowed them to decide how compensation for participating in the discussion would be distributed. But he limited information they had to go to go on. They didn’t know whether the person they were giving money to was a friend, or in some other similar group like religion. All they had to go on was whether not that person was in their abstract-artist group. Despite the lack of any rationale for prejudice, the subjects routinely favored their own in group, deploying multiple strategies to do so.

Again, we could say that “tribe“ is an easier and older way of saying “social identity.“ However, Amy Chua appears to be using it in the sense of evolutionary psychology, saying we are “hard wired” to be tribal. This may be true biologically, but as we discussed, it is not hard wiring of tribes vs. “human beings,” as Chua puts it.

Tajfel worked deliberately to break down the idea that our tribalist tendencies have anything to do with actual differences. It would be one thing if northern Europeans had and innate, genetic tendency not to trust southern Europeans, but what social identity began with was surprising evidence that it doesn’t matter how or why we were sorted into groups. We will behave with prejudice and favoritism whether confronted with differences along inmutable lines of gender or race or with absolutely abstract differences such as preferring yellow or green.

Which should give us hope, because we can always strive to think of ourselves as “fellow Americans” or “brothers and sisters,” identities that call on us to believe the best in one another. And that solution comes from both Tajfel nearly 50 years ago, and from Chua today.

PS. We’ll read Chua’s book and get back to you on how she describes “Political Tribes.”

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