Tribalism, Strategies and Metaphysics of Identity

By Jon W. Anderson
Submitted to Session P3267 (AME-Tribe and Diatribe: Anthropology Meets Political Science, 2013 Annual Meeting
Afghanistan; All Middle East;
Tribes and tribalism enjoy an enigmatic presence in the Middle East. Consigned by the state and religion to their prehistories and, on their own, either failures as organisations or at best frames of contention, imageries of tribe and tribalism persist. Not just as nostalgia or anachronism, tribal identities and tribalism as culture are resurrected in such apodictic modern activities as the cultural heritage business of tourism, mostly in royal states, at election time in others, even for weekend outings; yet this availability doesn’t seem to organize anything concrete or that can’t be explained more concretely from pastoralists’ trucking their sheep to political entrepreneurs ginning up constituencies. Even if tribalism is a bust in the short term, absorbed into other strategies, and even then if more strategies of identity than of mobilization, its longer term forms and formulas show remarkable persistence and stability. Anthropology that since Barth and Bourdieu has shied away from such abstractions in favor of more concrete referents and objective conditions would authorize attention to tribalism less as representation than as discursive practice, which may be seen objectively to stratify from lower-level abstractions deployed strategically to higher-level abstractions deployed… how? Even if just talk, what is the talk about? Are its strategies really ‘no more’ than those at lower levels – i.e., claims on resources – or little more than entertainment? To open some additional middle ground of social action and cultural expression, I examine chains of evidence from foundation stories through tales of heroic deeds, often involving women and a frequently missing third term, religion, for discursive practices that deploy more metaphysical strategies, whose very point is removal from representation and engaging not harmonies but contradictions that they cast as intractable. Is that enough to sustain their persistence, and at more concrete levels where they compete with others? And where, besides as power plays – the ‘game’ in both Barth’s and Bourdieu’s terms – does it identify tractabilities?