A few weeks ago Bernie Mitchell invited me, Colin Newlyn and Anne McCrossan to speak about tribes. I hope Anne, Colin and Bernie will correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s fair to say they view the notion of tribes somewhat differently to me. I’m very uncomfortable with what the notion of a tribe conjures up in my head, and I’m also keen to experiment with things that make me feel uncomfortable so I agreed to give it a go.

Prior to the event I hopped onto Facebook to ask my friends what tribes means to them. Lots of people contributed – and I think it’s worth you taking a quick look  here at what people had to say.

I got it into my head that it might be fun to spark a debate by telling a short poem first. I’d not tried this before, here’s what I wrote and recited:

Tribes – by Doug Shaw

I do not subscribe
To the concept of a tribe
When positioned as division
Is it more about religion
I’m an atheist you see
God has no meaning to me

I do not subscribe
To the concept of a tribe
I just don’t understand
I think I’d rather join a band
A band of brothers, lovers, mothers
No I want to hang with others
A rock band
Punk band
Same old junk band
Sports cars
Cash bars
Trips to Mars

I do not subscribe
To the concept of a tribe
I can make it on my own
At least until my budget’s blown

As far as poetry goes I think you’ll agree Keats et al have very little to worry about, however my approach seemed to work at some level as it got everyone talking.

I feel drawn to community rather than tribe, I think the former is more about where you are as well as who and what you are – and ideally at least, it feels more inclusive to me. We debated this and other points, including whether or not Tribes is just a marketing vehicle for Mr Godin, and whether or not the positive feelings of unity and being part of something together are outweighed by the more negative feelings of defending a patch, stifling different opinions etc. Eventually I departed feeling mostly happy, and willing to take away and ponder newly observed facets of tribes. Absolutes are rarely the answer – mixed feelings are the stuff of life.


In case it helps, here are the notes I made prior to writing the poem and giving the talk:

Seth Godin

All animals are equal, and some animals are more equal than others. Animal Farm.

Mary Parker Follett 1868 1933 – adviser to Theodore Roosevelt, first woman to address London School of Economics.  She believed in the need to integrate the difference without losing it. Power with v power over. Coercive power is the curse of the universe; coactive power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul.We should never allow ourselves to be bullied by “either-or.” There is often the possibility of something better than either of two given alternatives. Her approach to conflict was to embrace it as a mechanism of diversity. A genuine interweaving or interpenetrating by changing both sides creates new situations.

Fearlessness – love. Fear – tribe

FDR – ‘So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’

Authority is something to be avoided.

1977 lyrics. Punk – a movement. Came and went. Blitzkrieg Bop

Don’t just question authority – explore the nature of it, what does it mean to be free?

There’s a truth in the attack, and no tenderness or humanity in fanaticism

If this land is your land, and this world is your world, then what the fuck do you need a tribe for?

“And so now I’d like to say – people can change anything they want to. And that means everything in the world. People are running about following their little tracks – I am one of them. But we’ve all got to stop just following our own little mouse trail. People can do anything – this is something that I’m beginning to learn. People are out there doing bad things to each other. That’s because they’ve been dehumanised. It’s time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring and follow that for a time. Greed, it ain’t going anywhere. They should have that in a big billboard across Times Square. Without people you’re nothing. That’s my spiel.”

Joe Strummer – Without People, You’re Nothing


As you can see from the feedback on Facebook – opinions and feelings about tribes are many and divided. I’m tempted to wrap this blog and the Facebook stuff up into a Scribd document and see if that invites any further discussion. Before doing so – if you’ve anything to add on the subject please feel free to join in here. Thanks.

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

8 thoughts on “Tribes”

  1. Ah, funnily enough (synchronicity?) I picked up on Seth G’s tribe stuff the other day. What I liked about it was
    a. the rhythm element. We work with some people at the same rhythm – we may not have the same views, but we have the same pulse – which makes communication more comfortable (note – we don’t necessarily have the same views!) I think that is very true…..
    b. don’t waste your time trying to convert those who will not be part of your tribe (this is from a marketing perspective) but focus on finding those who do get what you do. This conflicts with the advice to keep banging on someone’s door (which is what we are all taught) so that they eventually get your message. This has been quite a transformative thought for me and I will be working on my business development in a very different way. I shall, of course, report back to you Doug as to how it pans out.

    1. Thanks Julia – good to hear from you. I may be wrong, I often am, but is SG on the one hand saying we should work with people who have different views (yes – let’s get work more diverse please) and on the other saying don’t waste time trying to work with people with different views…? I may be trying to oversimplify and simplification but as is often the case, I’m left a little bemused. And I guess you can have both, plus the slight headache I now have! 😉

      1. Ah, I don’t think I phrased it well….
        It’s a combination of those who we rhyme with easily (tho may not have the same views as) and those who get what we want to do …. and presumably the most comfortable relationships are where they overlap.

        However, they can be two distinct groups – the first are just people we enjoy being with, have a drink with etc, the second relate to those we are trying to do business with.

        Er, that’s it I think. Hope I’ve made it clearer!

        1. That’s great thanks – and forgive my earlier playfulness, I’m tired and therefore prone to greater capacity for frivolity than usual.

  2. Realize, Doug, that “tribe” can have different connotations in US culture than elsewhere in the world. Not necessarily more positive or negative, but it’s tied into the whole ethos of the American Indian.

    I sympathize with Seth Godin’s use of the word. Not that I would have picked it myself, but he was trying to convey an interesting concept. And, being focused on marketing, he decided that it would be good to pick an unusual word to convey that. Fair enough, I suppose. It’s a good concept to discuss, because it’s more about attracting people to a compelling cause (like you’re doing with this blog!) than using command&control tactics.

    This is the first time I’ve heard someone connect Seth Godin’s use of “tribe” to religion. But I suppose I can see how you went that direction.

    1. Hi Carl – thanks for coming by and contributing. There were a number of US contributors on the original Facebook thread too, and I appreciate you adding to that mix. And yes, I agree it’s got people talking, because they want to rather than because they feel they have to.

      The religion link only popped up after I googled the definition of tribe (see the top of the blog post) and what came back mentioned religious ties. I was in no way trying to connect SG’s definition of tribe to religion, sorry for not making that clearer.

      Cheers – Doug

  3. Doug,

    I think you’ve got a bit hung up on the word and the connotations it has for you rather than looking at the sentiment behind it’s use. Community, collective, mutual – these could all be used to mean the same thing and have their own sets of connotation, positive and negative. To me, we are talking about a group of people who agree they share a connection, a commonality, and they are are willing be be recognised as part of the group sharing that connection.
    I suspect Seth Godin used the word ‘Tribes’ because the alternatives have even more negative connotations, particularly in the US, and he would have been instantly dismissed if he’d used them. He has also sought to re-define the word for today.
    As I said on the night, I believe we are stronger when we come together. I don’t really care what it’s called but Tribes works fine for me, and is more acceptable to many than the alternatives.

    1. Hi Colin – thanks for your note. The original Facebook thread that I linked to above contained a wide range of opinions from many people. Some for, some against, some both. I think maybe I am a little hung up on the word, and I don’t think I’m the only one. And I’m OK with that. It’s more about the conversation behind it like you say, and there does seem lots of common ground. And if you don’t really care what it’s called and if tribe works fine for you and is more acceptable than many alternatives, surely you do care? And that is absolutely fine.

      I feel like I’m fast disappearing up my own you know what now.

      The main point of publishing this blog was just to get the stuff in my head, out to a slightly wider audience than the fun, small one who turned up when we did the gig. On the basis of how enjoyable that evening was, I hope to see you again soon.

      Cheers – Doug

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