Short essay on the general characteristics of a tribe


The following are the main views regarding the nature of tribe:

1. Dr. Rivers

According to Dr. Rivers the tribe is a simple social group the member of which uses a common dialect and work together in war and in carrying out other common projects. In the definition of tribe, Rivers has not held common residence at one location to be an essential characteristic since most tribes are of the nature of wanderers. Scholars indicate the following defects in this description of the tribe.


(i) According to Dr. D.N. Majumdar it is incorrect to exclude the characteristics of a definite residential district from the definition of tribe. Inspite of possessing the habits of wandering, tribes do possess a definite habitation.

(ii) In his definition Rivers has stressed the unity of tribes in times of war. According to Prof. Brown there are many tribes within which one faction clashes with another. In the same way many tribes have neither any leader nor any central or any other kind of rule or administration.

2. Lewis Gillin and Philip Gillin

The tribe is one such group of local communities which lives in common area, speaks a common dialect and follows a common culture. Two facts have been particularly emphasized in Gillin’s view:


(i) Common habitation

In its absence, the consequent disappearance of mutual contact will also shatter the unity of language and culture.

(ii) Sense of unity

Due to this the members of one tribe consider themselves distinct from members of a different tribe. It is not enough for some people to stay at one place in order to form a tribe, there must be engendered in them a sense of unity. This view is shared by most people.


3. Imperial Gazetter

“A tribe is a collection of families bearing a common name, speaking a common dialect, occupying or professing to occupy a common territory and is not usually endogamous though originally it might have been so.”

4. D.N. Majumdar

“A tribe is a collection of families, bearing a common name, members of which occupy the same territory, speak the same language and observe certain taboos regarding marriage, profession or occupation and have developed a well assessed system of reciprocity and mutuality of obligation.”


Dr. Majumdar’s opinion does not hold true for all the tribes. In the beginning the members of the tribe did necessarily marry within their tribe but now the practice to marry outside the tribe is more prevalent among them. From this viewpoint, the definition by Imperial Gazetter is appropriate.

5. George Peter Murdock

It is a social group in which there are many clans, nomadic bands, villages or other/ subgroups which usually have a definite geographical area, a separate language/a singular and distinct culture and either a common political organization or at least a feeling of common determination against strangers.

6. Bogardus


‘The tribal group was base3 on the need for protection, on ties of blood relationships, and on the strength of a common religion.” According to Perry, two essential elements of the tribe are common dialect and common topography.

Characteristics of the Tribe

The following characteristics of the tribe are evident from its various definitions:

1. Definite common topography

The tribe inhabits and remains within a definite and common topography. In the absence of a common topography the tribe would also lose its other characteristic features as community sentiments, common language, etc. For this reason a common habitat is essential for a tribe.

2. Sense of Unity

But any group of people living in a particular geographical area cannot be called a tribe as long as its members do not possess a mutual sense of unity. This mental element is an invariable and essential characteristic of the tribe.

3. Common language

The members of a tribe speak a common language. This also helps to generate and evolve a sense of communal unity among them.

4. Endogamous groups

The members of a tribe generally marry into their own tribe but now due to increased contact with other tribes, the consequence of an increase in the means to transportation the system of marrying in the tribe is also changing.

5. Ties of blood relationships

A major cause of the sense of communal unity in the tribe is the tie of blood relationships between its members. The members of tribe believe in their having descended from a common, real or mythical ancestor and hence believe in blood relationships with the other members. )

6. Experience of the need of protection

The members of a tribe always experience the need for protection. Keeping this need in view, the political organization of the tribe is established and all authority for administration is vested in one person. This leader employs his mental power and skill in protecting the entire tribe. A tribal committed is formed to render assistance in the form of advice to the tribal chief. As a general rule the tribal chief accedes to the wishes of the committee.

The tribe is divided into numerous small groups each of which has its own chief. These chiefs solve the problems of their own groups and act according to the directives of the tribe.

7. Political organization

In this way each tribe has its own political organization which maintains harmony and avoid notes of discord among its members and protects them.

8. Importance of religion

Religion is of great importance in the tribe. The tribal political and social organization is based on this religion because social and political laws become inviolable once they are granted religious sanctity and recognition According to Bogardus, “Religion, specially in the form of ancestor worship, also rendered important service in developing the habits of obedience.” The authority of a common religion is an important characteristics of tribe.

9. Common name

The tribe has a common name.

10. Common culture

A common culture, resulting from a sense of unity, common language, common religion, common political organization, etc., is found to exist in a tribe.

11. Organisation of clans

A tribe is constituted of many clans. There exist laws of reciprocity among its members.

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