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Home News ‘Urban tribes’ thriving in modern society

‘Urban tribes’ thriving in modern society

Published on October 07, 2014

In the 1980s, French sociologist Michel Maffesoli coined the term "urban tribes" to describe small groups of people defined by shared interests and lifestyle preferences around which modern societies are organised.

His book "Le temps des tribus" ("The Time of the Tribes: the Decline of Individualism in Mass Society") was published in French in 1988 and in English in 1996.

QUESTION: What is your definition of "urban tribes"?

ANSWER: "These are groups from the second half of the 20th century of people united by different affinities and the major movements of youth rebellion, such as in 1968.

Their members share the same tastes, such as the same sexual or religious orientations…. It’s difficult to list them but you only have to go to a big city, open your eyes and look around to see them."

QUESTION: Why is this phenomenon of "tribalism" appearing at the moment?

ANSWER: "In 2,000 years of history, we find that societies evolve in cycles of around three-and-a-half centuries. At the end of a cycle, the model is tired, just like a machine.

Thus, the middle ages gave way to the Renaissance, which itself gave way to modernity (considered by historians to have started in the 17th century) and so on. This is what we call crisis. Today everyone has reduced (this latest crisis) to its economic dimension, but in fact, it is in our heads, in our way of thinking, of organising ourselves.

The US sociologist Pitirim Sorokin uses the term "saturation" to describe this phenomenon. It’s a bit like when you add salt or sugar to a glass of water and up until the last grain, you do not see that the water is saturated."

QUESTION: You call these tribes "post-modern", why?

ANSWER: "Modernity begins in the 17th century with Descartes who said ‘I think in the fortress of my mind’ and signalled thus the birth of the individual who is his own master. Modernity continues in the 18th century which confirms our way of thinking, then in the 19th century when social systems are formed, before getting lost in the middle of the twentieth century.

That’s when what I call post-modernity starts, and to which the term tribalism belongs. Namely, a society that is no longer unified… but a mosaic of communities united by affinities."

QUESTION: The word "tribe" also poses a question. It refers to the past rather than the future?

ANSWER: "If I chose to use the world "tribe" in 1988… it was to show that we are witnessing a return to what used to be thought of as outdated. Today in the concrete jungles that are our contemporary megacities, there is a need to stick together.

What is different about post-modern tribes (compared to tribes of centuries ago) is their synergy of the archaic and the technological. Seventy percent of Internet traffic today is about community — romantic, philosophical or religious meetings.

It’s also characteristic of post-modernity to associate opposing things…. On the one side, the desire to enjoy life, and, on the other, the spiritual, as shown by the advent of the contemporary New Age movement…."

QUESTION: How might this phenomenon evolve?

ANSWER: "We’re creating another way of living together which is not recognised in official society. What is not the rule today, the lack of the usual standards of good behaviour, will be the rule tomorrow, established as the standard.

"We see how small musical, sexual or cultural communities of the 1960s have become reference points today…. This, I believe, is human law. "