By James Horrox
Towards the end of the 1970s, against the backdrop of the declining relevance of the collectivities that had shaped earlier generations’ conception of communal ties (class, nation, religion, and so on), French sociologist Michel Maffesoli began using the terminology of ‘tribalism’ to describe what he saw emerging in their place. A new phase in the life of Western societies was underway, Maffesoli argued, the defining feature of which was the coalescence of a multiplicity of more fluid, nebulous communities, bound together primarily by shared emotion, feelings, lifestyles, passions and tastes. These social formations, whose existence, Maffesoli contends, refutes the prevailing belief in the rise of individualism, are symptomatic of a larger paradigm shift – from modernity to postmodernity – that is witnessing the collapse of the intellectual, social and political models associated with the modern era and the emergence of new ways of thinking and being.
In France, Maffesoli has long enjoyed a degree of notoriety as something of a dissident public intellectual, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s, with the publication of the SAGE English edition of his magnum opus The Time of the Tribes (originally published in French in 1988), that he began to make an impact in Anglophone academia. With the majority of his sizable back catalogue still yet to be translated, The Time of the Tribes remains an essential introduction to the main themes in Maffesoli’s work – themes that are arguably more relevant today than at any point in the three decades since the book first appeared. Page references in the following refer to the 1996 English edition; references to his other works, included by way of context, are from the respective French editions.
Modernity and postmodernity
Maffesoli belongs to a school of social science sometimes termed ‘the sociology of the imaginary’. The notion of the imaginary is rather more developed in Francophone academia than in the English-speaking world, but essentially it simply refers to the way in which people ‘imagine’ their social environment presented through culture. The idea is that every historical period and social group produces an imaginary structure that provides the framework for, and encompasses, all of the various beliefs, truths, values, symbols and myths that underlie and provide legitimacy to the social practices of that period or group. The imaginary is therefore the basic determinant of individual attitudes and ways of thinking, and of the various interrelations (social, economic, political etc.) that constitute the life of a society. This structure undergoes periodic ‘crises’, where it becomes ‘saturated’ and loses its force, and a new one emerges.
Maffesoli’s thought is based on a conception of history that sees every major civilisational shift in these terms – that is, beginning first of all with a mutation of the imaginary. His claim is that Western societies are currently living through one of these great periods of transition, the advent of postmodernity marking, among other things, “the end of illusions concerning the theories of emancipation elaborated in the 19th century and which, more or less consciously, continue to torment Official Thought; the end, equally, of the myth of continuous Progress and triumphant Reason. The age of quantitative values gives way to a diffuse desire for the qualitative.”
Fundamental to the ways of thinking and being associated with the modern period was an underlying logic of separation, and an obsession with what Maffesoli refers to as the ‘fantasy of the One’. Reductio ad unum (‘Reduction to the One’) is a favourite axiom of August Comte that recurs throughout his commentary on modernity: one God, the centralised nation state, stable institutions and an epistemological individualism built upon the figure of the rational, indivisible individual, all based on the “great systematic theories” orientated toward the ideal of ‘the Republic, One and Indivisible’. In short, Maffesoli argues, modernity was founded on the imperative that “being must be one. It must be stable, labelled and unified.”
Rooted in the Christian tradition, the emergence of this order was linked to that of reason as an organisational principle (he notes St Augustine’s assertion that ‘human reason leads to unity’), and the notion of salvation, inherited from Christian doctrine by the secular ideologies of the Enlightenment (St. Augustine again: “the City of God”, the distant paradise, to which we can gain access by putting our faith in the right prophet or mediator: Christ, the proletariat, or whoever).
Western societies now find themselves in a moment of metamorphosis: the death of a certain manner of being and thinking and the resurgence of other forms of ‘being together’ in which new beliefs and myths are emerging. Postmodernity challenges the individualist and universalising logic of modernity with the emergence of a ‘polytheism of values’ (originally Max Weber’s phrase, but one that crops up frequently in Maffesoli’s work). Whereas the basic building block of modernity was the rational, unified ‘individual’, labelled and stamped with a singular, fixed, self-contained identity and existing within stable institutions, the dominant figure of postmodernity is the heterogeneous ‘person’ capable of a multiplicity of roles, who forms his identity via sensory engagement with the other and can only find fulfilment to the extent that he is tied to a group (whether the link is real or imagined) (pp. 66-67).
In sum, this is a shift from an abstract and rational period of history to an ‘aesthetic’ or ‘empathetic’ one, where “the accent is […] on that which unites, rather than that which separates” (p.10). “The rational era is built on the principle of individuation and of separation, whereas the empathetic period is marked by the lack of differentiation, the ‘loss’ in a collective subject: in other words, what I shall call neo-tribalism” (p.11).
All of the various polarities Maffesoli lays out to describe this transition are part and parcel of perhaps the most important such polarity: between ‘sociality’ and ‘the social’. In Chapter 3 of The Time of the Tribes, entitled ‘Sociality vs. the Social,’ he makes the case that we essentially no longer have a society which is stable and built upon solid institutions and a social contract made by rational, self-sufficient individuals, but rather a fragile sociality, expressed in feelings and emotions. We have moved, in short, from a unitary and stable social structure (the ‘social’) to a diverse and fragmented one, made up of much more fractured and nebulous formations (‘sociality’).
“The main thrust of my arguments”, Maffesoli writes in the book’s opening chapter, entitled ‘The Emotional Community’, “will be to show, to describe and to analyse the social configurations that seem to go beyond individualism, in other words, the undefined mass, the faceless crowd and the tribalism consisting of a patchwork of small local entities” (p.9). The postmodern sociality is built upon “the constant interplay between the growing massification and the development of micro-groups, which I shall call tribes” (p.6). Members of these communities are united not primarily by commonalities of nationality, religion, ethnicity, race, sex, gender, class, ideology or occupational category, but by shared emotion, feelings, lifestyles, passions and tastes: an organic ‘being together for the sake of being together’, as opposed to the primarily functional or ‘mechanical’ solidarities characteristic of the modern period.
These ephemeral, elective communities (‘elective’ in the sense that we can choose which we belong to and are free to move between multiple, overlapping groups) crystallise around a pantheon of ‘gods’, in the form of pop idols, sports teams, alternative philosophies, book, film and music genres, tech and fashion brands, emblems, icons, and so on. We could also add, as Rob Shields does in his preface to the English edition of The Time of the Tribes, (pp.i-vii), various interest-based collectivities, from hobbyists and sports enthusiasts through to environmental movements and consumer lobbies. One example Shields suggests is that of the NRA, originally formed simply as a loose association of firearms enthusiasts but which now, as he notes, can be seen as an instance of the political mobilisation of a tribe (although as such it is in some respects more of an exception than the rule, albeit one with important implications).
All of these groupings form around a shared imaginary, which results in temporary networks of affinity, shared imagination, shared rules of conduct, images, moral code, rituals and beliefs. They are inherently unstable groups (their members are free to move from one to another [p.6]), and also ‘nomadic’, marked by “fluidity, occasional gatherings and dispersal” (p.76). But perhaps most importantly, they are also, in a sense, religious in character. In this, Maffesoli draws heavily on Durkheim’s notion of the ‘social divine’: the idea of the vitalising, Dionysian quality of the transcendent warmth of community (pp.x, 38ff) where the solitary ‘I’ bursts apart and plunges into the collective ‘we’. Hence, the tribe becomes the context for the process of ‘disindividuation’ (the shift from ‘individual’ to ‘person’ [p.6]): the “exit from the self, ex–stasis” (p.19).
Perhaps the easiest illustration would be the euphoric mass of the rock concert or sports event, where the tribe gathers to recognise itself as such through the collective expression of shared passion and emotion. Here the accent is on the non-rational and the emotional, imagination and the imaginary, and a sentimental, affective and devotional relationship between the congregation and its ‘totem’. Thus, Maffesoli argues, we participate in some little ‘other’ (an object, an icon, a celebrity, a band, a piece of music, a slogan chanted at a rally, or whatever) and thereby a larger ‘other’ (the tribe; society as a whole) is created. The imaginary thus simultaneously fosters the ‘bursting apart of the self’ and provides the binding (re-ligare: ‘to bind together’) that ties together members of the community.
To paraphrase Durkheim’s famous definition of religion, the tribal imaginary can therefore be understood as a system of beliefs, rituals and practices relating to sacred things that unite those who adhere to them into a ‘single moral community’. Durkheim argued that in venerating a god, a society is actually venerating itself, and he viewed this idolisation and defence of the group as the most primitive form of religiosity. Maffesoli takes this notion and reapplies it to the postmodern context, where the god in question may be a band, a celebrity, a sports team etc. and the tribe that crystallises around it becomes the highest social good for its members (p.x). “The gods, their myths and rituals have changed their names,” he argues, “but they are still hard at work in both sociality and the environment” (p.139).
Presentism, Power and the ‘Transfiguration’ of Politics
One of the central features of this tribalism, and of postmodernity in general, is its ‘presentist’ orientation. During the modern era, Maffesoli suggests, the ‘political’ was about the distant: ‘projective’, in the sense of ‘reaching forward’, on the basis of a shared belief in progress and the continuous amelioration of society, towards the attainment of the great utopia of the future. The current metamorphosis is witnessing a ‘transfiguration of the political’, where this forward-looking orientation has given way to a form of ‘being-togetherness’ that is no longer interested in promises of future perfection, but instead invested in the present (p.75), where the emphasis is simply on “the execution in actu of the ‘being-together’” (p.16) and life can be enjoyed in its plenitude. Rejecting modernity’s ideals of progress and the sacrifice of today’s pleasure for the sake of some distant utopia, what is at stake now are “interstitial utopias, interstitial freedoms – no longer the search for the perfect freedom […] but the creation of gaps”.
The transition from a period in which distance prevailed to one in which “proxemics” (Chapter 6) prevails – i.e., “from the global to the local, the passage from the proletariat as an active historical subject to the masses freed of responsibility for the future” (p.31) – has therefore entailed a shift in the place of democracy in the social imaginary. The ‘democratic ideal’ of modernity refers to an abstract and intangible ‘demos’ in which the new tribes don’t recognise themselves; law and the social contract are seen merely as enforced crystallisations of an abstract universal order unreflective of, and incompatible with the polytheism of values embodied in the tribes. So an important aspect of the saturation of the modern paradigm is “the saturation of the question of power [pouvoir] (i.e. of politics) in its projective function, and the emergence of the question of the puissance at the heart of the many sparse, splintered communities” (p.31).
By way of another word-pairing then, Maffesoli offers an account of the functioning of power within the tribes (Chapter 2: “The Underground Puissance”). Pouvoir is a vertical power: regulation, control, domination and authority from above; a morality imposed by institutions; rationalisation; the ‘disciplining’ of the social. Puissance, by contrast, is a force or energy emanating from below; a creative, generative, horizontal power that flows through networks, multiplicities and crowds, opposed to the ‘fixed’ power of formal constitutions and the institutions of established authority. It may express itself in its effervescent forms (“revolts, festivals, uprisings and other heated moments of human history” [p.32]) or be “hyperconcentrated” in communities, networks and tribes: “in the smallest details of everyday life which are lived for their own sake and not as a function of any sort of finality” (ibid.). More generally, however, it manifests in a sort of ironic ‘detachment’ or ‘aloofness’: “an anthropological structure which, by way of silence, ruse, battle, passivity, humour or derision, is well able to stand up to the ideologies, teachings and claims of those who wish either to dominate or be the salvation of the masses, which in this case are not so very different” (p.48).
Social media provides a particularly visible example of this. We have seen recently how weaponised hashtags and ‘Twitter mobs’ have the power to shape a national debate and force large-scale shifts in cultural attitudes, and in some cases public policy. Here, reason is less important than emotion, debate with political opponents is of little interest and specific future goals seemingly less important than the need simply to gesticulate, and thereby to find self-affirmation in a group of others doing the same. In other words, the sardonicism and competitive virtue signalling that have become central features of online political discourse are both an expression of a need for belonging, and also a manifestation of a certain kind of power appropriate to an era which, as Maffesoli sees it, rejects the myth of political representation as much as it does the abstract revolutionary programs of the modern period.
Some concluding remarks
I’ve only briefly touched upon Maffesoli’s critique of the imaginary, and how imaginaries become ‘saturated’, leading to the crises that precipitate the shift from old paradigm to new. This is given more explicit attention in his other works than in Time of the Tribes, notably various articles drawing on the ideas of his teacher Gilbert Durand (whose Anthropological Structures of the Imaginary is probably the pre-eminent text on the subject). It is worth noting briefly, however, that much of what Maffesoli sees in the nascent postmodern paradigm is not entirely new, but actually a resurgence of certain organisational principles of premodern societies (see e.g. p.81). In short, postmodernity is about the synergy of the archaic and technological development, of which online communities, and perhaps especially social media – “the postmodern form of the premodern Potlatch”, as he puts it in one of his more recent books – again provide a good example.
In light of the apparent rise in youth participation in the political process over the last few years, there’s also a point to be made about Maffesoli’s view of political disengagement as the mark of a refusal of the distant. It may seem that the impulse to put our faith in messiah figures has returned with a vengeance, with far left and far right on both sides of the Atlantic cultishly infatuated with such individuals, each promising their own hazily defined and self-evidently undeliverable visions of a great utopia of the future. What Maffesoli’s work invites us to do, however, is to look at the underlying attitude. You may cast your vote for someone, he argues, while at the same time holding the conviction that nothing will result from doing so (p.49).
This is important when considering the tribes that have formed around political figures in recent years, notably Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. It’s arguable that in all of these cases, electability wasn’t of paramount concern to these figures’ fan-clubs; very few of their supporters seriously believed they had a chance of winning; their manifestos could be taken apart in seconds by any reasonably intelligent child, but much to the confusion of media pundits and political analysts their congregations didn’t seem to care. The question Maffesoli raises is whether this, and other peculiarities of this new political tribalism, could be understood by recognising the elements of consumer tribalism of the kind he describes that seem to be driving it. Perhaps these new movements (we could add a range of others) could be thought of, at least in part, as forms of conspicuous consumption, fluid and protean secular religions where the main thing is emotion and the urge for community, solidarity and belonging, rather than the attainment of specific goals or a genuine belief in some candidate’s ability to deliver the great society of the future. This is an open question. My point is simply that the nature of the apparent sudden engagement in politics by the young generation may actually support Maffesoli’s claim rather than contradict it.
As can be gathered from the foregoing overview, Maffesoli is not exactly an orthodox sociologist. Although he is by no means a peripheral figure in the French academy, he’s a divisive one, and never far away from some academic controversy or another. His defiantly un-sociological approach to sociology, the often acerbic nature of his writing and the scorn he routinely heaps upon those he regards as second rate sociologists have earned him plenty of critics. His work is linguistically and stylistically opaque, peppered with classical allusions and metaphor, but it nonetheless offers an important alternative to more orthodox approaches that have demonstrably failed to account for many of the developments that have occurred in the West in the thirty years since The Time of the Tribes was first published. It is possible to side with Maffesoli’s detractors on any number of issues (not least his apparent view that the developments he describes are a good thing) while still finding in his ideas a fruitful way of understanding the contemporary social world.
English language works by Maffesoli:
- The Shadow of Dionysus; a Contribution to the Sociology of the Orgy, Cindy Linse (trans.), Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993 (First published in French, 1982)
- Ordinary Knowledge: An Introduction to Interpretative Sociology, David Macey (trans.), Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996, (First published in French, 1985)
- The Contemplation of the World: Figures of Community Style, Susan Emanuel (trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. (First published in French, 1993)
- The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society, Don Smith (trans.), Thousand Oaks, Sage, 1996. (First published in French, 1988)
- “Sociality as Legitimation of Sociological Method”, Current Sociology, vol. 35, 2, 1987, pp. 69-87 [https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/001139287035002008]
- “The Ethic of Aesthetics”, Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 8, 1, 1991, pp. 7-20. [https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/026327691008001002]
- “The Social Ambiance”, Current Sociology, vol. 41, 2, 1993, pp. 7-15. [https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/001139293041002003]
- “The Advent of the Tragic”, Space and Culture, vol. 5, 3, 2002, pp. 287-289. [https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1206331202005003008]
- “Everyday Tragedy and Creation”, Cultural Studies, vol. 18, 2004, pp.201-210 [https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0950238042000201482]
- “Utopia or Utopias in the Gaps: From the Political to the ‘Domestic’”, Diogenes, vol. 52, no. 2, 2005, pp.25-28 [https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0392192105052614]
- “From Society to Tribal Communities”, The Sociological Review, vol. 64, 4, 2017, pp. 739-747. [https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-954X.1243
 Maffesoli also uses the terms episteme (previously used in a similar way by Foucault to mean, loosely, a framework of thinking) and ‘paradigm’. Regarding the latter, the influence of Thomas Kuhn is discussed in his essay “La connivence impensée”, in La Magazine Littéraire (May 2008, p.81). Kuhn is also referenced in his book Ordinary Knowledge (published in English in 1996) and various other places.
 Maffesoli, M. La République des bons sentiments, Éditions du Rocher, Paris, 2008, p.113
 For the most succinct English-language summary of how, in Maffesoli’s view, this came to be, see his 2005 article “Utopia or Utopias in the Gaps: From the Political to the ‘Domestic’”, Diogenes, vol. 52, no. 2, pp.25-28 [https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0392192105052614]
 Nomadism is a major theme in Maffesoli’s work and discussed elsewhere at more length. See, e.g., Du Nomadisme, Vagabondages initiatiques, Livre de Poche, Paris, 1997
 This is dealt with more comprehensively in his book Transfiguration du Politique: La tribalisation du monde postmoderne (Grasset, Paris 1992), for which he received the Grand Prix des Sciences Humaines of the Acadèmie Française.
 Maffesoli, M. “Utopia or Utopias in the Gaps”, p.25
 The linguistic distinction itself is not so much a Maffesolian idiosyncrasy as a restatement of the distinction between potestas (power over) and potentia (power to), inherited from the Latin by many European languages: pouvior–puissance in French, Macht–Vermögern in German, potere–potenza in Italian, etc. English is somewhat unusual in not differentiating in this way. In the work of Antonio Negri (probably more familiar than Maffesoli to most Anglophone readers) this difference becomes the basis for the constituted/constituent power binary.
 Maffesoli, M. Imaginaire et postmodernité, Éditions Manucius, Paris, 2013, p.22