Rereading The Time of the Tribes – Thirty Years On

By James Horrox

TribesTowards 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. Continue reading

Communitarianism or Communitarian Ideal


It’s a kind of mental laziness for which we risk paying a heavy price. A verbal tic, pervasive on both left and right, which consists in seeing ‘communitarianism’ everywhere. A foolish attitude – as if a matter would be resolved when we suppress it, artificially, by denying it – and an infantile one too, that of incantation: we repeat the words and think that by doing so we deal with the issue.

What of the facts? It was the grandeur of social organisation in modern societies that reduced everything to the unit. Erase differences. Standardise ways of being: a beautiful ideal, the Republic, One and indivisible. But – and not for the first time in history – we are witnessing a saturation of this unitary ideal. Heterogeneity is empirically regaining force and vitality; reassertion of difference, diverse localisms, linguistic and ideological specificities assembling around a common origin, real or mythical. All serve to accentuate forms of life founded less in universal reason than in shared sentiment.

Bodies are enhanced, tattooed, pierced. Hair stands on end, or is adorned with scarves or other decorations. In the greyness of the everyday, existence is flushed with new colours, reflecting the fecund diversity of the children of men. As we know from ancient memory, there are “many rooms in the Father’s house”.

This is what I referred to some years ago as the return of ‘tribes’. Be they sexual, musical, religious, sporting or cultural, they occupy public space. That was the observation. It is infantile to deny this reality. It is unhealthy to stigmatise it. We would do better, faithful in this respect to a timeless folk wisdom, to go along with such a change, to prevent it becoming perverted and thence completely uncontrollable. After all, why not consider ‘the public sphere’ (res publica) as being organised from the adjustment, a posteriori, of these tribes based on elective affinities? Why not accept the social consensus, true to its etymology (‘cum-sensualis’), as being based on the sharing of different emotions? Since they’re here, why not embrace community differences, aid their adjustment and learn to deal with them? Such a composition may, after all, contribute to a social melody whose rhythm may not be so smooth, but which is no less dynamic.

In short, it is dangerous, in the name of some antiquated conception of national unity, not to recognise the strength of pluralism. The centre of the union can be lived in the coming together, a posteriori, of opposing values. The abstract harmony of a unanimism of appearance is being succeeded, through much trial and error, by a conflictual equilibrium, both cause and effect of the vitality of the postmodern tribes. So let’s lose our grouchy obsession with the ‘good old days’ of unity, and have the intellectual audacity to think out the verdure of a communitarian ideal in gestation.