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Tribes, Culture, Religion and Politics

One of the greatest problems faced by the world is that which results in a failure to understand the nature of the political anthropology of different societies and cultures across the world.

This demonstrates itself in the culture clash over the play Bezhti just as much as it demonstrates itself in inner city gang culture and conflicts in Africa and the Middle East.

The first challenge is to separate religion from culture. It is entirely possible for people to have the same religion, but an entirely different culture. At the same time people can have the same culture and a different religion.

From an anthropological sense most human cultures develop around the family and the extended family. This can build up a sense of "tribe" or "clan". In many countries this segmented structure for society is the key structure. Most tribal structures are based around patriarchy and frequently property is more held in common by the family rather than being based around the individual.

Analysed from the segmented perspective, therefore, it is quite straightforward to understand what drives many disputes in the world. The root human emotions are quite strongly orientated towards tribal allegiances. This can apply to a clan or it can also apply to supporting a football team. When someone attacks a member of the clan there is an emotional need for revenge. The problem, of course, is that the cycle of revenge and retaliation frequently gets people nowhere.

Gun Crime and Gangs

Birmingham recently (in common with many large cities) has had a problem with gun crime. This is actually symptomatic of a gang culture rather than being an isolated problem in itself. There are normally three types of shootings (making the assumption that the shooter is actually accurate):

  • Debt Collection - Most drug deals are on credit where drugs are provided to the end dealer who then sells them and gives part of the receipt to a middleman. It is not really practical to enforce the debt contract through the court system, therefore the threat of being shot normally is part of the culture that gets the debt paid.
  • Disrespect - Respect is an important value for gang culture. If someone is insulted when they are carrying a gun they are likely to retaliate with the weapon. This is the only type of offence that requires that people generally carry their guns with them.
  • Revenge - clearly if A who is a member of gang Z has been shot by B who is a member of gang Y then C who is also a member of gang Z will be unhappy and wish to see B suffer in some way. If the police fail to prosecute then C and his buddies are likely to initiate a revenge attack on B. This then becomes a situation in which the members of gang Y are inclined to attack gang Z in some way.

Tribes and Politics

The tribe has the ability to "get the vote out" and you will find that generally tribe members will vote for the same candidates. Tony Blair has made it a lot easier for patriarchs in the UK to ensure that the family all votes the same way because he has given them the tool of the postal vote which can all be filled in by the patriarch or even handed blank to the chosen candidate for the candidate to fill in him or herself.

Two recent elections in the Ukraine and in Palestine have had a substantial tribal element to them. In the Ukraine the main distinction between camps was the language spoken. Similarly in Palestine different clans would support different candidates (often a mixture from different parties).

The evolution of political anthropology in the UK

Over time the UK moved on from a basic tribal political division to a class based system. For most of the 20th century political divisions occurred on the primary basis of class allegiance. This started fading in the 1960s and has now substantially faded particularly with the activities of the Blair government. As a motivation for voting, however, it still exists to a great extent in many areas of the country and with some voters. This class allegiance is moving to a far less stable and unstructured system. With the weaker bonds in society also occurs a lower turnout as the structures to link candidates to voters are weaker. The structure of society mirrors this becoming pseudo rational rather than class based and with a popular worshiping of celebrity and material hedonism rather than any more complex value system.

In the UK and US, therefore, as class allegiances fade political loyalties are more driven by individuals than parties although the party influence is still particularly material in general elections.


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R v SUSSEX JUSTICES ex p McCARTHY [1924] 1 KB 256

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R v SUSSEX JUSTICES ex p McCARTHY [1924] 1 KB 256

November 9 1923

Editor’s comments in bold.

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