Tribal identities are as old as humanity itself but urban living gives them new meaning, for good or for bad. Author David Berreby assesses whether cities encourage tribalism, provoke it or, in fact, keep it at bay.
Two women pass each other on a hot street. One is wearing sunglasses, a bikini, earrings and high-heeled sandals. The other is wearing a black burka. “Everything covered but her eyes,” thinks the bikini-wearer. “What a cruel male-dominated culture!” “Nothing covered but her eyes,” thinks the other woman. “What a cruel male-dominated culture!” This is how New Zealand cartoonist Malcolm Evans encapsulates that tribal feeling we have when confronted with someone from a different ‘group’—that vague and flavourless word psychologists use to describe the invisible bonds of identity. Feeling part of one group and not another encourages us to care for ‘people like us’ whom we’ve never met, while keeping our guard up with neighbours we see every day, because they aren’t part of ‘our group’. ‘We’ make sense to one another, act reasonably, and know how to read between the lines of ‘group’ talk. As Virginia Woolf put it we feel: "That absence of self-consciousness, that ease and fellowship and sense of common values which make for intimacy, and sanity, and the quick give and take of familiar intercourse." But those other people — they do peculiar, outrageous and inexplicable things. Are they really normal?
Humanity is a social species. Like our ape ancestors, the first humans depended on their tribe-mates for food and safety. But modern people aren't apes. We juggle multiple identities, some overlapping and some neatly separated. Though Evans’ cartoon pits burka and bikini-wearing women against one another, they might well feel their shared identity as women if they suddenly found themselves surrounded by men, particularly hostile ones.
A city doesn't just mix identities, it also transforms them.
We are, then, able to form groups easily and change the ones we care about, depending on our environment. Yet it is also true that, once a group identity has our attention, we'll care a great deal about ‘our’ side.
Our parallel abilities to care about and change identities make for a volatile and sometimes explosive mix. Consider an experiment performed in Beirut in 1963, when the psychologist Lutfy Diab placed 18 eleven-year-old boys in a summer camp. Divided into two groups, they quickly developed into ferocious, hostile tribes. The experimenters didn't suggest or encourage it, but soon the "Red Genies" and "Blue Ghosts" were at each other’s throats. In fact, the experiment ended early after three Genies threatened to knife a Ghost. Days earlier, these groups hadn't even existed. Even more surprisingly, both Genies and Ghosts were a mix of Christians and Muslims. The religious lines that defined much of Lebanese life and politics outside the camp were set aside when the new identities took over.
Our tendency to perceive tribal boundaries and to fight over them are as old as the human species. But there is one key difference today. In the 21st century, for the first time in history, a majority of humanity lives in or around cities - 55 per cent of the world's population, according to the United Nations, rising to more than two-thirds by 2050. So, we need to know if city life makes tribal conflict worse, increasing the feeling of “Us vs Them” and provoking incidents of violence. A long strain of anti-urban thought answers yes, suggesting that cities encourage conflicts and threaten people's sense of security by jamming them close together. It's probably no accident that Evans drew his bikini-vs-burka face-off on a city pavement, not a country lane. Except for a rich minority that can buy ease and comfort, people in cities rely on one another for jobs, housing, entertainment and other needs. And they tend, as all people do, to rely more on those they know and trust than upon strangers.
Today, for the first time in history, the majority of people live in cities. Does that make tribal conflict worse?
Urban life is tribal. But cities can intensify our tribal inclinations because we live cheek by jowl. We know who is like us, who is not and the myriad ways in which ‘they’ are different from ‘us’. This almost certainly makes us both more aware of our identities and more inclined to fight over them. And ethnic and communal strife is common in many cities, especially in the developing world, where most urban growth is taking place.
However, there is also a case for saying that urban life works against traditional identities and conflicts, because a city doesn't just mix identities, it also transforms them, changing and complicating allegiances that once seemed simple. Forced to live near one another and do business with one another, city dwellers find that new ties, which connect them, are more important than older identities, which divide them. In medieval Spain, for example, according to the historian, David Nirenberg: ‘Despite repeated ecclesiastical condemnation, Christians, Muslims and Jews drank together, gambled together, went to war together, lived in the same neighbourhoods (sometimes in the same house), established business partnerships, engaged in all forms of commercial exchange, even watched each other’s religious ceremonies and processions.’ And today, when political scientist Ahutosh Varshney compared cities in India that suffered from Hindu-Muslim rioting with those that did not, he found that in the more peaceful places, ‘Business associations, professional organizations of doctors, lawyers, teachers and students, reading clubs, film clubs, sports clubs, festival organizations, trades unions and political parties’ included members from both religious groups. This ‘vigorous associational life,’ he wrote, helped people resist the simple Us-versus-Them rhetoric of politicians eager to encourage conflict. In other words, familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt; it can also generate understanding – even kinship.
Urban dwellers can find that new ties, which connect them, are stronger than older identities, which divide them.
For many urbanites, the city itself is an identity — one that separates them from their country cousins even as it makes them feel they have common ground with their neighbours. Cities tend to generate their own tribes, and that too can reduce their residents' interest in attacking one another. ‘I'm no Britisher, but a Londoner,’ writes Hanif Kureishi, a London-born writer with a Pakistani father and an English mother. Many a resident of New York, Paris, Berlin, Rio, Lagos or Shanghai knows that feeling: bikini or burka, we're both glad to be walking these streets, where, as Shelley put it, the imagination is kept ever active and awake. However they juggle the old tribal loyalties of their citizens, great cities thrive by creating tribes of their own.
David Berreby is the author of Us And Them: The Science of Identity. He lives in polyglot, polymorphous New York City.
Illustration: Pablo Declan