TRIBE | Sebastian Junger


I just finished reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger.

I would go so far as to say it’s the best book I’ve ever read.

Tribe recounts Junger’s experience as a wartime journalist to examine an anthropological spectacle, which surrounds the social cohesion and discipline found commonly in tribes, be it in literal Native American tribes or in platoons in the military.

His first examination looks out how white settlers occasionally married into Native American tribes and were sucked up into their culture. The opposite rarely happened. This was largely due to the social bonds and meritocratic status that was life in these tribes, rather than the hierarchal system that governed Western culture at the time.

Gross inequalities of wealth were not an occurrence in these tribes for possessions were limited to what you could carry on hand and foot and the benefits of good social status (gained through abilities as a hunter and warrior) were generally not passed through generations. The basic freedoms in this life were attractive to white settlers which gave rise to this emigration out of white society. Cowardice, murder and communication with the enemy were generally punished by death within these tribes which conferred an extreme level of loyalty.

This ethos was not limited solely to the Native Americans. Junger cites the !Kung tribe of the Kalahari Desert as another instance of a simple existence combined with powerful ethos. The !Kung people had far fewer belongings than Westerners but their lives were under much greater personal control.

As humans have evolved away from the !Kung existence, with advances in agriculture and industry, people have acquired larger and larger amounts of personal property. Over time, individuals have subsequently made more personal decisions, which has led to a greater deviation from the achievement  of the common good. As a result, humans no longer have shared interests in the pursuit of this common good and live lives that are less entwined with society. We can, as individuals, now live in massive cities yet feel dangerously alone due to this erosion of social bonds that used to be the defining characteristic of society.

As our economy has modernised, there has been a marked decrease in levels of happiness, especially when compared to tribal settlements. Poorer communities need to share resources to survive, which naturally culminates in much stronger social ties than would be present in richer societies. We are now living in a society that seems to promote extrinsic values rather than intrinsic ones. Financial independence can result in isolation in society, which can result in a greater risk of depression and suicide. This echoes Tony Robbins who has made similar comments on our existence: we seem to be chasing achievements when we should be striving for fulfilment.

This was corroborated to a degree by a 2015 study on 6,000 lawyers which found that conventional success in the legal profession (high billable hours or promotion to a partner level) had zero correlation to levels of happiness and well-being reported by the lawyers themselves.

Junger finds that this social cohesion which is so lacking in modern culture is often cultivated in times of extreme need or tragedy, with one example being the Sarajevo crisis in 1991. Whilst the city was hostage to a war, families and friends often shared close air-raid quarters and housing complexes which re-ignited the social ties that have been diminished in our conventional societal interactions. This bonding and feeling of mutual hardship brought the city together so much so that years after the war, people actually missed wartime conditions!

Similar examples are given:

  • The Avezzano earthquake where thousands were left with nothing
  • In the Blitz, people often came together in underground shelters
  • The Springhill mine in Nova Scotia collapse (1958) which left men underground for days

It is easy to see the wealth of situations that Junger’s insight can be applied to. His methodology of examining the evolution of human society from a tribal atmosphere to modern society helps explain a myriad of issues ranging from mental health to the divergence in political views, for instance,  the US two-party system*.

In a tribal setting (which is resonated in, for instance, the US army today), if an individual acts in a way which deteriorates society in some way, such as desertion or causing pain to others, he / she would be outlawed or punished in a severe manner. Jurgen questions why people have not been punished for the 2007/8 financial crisis, which has affected millions of people through unemployment, loss of housing amongst many other quality of life factors.

You leave Jurgen’s insights thinking what can we do to re-achieve these levels of social cohesion?

This is a particularly important question given the impregnable status that social media has gained. We, as a society, are leading increasingly digital lives which may diminish the importance of face-to-face meetings and interactions. Doing so may further deviate us from the path of the common good.

*The conservative pathway roots from the hominid existence where free-loaders were a threat to existence. Yet, rooted in human existence is a sense of social duty which today is resonated in the welfare programs within the US. These two pathways are the result of our human existence and, in the US, have been manifested in the two-party system.