Book Review: “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger

Tribe by Sebastian Junger

For such a short book, Junger has made me think a lot.

In this biographically inspired essay, Junger makes two main points:

  1. “Tribal” (i.e., community) life is good for people, and he believes that humans are evolved to live this way
  2. PTSD and similar psychological problems are due to a unsuccessful return from tribal life into the wider modern, very much “non-tribal”, society.

In this book Junger is talking about things that I’ve been thinking and writing about quite a bit: the importance, in this digital age, of face-to-face, in person, community. (E.g. , here, here, here, here)  Junger advocates a particular flavor of such community, which he calls “tribe”.

The general theme is that. Altruism makes people happy. Sharing makes you happy,  coworking makes coworkers happy. Participating in a Maker space makes people happy.  Being part of a family and community makes people happy. And, as Junger says, disasters bring out the best in people, because we are forced by circumstance into a primitive, tribal existence—though only briefly.

Junger takes up this theme, arguing that humans are evolved to live in tribal communities, in which people live (and, he says, sleep) together in close groups, mutually dependent for survival. Most people don’t live like this today, nor have they for many centuries. Junger traces all sorts of psychological and social maladies to this non-tribal existence.

In today’s world, he finds that military service is the closest to this form of living, and identifies the positive attributes of what the military calls “unit cohesion”. Furthermore, he is concerned that veterans have difficulty returning home at least partly because they miss this tribal community.

Warming to this theme, Junger attributes some of the psychological symptoms labeled PTSD precisely to this mismatch between the tribal life and the isolation and selfishness of the general society. “Unit cohesion” would not be a word we would apply to everyday life for most of us.

One way to look at this idea is that we are all suffering from the effects of income equality, deindustrialization, and the end of work and opportunity. Returning veterans are just like everyone else, only more so.  They bring their intense communal experiences to the table, and feel the pain of social “incohesion” acutely, where the rest of us are innured and numb to it.

These ideas are interesting and worth reading the book for. As I said, I certainly get where he is coming from.

But I had many reservations about Junger’s arguments. His use of historical and anthropological evidence is selective and uncritical. For every case he cites, there are other cases that do not support his notions.

Similarly, his summary of social cohesion during disasters and war is broad and shallow, ignoring the plethora of counterexamples, and lacking any insight into the possible individual differences and situational variables. Not everybody works together in a crisis, and not every disaster causes social peace to break out. (Take a gander at, say, post-communist Russia, or post crash Greece.)

Furthermore, “Tribal” cultures are, of course, hardly uniform, nor are they good for everyone in them. Junger glosses over the frequent violence of tribal wars, and seems to actually applaud the violent social controls that may be invoked within a tribe. Male warriors probably are happier in a tribal setting, but their weaker and more peaceful neighbors may not be.

Junger is correct that contemporary society lacks the tight knit feeling of “all for one, one for all”. But there are still many “tribal” behaviors on exhibit, starting with racist, sexist, and all flavors of “ism”, which draw upon lines of “tribal” identity. Media witch hunts and internet trolling exhibit the savage “he is not one of us” psychology of the tribe. These are very much “tribal” behaviors of the worst sort.

You might argue that these are perverted shadows of tribal feelings, illustrating the desperation of people lacking the real thing. Well, maybe. Or maybe this is how “tribal” life really works, made clearly visible to a wider world.

Setting aside my pedantic quibbles with Junger’s arguments (after all, he is not attempting to be academic), my biggest disappointment is that he doesn’t really know what we should do about all this. He does a good job of pointing to something that is not working, but he has little to say about how to fix it.

He wishes we all would act like we are all part of one tribe together, like we do in the face of disaster. Well, who doesn’t wish that? But how do we get there?

He seems to wish that we all acted as if we live in a besieged outpost. I think that would be a really bad idea, myself. In my experience, this thinking is just one step away from the authoritarian, “shut up and do as you are told”.  It is certainly antithetical to making a place that is safe for children and old people, the sick and unfortunate, a place with room for everybody.  During a siege, the weak are sacrificed, and dissidents (and deviants) are shot.

No thanks.

Junger gives us no prescription to help veterans come home, or to help those who are troubled years after returning. The only action he suggests is to have veterans tell their stories in public meetings. I have no objection to this prescription. (In my own youth I spent plenty of time listening to vets not much older than me, unburdening about the catastrophe in Viet Nam.) It can’t hurt, though I don’t know how much it will help.

I think that Mr. Junger and I are looking at the same problems and have similar analyses. But I think he is groping toward answers that are really only good for male warriors.   We need things that work for everyone and that is what “non-tribal” civilization is really all about.


  1. Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, New York, Twelve, 2016.

 

 

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