I woke up this morning thinking about tribalism and how it can be used to enhance fiction, and specifically fantasy. Yeah, my subconscious brain is far more cool than the one I have to use when I'm awake.
Let's start with a description of what tribalism is: for my purpose, I'm using the meaning that gives its adherents a strong sense of cultural unity. And to make this a practical version of tribalism, they'll need to have that sense while surrounded by various groups who are "other".
Keep in mind that "tribal" does by no means mean "primitive". Many modern nations on Earth still exhibit strong tribal traits. The enduring core of tribalism is an Us vs. Them mentality, and it comes in three basic forms.
Yay Us, Boo You
Your basic tribalistic sentiment is bipartisan. Two entities, whose members support their own beliefs and customs and decry those of their opponent. Examples: Americans with strong political beliefs, soccer fans on the day of a match with a bitter rival.
This form can serve in fiction when you've only got two main groups to deal with. They can be equal in power, territory and resources, or you can imbalance their relationship, giving one group most of the advantages. The relationship can range from merely unequal to true oppression, to active attempts at extermination. Examples: Israel vs. Palestine, Hutu vs. Tutsi, United States vs. Native Americans, Nazi Germany vs. ethnic Jews
Naturally, an imbalanced rivalry would create more conflict, a sense of dominance vs. the underdog, and engage the minds of your readers more directly. Example: in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, the twelve Districts must annually send their children into mortal combat as punishment for a previous rebellion against the Capitol.
Yay All of Us, Boo You
A more populated, multi-tribe scenario involves several groups who generally consider themselves to be equals, especially compared to one single group whom they collectively dislike, steal from, abuse, or exploit. Wars and alliances may shift local borders over time, and a certain cultural group might lose their homeland entirely, being forced to live in land controlled by other tribes, subject to their rules. Or various tribes may invade from afar, seeking to subjugate and enslave a technologically inferior race for profit. Yet the subjugated tribe would try to preserve their cultural identity, as it is all they really have left. Proud squatters or wanderers, forced to consider tasks and jobs the other tribes don't want to perform in order to survive, or forced to live in certain disadvantaged areas in order to control them. Examples: Kurds, African slaves
Alternately, the disfavored tribe could wander far from their homeland, making themselves unwanted among other tribes due to sucking up resources, clogging the streets with beggars, taking up local jobs, and/or clashing with local religious or cultural practices. Example: Gypsies, medieval Jews
Disadvantaged peoples make regular appearances in fiction. As individuals, they're often romanticized, portrayed as heroic survivors, misunderstood loners, sometimes in possession of arcane or lost knowledge. On the flip side, larger groups of these peoples can also be portrayed as deserving of their lowered status, untrustworthy, or bearing tribal shame for a historical act. Examples: Lan Mandragoran, Dai'shan of the Malkier, and the wandering Tuatha'an in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series
Yay Us, Boo All of You
The opposite form of the multi-tribe scenario involves one tribe who considers themselves better than all those around them. This could stem from a technological advantage, better resources in their land area (mining, water, precious gems, better croplands, etc.), a history of winning battles, being culturally emulated by their neighbors, possession of a world landmark, a current trend of tribal fervor due to a charismatic leader, or a religious superiority (my god is better than your god). Example: Ancient Romans, French, Chinese, Jews, Americans, British Empire, Nazi Germany, Spanish vs. Mexican and S. American tribes, Dutch vs. African tribes
This high opinion of themselves will persist for a longer period if they truly do possess some form of advantage, or if others reinforce the belief that it is true. However, the term "confirmation bias" surely applies here to some degree.
In fantasy, this multi-tribe scenario is often part of an epic Good vs. Evil plot. One tribe rises above the others and begins to oppress or slaughter them, seeking what all tribes with power want: more power. Pretty much universally, it is proven in the end by the success of the protagonist(s) that the oppressing tribe was not, in fact, superior. At least not in the way they thought they were. In current fiction, it's considered rude to attack your neighbors just because you can, and if your inter-tribal social skills are lacking, you simply can't be a superior race. Sorry. Example: Sauron and his armies of orcs and Uruk-hai in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy
In the real world, people sometimes get upset at even distant tribalism conflicts
on the news, often identifying with one side or the other. Other times, they simply can't relate to what the tribes involved are fighting over, because the tribal and cultural backgrounds of the news-watcher and the fighting tribes are so different. Actions that offer insult vary widely between cultures: hitting someone with a shoe, touching their head, even accepting a gift the first time it is offered. Yet to other cultures, these things are nearly meaningless. The traits you give to your tribal culture will shape the ways in which conflict with their neighbors arises.
In order to create a believable conflict between your fictional tribes, it's essential to provide historical context. Studying current world conflicts is an excellent place to get inspiration. Was there a land grab? An oppressive ruler who belonged to a minority group? A wave of religious intolerance and slaughter? A patriarchal-society prince spurned by a matriarchal-society princess? An advance in medical care, leading to a population boom? The rise of a prophet?
Consider how long you want the tension to have existed. Ancient rivalries are far more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to truly set aside. They can become part of one's tribal identity, and even in times of peace, distrust and aggression can surface without warning.
Derogatory phrases perpetuate such negative characterizations. Consider our Earth phrase "I got gypped". This perpetuates the idea that Gypsies are untrustworthy thieves. Another is "Indian giver". Jokes at the expense of another culture also perpetuate superior feelings by giving permission to laugh at the supposed inferiority of the other tribe. If your tribes really want to teach their children hate and distrust, they'll incorporate such insulting phrases and jokes into their everyday language.
Alternately, direct insults, a.k.a. racial slurs, are a much stronger form of dislike, often used to directly insult a disliked person to their face, or to indicate dismissal and superiority through using the term to a like-minded tribesman. Consider the powerful context of the infamous N-word in American culture, or the myriad derogatory terms that the American culture has used to describe its various enemies during wartime, and which persisted for decades even after the wars were ended.
With time, some of these derogatory terms can become accepted by the tribes they're applied to, either by disinterested parties or by the insulted tribes themselves. Several Native American tribes are now known by names coined by their enemies.The term "Christian" used to be an insult a couple thousand years ago. Whether the name is forced upon its targets or whether they embrace it for their own reasons is up to you.
Whatever your tribal tale, don't forget to consider your audience, and their own tribal background. If the tribal conflict you choose to write about isn't something your readers have cultural experience with, use other ways to help them relate, through character reactions and plot consequences. When you can get your
readers to relate strongly to your fictional conflict, you've
captured the essence of tribalism.