November 19, 2008

Having recently attended the Gathering of the Clans in a rather large area of biomedical science, I suppose it is inevitable to think about what Janet Stemwedel terms the Tribe of Science. Actually I’ve been thinking about the many, many tribes within science. A storm of tribal Venn diagrams has been wandering across my mind.
Tribal action for the common good
In history and fiction, calling the tribe or Gathering the Clans has an almost inevitable connection to warfare. Pulling together into group action for the common good, albeit occasionally to the detriment of Others. Not always of course, see Figure.
Science tribes come together, mill about and …..what?

It is going to be a series of posts for me to work through this I think but I was thinking of how many tribes I inhabit.
Several training tribes. From undergraduate affiliations to those of my various graduate and postdoctoral stints. I spent a lot of time talking to my peeps, seeing where they are, who they are training or training with. What new jobs they have taken or are seriously considering.
The tribe of me. Trainees, close work colleagues, peers who mentor me and whom I mentor in return.
Subfield tribes. Meeting the trainees of my field peeps. Talking about potential collaborative experiments and papers. Study section colleagues.
The burgeoning blog tribe. Great to meet you all!
Tribe of Science, pull together!
Sol’s skirmishing over here with the smart ass youngsters has me thinking about generational tribalism. It’s all fun and games on this blog but I need to think on this tribal distinction more. In fact I think one of the larger subtexts of my blogging on science careers is calling the generational tribe, trying to convince you that lateral networks are just as important as sucking up to the old folks.
I have a feeling that when I talk about networking and some of the person-based careerism stuff I am missing something important. I suggest trainees need to enter tribes. Sure. When I talk about schmoozing your peers and program officers and all that….I’m talking about getting into the tribes. Getting into the tribes so that you can fully contribute to self-selected Goods on the basis that tribal affiliations and properties influence access to such a great degree.
What I fail to do is talk about calling the tribe for common action. I think it is that damn Obama and his neoKennedian call to action and call to service. He’s calling the Clans my friend, make no mistake. And we have to ask ourselves what we’re going to do.
Which Tribe are you going to lead? Which call will you heed?

No Responses Yet to “Tribal”

  1. Karen Says:

    Sometimes one can belong to tribes that work at oblique purposes to each other, and that’s a great source of cognitive dissonance! I used to be a software engineer and now I’m a geoscientist. The Engineer and Scientist tribes think differently in some subtle but significant ways that comes from scientists trying to understand something and engineers trying to change something. In the complicated Real World, the two mindsets are both applicable to nearly all jobs labeled either Engineer or Scientist; an engineer must understand something in order to change it (solve a problem), while a scientist must often change something (solve a problem) to improve understanding of the underlying subject.
    And yet, I sense some dissonance between the kinds of discussions I have with my engineer husband and his colleagues, and the kinds I have with my own professors and colleagues. The basic approach to understanding is somehow different, and I can’t put it into words.
    But because of my associations, I’m still a member of both tribes.


  2. Karen Says:

    RE: the photo: given the presence of the kegs, I assume these are Scottish geoscientists. One curious fact about my “new” subtribe is that they would delightedly drink my “old” subtribe under the table. Perhaps its just rising to the challenge of getting beer into the field… 🙂


  3. DSKS Says:

    “Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell your program officers that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!”


  4. Stephanie Z Says:

    I think it is that damn Obama and his neoKennedian call to action and call to service. He’s calling the Clans my friend, make no mistake.

    Well, that set serious bells ringing.
    I am the least tribal person I know. Given the unpleasant legacies of tribalism, I tend to think the whole idea is rather dangerous.
    Don’t get me wrong. I’m no misanthrope. I’m just edgy in anything larger than the tiniest cell of insurgents. I’ll take the stiletto over the cavalry charge any day.
    And yet…lately I’m feeling the need to multiply my efforts, to conspire broadly, to rouse the rabble in a way I’ve never felt before. Obviously, I’m hearing the call. I just didn’t know there was anything in me for it to reach.
    Huh. Staying tuned for more.
    Nicely placed rope, by the way.


  5. anon Says:

    Ok, so what do you do when you are an outlier – and by that I mean a woman/minority/someone who doesn’t fit into an established tribe and there aren’t enough of you to form another one. Lets face it, science loves established tribes and ain’t too keen on the upstarts. Yeah, sure we can look around for supportive peers (and it helps), but if you have to deal with discrimination day in, day out- well its kind of different to being a supporter in my view. And speaking of generational tribalism, even this issue is coloured by who you are. For example, if you are from an ethnic minority, or a woman with children, you are more likely to be older than your peers and then also suffer age discrimination as well. Thus, when jobs are advertised with “older postdocs need not apply” (one has just come to my notice) naturally this supports the established tribe of white men. So, yes, I am a tribal person by nature, but I’d rather be a Te Rauparaha than support the status quo. For the common good?! Who’s good?


  6. TreeFish Says:

    My tribes derive from my undergrad lab, my graduate field of work, and my post-doc field of work. We are all inclusive, provided you swear and speak your mind. My current tribe, which I am leading, is comprised of those systems neuroscientists that perform and communicate esoteric findings that are overinterpreted. I like to think that my position as leader is secure for the next few years, since I don’t detect the level of overinterpretation in others that is clearly required to lead this tribe.


  7. pinus Says:

    anon, Whomever advertised ‘older postdocs need not apply’ is asking for trouble. Is that actually in the job listing?


  8. DSKS Says:

    ‘older postdocs need not apply’
    Hopefully this is a slightly confused way of expressing the wish to restrict the applicant pool to those with less than x number of years postdoc training. If it’s actually a reference to age, then the ad is certainly flat out illegal.


  9. anon Says:

    To Pinus: yes, it is in the job listing. University of Bern, community ecologist ad. From what I understand, this kind of thing may be reasonably accepted in Europe, and does refer to age not experience (but please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong).


  10. anon Says:

    Sorry – Pinus to be strictly to the letter of the law the job ad says “Please note that this position is not suitable for older postdocs because we intend to promote young scientists”.


  11. Becca Says:

    “Tribalism” may be the most powerful model for explaining human behavior I know of. That said, I agree with Stephanie that the phrase does have some negative connotations. Does “imagined communities” work any better for you (
    @anon- I think very few of us identify with all the groups and boxes others may place us in. Somewhere on the scienceblogosphere someone responded to a gender study with somewhat odd conclusions with “ah-ha! another study proving I’m not a woman”. I get that feeling a lot.
    Also, I’m still looking for people to fill some of my tribes. This post has inspired me to start a tribe of scientists who can sing the Scotsman song. There is now a facebook group.
    The intergenerational spats are a source of endless amusement for me. Much as I love to tease people for being old, I never really thought of age as quite as meaningful as some people seem to.
    I wonder if some of that has to do with more age integration in homeschooling social groups. On the other hand, I bet Sol is old enough to have gone to an all age one room schoolhouse (doesn’t Sol somehow seem older than Grandpa Simpson and John McCain combined?), and he seems to be pretty age obsessed.
    As far as Obama and a call to action, and all that crazy “hope” and “change” stuff… Isn’t your tribe supposed to be the cynical, bitter, working-our-asses-off-to-pay-our-mortgages-while-shaking-fists-at-baby-boomers tribe, DM?
    As much as I enjoy the Sol vs. SAY debates, it’s very much because I take them very lightly. I worried slightly that people might be taking it all too seriously. Which raised a question for me… what if we spent all this energy mobilizing the scientists to change the system, rather than spatting at each other?
    But then, you have to get everyone pulling in the same direction. And scientists (and academics broadly, I suppose) are notoriously difficult to herd…


  12. DrugMonkey Says:

    what if we spent all this energy mobilizing the scientists to change the system, rather than spatting at each other?
    But then, you have to get everyone pulling in the same direction.

    umm. yes. that’s where this line of thought is heading…
    I don’t detect the level of overinterpretation in others that is clearly required to lead this tribe.
    If you are in “systems” anything, well, that is one astronomically high bar you’ve reached if you can actually be a leader in “overinterpretation”…


  13. Stephanie Z Says:

    What if we mobilized the scientists (or whomever) to change the system, despite the fact that we keep sniping at each other?
    I think tribalism sets unrealistic expectations about how much we should agree with each other. If I identify with you, it can feel like betrayal when we disagree. If you are something that I’m also supposed to be, we could spend all our time and energy deciding which of us is “doing it right.” That way lies factionalism.
    A faction is much less useful than a tribe or a coalition. Even a sniping coalition.


  14. DrugMonkey Says:

    I think tribalism sets unrealistic expectations about how much we should agree with each other. If I identify with you, it can feel like betrayal when we disagree.
    Calling the Clans is saying “look, stop your damn squabbling over who gets to fish where in the Loch until we kick the hated English out of the whole place, then you can go back to kicking each other in the ass over the little stuff..”
    So yes, tribalism is asking you to prioritize your goals and to pull together on the common ones because they are more important.
    random examples:
    Is it more important that you get the grants that you “deserve” because of your long efforts or that the science field that you allegedly love is healthy and vibrant long after you are gone?
    Is it more important that no well meaning white male middle class trainee pays any sort of price for the sins of his fathers? or that the system approaches fairness of opportunity for all?
    Is it critical that you defend the UltimateELEVENTEEZ!!!! purity of basic research or that you give the taxpayers at least a little something that they can understand intuitively?
    Is it most important that you get scrupulous credit for every bit of labor or that the lab to which you belong creates great stuff?
    We always balance the immediately selfish / pure goals against the group goals- goals which are often in conflict. Asking people to shift the priorities around a little bit is not necessarily the same as setting unrealistic expectations for harmony.


  15. juniorprof Says:

    Well, those little random examples do a rather nice job of summing up some of the most pressing current challenges. Perhaps not so random?


  16. Hank Says:

    We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
    For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
    Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
    This day shall gentle his condition;
    And gentlemen in RedStateLand now-a-bed
    Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon Obama’s administration.


  17. Stephanie Z Says:

    DM, I don’t think I’m arguing with you as much as cautioning against romanticizing the process. Oddly, I think I’m doing it out of idealism. I’d like any coalition to outlast the most pressing needs, and I think it has a better chance if people don’t expect to agree on more than they actually do.
    Too many years of watching liberals tear into each other, I think.


  18. If you are in “systems” anything, well, that is one astronomically high bar you’ve reached if you can actually be a leader in “overinterpretation”…
    Daaaang. That’s pretty cold, coming from someone who reads drug studies.


  19. Becca Says:

    With regard to your random examples: I’ll add my measly little pull to your efforts. But you’ll have to put up with my singing…


  20. Sorry to be late to the party but I am reminded of my own experiences at large gatherings where I recommune with my various tribes. At hospitality suites, dinners, or hotel bars, I often find myself being amongst people I’ve known and think should know one another because they are drawn from temporally-selected groups of like-minded folk I have surrounded myself with throughout my career.
    What’s then very cool is to watch cross-generational and cross-disciplinary tribes hybridize who then create a bigger tribe that shares many aspects of one’s worldview on science and the scientific community – adding our new sci/med blogging friends to the mix makes that gumbo much richer.


  21. DrugMonkey Says:

    There are some excellent thoughts on tribal affiliations over at Stephanie Z’s Almost Diamonds joint..


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