Member of the Tribe, like it or not

November 24, 2008

If I’d thought about it for a half a second I would have realized that reference to tribe is inflammatory to many science and academic bloggers and readers of same. I mean, let’s face it, we are disproportionately those who were not in the kewl groups in high school and boy, does that leave a mark.
Without going into our respective adolescent psychodramas, let us all just admit to a deep seated antipathy to traditional social structures and an enduring mistrust of those that would find anything positive in same. We are outsiders…..and damn proud of it!
It is time to get over this little conceit, people.

Stephanie Z provides a little analysis of why my prior light musing on tribal affiliations put up the hair on the back of her neck.

I don’t belong to any tribes. The whole idea makes me itch.
I belong to a couple of small, manufactured families, but at least in this day and age, that’s not the same thing. Knowing with whom I chose to spend my time doesn’t tell you much about me. Not the same way that being part of a tribe would. I like my families, but I don’t identify with them. I am not them. They are not me.
This isn’t true in tribes. The premise of a tribe is that the tribe’s welfare is your welfare. In order to make this real, the tribe’s identity also has to be your identity. You can have your own place, yes, but only as long as it fits within the tribe.

I don’t see it this way, especially when it comes to interactions at the level of modern adult life. Don’t misunderstand, I totally understand what she is saying here and when it comes to tribalism, right there with her. My thoughts are not running towards the narrowing, stultifying and vicious tendencies of tribe. Far from it. If we think about the varied Tribes of Science I will admit that they are subject to many of these tendencies. Indeed, one might view my comments on this blog regarding science careerism to critique many of those narrowing traditions.
Nevertheless, it is patently obvious that tribal structures can be utilized for good. The Rule of Law, anyone? Running water? Penicillin?
My thinking this month is about how to use our extant membership in our many tribes to become more effective in advancing our respective agendas. It will come as no surprise that I am thinking along the lines of biomedical science, science careers and specific subfields of personal interest. I was trying, in the prior post, to get you to think about your tribal associations, much as I continue to think about mine. To identify levers that you can use to magnify your impact.
A basic problem arises- Stephanie Z again:

DM, the tribe of science is a good one to look at in this respect, at least for me. I am, either way we look at it, not of this tribe. I am not a scientist or a tech or a teacher or whatever. If I were to claim that I were a member, trying to get that claim recognized would take all my time. As good as I am at arguing, I would fail.

I make this claim for you, Stephanie Z, although I can perhaps recognize why you might think that tribe of science requires some sort of credentials for membership. This is nonsense. If you are interested in science, what it means for our collective future and/or in the conduct of science…you are in the Tribe. It does not matter if you claim membership or if other asshats try to enforce who is/is not in the club. What matters, to me anyway, is that you inhabit the the Venn space and that you are a potential contributor to tribal goals. Not “Tribal” goals endorsed as OfficialPolicy of the most formal definition and by the PowersThatBe. This is not required. All that is required is that you are available if part of the tribe asks you to grab a hold of a particular rope and give a pull.

What standing I do have in the tribe of science depends on me being an outsider. I can offer the lay perspective (as though there were just one). I can talk about similarities and differences between a life in science and life in the corporate world. I can make mistakes and ask for clarifications that might sound naive. I can claim a disinterested voice in an argument because my status isn’t at stake.

Sure, you may exist a bit farther from the center of the blob than others. So what? Tribes of Science may be some of the looser ones by intent and proven success, I suppose. Perhaps this is why I consider even “outsiders” to be part of the tribe. (I may perhaps draw the line with respect to science denialists who wish to pull down the whole enterprise and do not share a fundamental perspective that science is meaningful and a group good.) Nevertheless I am thinking about tactics. Tactics which may require group action to enhance the chances of a particular outcome. And it is irrelevant what labels we wear. Much more important that the rope get pulled.

No Responses Yet to “Member of the Tribe, like it or not”

  1. Becca Says:

    My first instinct was also to say to Stephanie “of course you’re a member of the tribe!” That’s an important response, since our particular tribe can be excessively exclusionary. I totally understand why you’d want to use this tactic, DM.
    But it’s also coercive.
    Why shouldn’t someone who recieves few (if any) benefits of the tribe reserve the right to pull any rope she darn well pleases, or to turn your plea to pull right back around at you (and not pull at all)?
    Keep in mind, being able to multiply your impact, or warm-fuzzies from hanging out with kewl scientists, or finding singing buddies may not be sufficient incentive for someone to give up their autonomy.


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    I can but ask, becca, there is no power to coerce. Even assuming I wanted to do so.


  3. Stephanie Z Says:

    DM, the part of this debate that amuses me the most is that I think you need outsiders to be seen pulling this rope. Not to say that the tribe shouldn’t unite, but a successful coalition is a much more powerful political symbol than a united tribe. And outsiders can sometimes speak better to other outsiders.


  4. “Tribe” is one of those words that elicits a visceral reaction from some – I’m reminded of this fabulous quote: “I sent the club a wire stating, ‘Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.'” To me, the universal qualities, values, and ethics we share as scientists and educators independent of our subdisciplines makes us part of a “tribe,” not the things that make us different.
    Not to get OT but “tolerance” is another one of those words that popped up with some gnashing of teeth around the election relative to P.E. Obama and/or the LGBT hate legislation. Some objected to “tolerance” meaning simply “to tolerate” one another when, in fact, the original definition referred to religious freedom meaning, “the capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others,” with a heavy emphasis on the respect part. (Hence why the Southern Poverty Law Center publishes “Teaching Tolerance” and runs The Tolerance Project for K-12 education.).
    Anyway, I wish I could’ve been part of the tribe drinking with y’all at SfN.


  5. kiwi Says:

    I was dreaming last night about the tribe of science as one of those gangs that are feared and misunderstood by society, where your PhD means you become a fully patched member while grad students and others are prospects…


  6. Nat Says:

    …the tribe of science as one of those gangs that are feared and misunderstood by society
    Wait, as part of your defense you didn’t have an initiation where you popped a cap in somebody’s….


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