ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Relook at the Term 'Tribe'

Over the years, the academic literature has shown growing differentiation among the tribes and challenged the notion of tribal homogeneity. This response to Sumit Guha's "States, Tribes, Castes: A Historical Re-exploration in Comparative Perspective" (EPW, 21 November 2015) looks at the critiques of the idea of a homogeneous "tribe."

Sumit Guha’s “States, Tribes, Castes: A Historical Re-exploration in Comparative Perspective” (EPW, 21 November 2015) has provided opportunity for a much needed debate on the use of the term “tribe.” Taking a look at societies in the ancient and medieval world, including India, Guha rightly critiques the use of the term in Indian sociology and political discourse. He also suggests some new terms as alternatives. Though he correctly points out that it was the anthropological and sociological studies that built the notion of the tribe in India, he appears to have missed the critique of this very same notion by sociologists and other scholars in later years.

Taking off from Guha’s article, I have attempted to highlight the contestation behind the term tribe. Colonial anthropology, and the anthropological and sociological literature from the 1920s and 1930s onwards “froze” the notion of tribe in time and space on account of certain features; tribe was also seen as a homogeneous and undifferentiated category. In the period after independence, the state also largely conformed to this notion. However, over the years, the academic literature has questioned the notion of the tribe as a homogeneous and undifferentiated category and has pointed out differentiation within tribes.

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