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Tribalism or Village-ism? The dangers of "mapping" the Human Terrain (DIEEEO18-2012)

The concept of tribe has undergone substantial scrutiny in the academic world, but the military and governmental departments involved in Afghanistan remain enthralled by tribal maps. Non-Afghans (and sometimes Afghans themselves) are quick to blame disputes on “tribal” differences or age-old feuds. They expect that maps and lists of tribal elders will help make it clear who makes decisions and how disputes are resolved. There is historical precedent for certain tribes dominating the national political scene and thus we, as foreigners, are quick to look for signs of nepotism and favoritism along these lines. When looking for power players, we look for a segmentary system where sub-tribes owe a certain allegiance to and pay a certain respect to decisions made by elders at a higher level. However, such a neat system rarely occurs in the real world, and the degree to which it exists at all can vary vastly by region. In eastern Afghanistan (Paktika, Paktiya and Khost), for instance, rural villagers can rarely name more than a single level of tribe that they belong to and some have to struggle to come up with even that. What is more prevalent in these areas is what I call village-ism. Many or even most people in a village will often be from the same sub-tribe, and the village will often be named after that sub-tribe, but it will often also have another name more associated with place and tribal elders at this point coincide with village elders. Decision-making tends not to extend beyond these local levels. If a problem cannot be solved by village elders, people’s next recourse will often be to go to government for resolution, rather than the next tribal level up. Being aware of what kind of social structure is actually at the heart of decision-making (as well as village naming) can be very important in how we map people (or refrain from doing so).

Author: Kathleen Reedy

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