african map on blue faceWhat is the difference between a tribe and an ethnic group? As far as I can tell, nothing really. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what has to say on the matter. “Tribe – any aggregate of people united by ties of descent from a common ancestor, community of customs and traditions, adherence to the same leaders, etc.” “Ethnic group – pertaining to or characteristic of a people, especially a group (ethnic group)  sharing a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like.” Do you see a difference?

Then why is it that Africa is said to have tribes, and Europe is said to have ethnic groups? Note ethnic groups have a “common and distinctive culture, religion, language.” There are at least one thousand groups in Africa with common and distinctive culture, religion and language, whereas in Europe many ethnic groups have the same language and religion. If anything, that would make the term “ethnic group” more appropriate to Africa than Europe. But essentially the two terms have the same denotative meaning.

What a word “denotes” is its direct meaning. What a word “connotes’ is its indirect meaning. Connotations are the shades of meaning that a word has picked up over time. The word “tribe” has connotations of being primitive while the word “ethnic group” does not. However, if one goes by that criteria, it should be noted that when the Portuguese arrived in the Congo, they were surprised at the sophisticated medical procedures of the people which included Caesarean sections, something they were totally ignorant of.  Likewise, the military tactics of Shaka were copied and emulated by the British and the Germans.

The Native American groups were also called tribes. However, the entire political structure of the United States government with its separation of powers of branches of government and its decentralized federal system and other key aspects were lifted wholesale from the Iroquois Nation in New York by Benjamin Franklin. In short, words have power. We must be careful how we use them.

( by Arthur Lewin,, author of Africa Is Not A Country: Its A Continent )


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2018-05-13T07:05:30+00:00 By |0 Comments

About the Author:

Arthur Lewin is a member of the Black and Latino Studies Department of Baruch College of the City University of New York. He is the author of the books, Africa Is Not A Country: It’s A Continent and Read Like Your Life Depends On It. He writes on a wide variety of topics, and greatly enjoys the free exchange of ideas and opinions on the internet with people all around the country and the world. Send him a note today.