Putting Tribalism to Work in Your Campaign

ezheadshothersman250.jpgWe all have homophilic tendencies according to Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Center for Civic Media, at the MIT Media Lab and author of the book, Rewired.  “We are tribal,” he explains.  Homophily, in sociologic usage, is the tendency of people to maintain relationships with people who are similar to themselves.

I recently heard Zuckerman make the case that our growing reliance on internet tools for civic information is narrowing our knowledge.  International coverage, for instance, has declined in print and broadcast news outlets and has not developed on major internet outlets like the Huffington Post according to Zuckerman.

We can probably be more certain that academics have a tendency to use words most of us have never encountered.  It turns out that homophily has been in use in sociology since the 50’s and has come back into vogue in academic discussions of social networks.  The phenomenon, often described as “birds of a feather, flocking together” is observable, according to Zuckerman, among strangers arranging themselves in a space.

It is interesting to consider that such homophilic tendencies were the basis for Thomas Schelling’s insight that mild preferences for one’s own kind among racial groups could lead to a tipping point and to total separation.  Tipping points are now something we understand much better, but at the time Schelling first published his observations, they were startling.


Zuckerman believes that our tribal instincts are ill suited for our broadly interdependent world and thinks there is value in bridging groups.  He speculates that there is untapped value in information generated outside of most people’s perspectives, but available through internet sources.

In a campaigns, homophilic tendencies are a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, shared values or interests motivate people to band togther.  On the other hand, the tendency leads to the exclusion of potential allies and to splintering of groups into less powerful smaller groups. 

The obvious strategy is to frame your campaign to appeal to the group that is most influential in producing your desired outcomes.  For example, in an election campaign, the largest number of people possible; in a fund raising campaign perhaps people of a certain net worth, etc.  Another obvious strategy is to segment your appeal by targeted tribe.

Less obvious but perhaps as important, particularly for an enduring enterprise, waging multiple campaigns, is to frame the common ground as a bridging concept that embraces differences and places value on processes of resolving differences within “the tribe.”  For example, commitments to science and reason, can apply to many types of campaigns and may counteract the hemophilic tendencies to exclude allies and splinter into less effective units.

Stimulating hemophilic tendencies can be dangerous to your campaign if it not done carefully.  Appeals to narrow tribalism, a very common campaign technique, can get ugly fast and can tip against you as easily as they tip influence in you favor.

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