So long as I’ve already referred to the work of writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin this week, I’d like to add another mention in the context of his 2008 book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (2008). Godin defines a tribe as “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” Tribes and movements go together, he suggests, grounded in our desires for connection, growth, and positive change.
Tribes give us a chance to be a part of something larger and more significant than our individual lives. This appeals to our desire for meaningful connection, to be able to work with others toward making a difference or having a stronger impact in a sphere of interest.
Four books that I pulled from my library help to illustrate of how groups of smart, bold visionaries connected with each other and formed tribes in the days before digital technology made long-distance communication easy. Physical proximation had a lot to do with their success, sometimes as close as sharing meals and meetings in the same city:
- Christina Robb’s This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology (2006) tells the story of the pioneers of relational psychology, clustered in the Greater Boston area, including Carol Gilligan (gender and moral voices), Jean Baker Miller (psychology, women, and relational-cultural theory) , and Judith Lewis Herman (trauma theory and practice).
- James Buchan’s Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind (2003) recounts an extraordinary coalescence of leading intellectuals such as Adam Smith (economics and markets), James Boswell (biography), David Hume (philosophy), and Robert Burns (poetry) in 18th century Edinburgh.
- Laura J. Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club (2011) shares how four men who first crossed paths at Cambridge University — Charles Babbage (mathematics and computing), John Herschel (astronomy and photography), William Whewell (multiple fields of science), and Richard Jones (economic science) — began meeting over Sunday morning breakfast to exchange ideas and plant the seeds of the modernization of science.
- Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001) focuses on the lives and ideas of four remarkable members of a conversational club that met throughout 1872: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (law), Charles Sanders Pierce (philosophy), William James (philosophy and psychology), and John Dewey (education and philosophy).
Today, tribes may form and sustain with members spread across the land. Physical proximity helps a lot, of course, especially in the form of periodic conferences and meetings. But the online world can be a way of sustaining and building those bonds too, especially when face-to-face interactions are less feasible. This is the angle that Godin plays up in Tribes.
Although my strong preference is for small group face-to-face meetings, the bridging power of communications technologies helps to bring leading thinkers and doers together. I’ve seen this dynamic occur on Facebook, listserves, and blog discussions. In fact, this blend of face-to-face and online interaction is a key to the success of four sometimes overlapping tribes of which I’m a part, the workplace anti-bullying movement, the therapeutic jurisprudence network, the intern rights movement, and the global human dignity community.
If you will indulge my closing with an educator’s homework questions: What are your natural tribes? How can you contribute to the work of your favorite tribes? How can you form and lead a tribe to make a difference in a dimension that needs your presence?
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