Published in The Sociological Review, 64.4 (Nov 2016), Special Issue: “Being in community: Re-visioning Sociology”, edited by David Studdert and Valerie Walkerdine
Published version: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-954X.12434/abstract
Open Access version: below
Introduction to Michel Maffesoli’s ‘From Society to Tribal Communities’
This article introduces Michel Maffesoli’s article ‘From Society to Tribal Communities’, in which he argues that emerging communities, although post-modern, are not entirely new but archaic and rooted in pre-modernity, and that these tribes are further facilitated by new technological developments such as social media. The introduction summarises the main argument of the article while contextualising it within both Maffesoli’s wider work and secondary literature that critically engages with his unique approach to studying postmodernism.
Michel Maffesoli, society, community, tribalism, postmodernism
Michel Maffesoli is, of course, best known in the Anglophone world as one of the principal theorists of postmodernity (albeit not as well-known as Jean Baudrillard, Francois Lyotard or Frederic Jameson), and for his particular focus on everyday life and the imaginary within postmodernity. His work, peppered with Latin phrases and references to Ancient Greek mythology, is steeped in the history of French and German sociological theory; particularly Durkheim on ‘collective consciousness’ and Weber on ‘emotional communities’. In addition to his own regular output of books and pamphlets, as well as numerous public lectures and media appearances, he continues to direct the (distinctly Maffesolian) CEAQ – Centre d’Études sur l’Actuel et le Quotidien – at the Sorbonne, which specialises in sociality and the imaginary, as well as its two journals, Sociétés and Les Cahiers Européens de l’Imaginaire, which publish issues on Maffesolian interests such as common passions, everyday ambiences, barbarism, the baroque, luxury, eating together and techno-magic.
A controversial figure in French academia, for numerous reasons (see Cassely, 2014 ; Floc’h, 2015; Magnin, 2015; Quinon & Saint-Martin, 2015; Tremblay, 2014), he is continuously embroiled in intra-disciplinary debates, particularly with those sociologists who prefer a more empirically rigorous or critical form of social science, and whom he in turn sees as mediocre and disappointingly ‘modern’. The criticism he makes in the following article of those who ignore the contemporary importance of social media and the relevance of new social practices is, perhaps, a reflection of his interpretation of the work of his French peers. In an article published in the Sociological Review at the time of Maffesoli’s first translations into English, David Evans emphasised that “any engagement with Maffesoli’s sociology must be critical” (1997: 240). Critiquing Maffesoli’s ‘postmodern sociology of postmodernity’ for its “proto-typically modernist […] totalising, meta-narrative grandeur” (1997: 240), however, he nevertheless praised Maffesoli’s concepts for providing a “suggestive, controversial and fruitful way of making sense of society” (1997: 241).
The work with which English-language readers will be the most familiar is Maffesoli’s book, The Time of the Tribes (first published in French in 1988 and in English in 1996), in which he sets out his theory of ‘neo-tribal’, postmodern communities. In the following article (Maffesoli, this issue), he outlines his revision of his theory of neo-tribalism, as updated in Le Temps Revient: Les Formes Elémentaires de la Postmodernité in 2010, in which he argues that emerging communities, although post-modern, are not entirely new but archaic and rooted in pre-modernity, and that these tribes are further facilitated by new technological developments such as social media.
To suggest an epochal shift from (a singular and Eurocentric) modernity to (a singular and Eurocentric) postmodernity is of course problematic. The ‘post-’ prefix suggests not only that it comes after modernity, but that postmodernity signals a rejection of modernity. For Maffesoli, however, it is more specifically that we are on the threshold of a shift to an epoch in which the dominant features of modernity are no longer dominant. The term ‘postmodernity’, furthermore, directs our attention to the changes taking place in artistic and academic fields, such as architecture, as well as changes in modes of production and consumption, and – of particular interest to Maffesoli – in everyday practices and experiences, in new forms of identity, and in emerging relations between individuals and groups. His arguments about emerging forms of individualism and community, as well as about the blurring of the boundaries between the two, have obvious resonances with Ulrich Beck’s theories of individualization and the risk society in reflexive modernity, and Zygmunt Bauman’s critique of liquid modernity. Maffesoli’s approach is, however, more celebratory and relativist than either Beck’s or Bauman’s.
For Maffesoli, postmodernity involves a move away from individualism and a view of society built upon the model of the rational individual, towards a new aesthetic paradigm of communal feelings, and of temporary/transitive and emotional/affective communities. In this article, Maffesoli summarises his thesis of tribal communities in the context of this shift from modern society to postmodern sociality. Arguing that there has been a fragmentation of both the individual and the society envisaged by modernity, he proposes that postmodern tribalism (with its roots in pre-modernity) has replaced modern categories.
As Maffesoli explains, modernity and the Enlightenment project – which was distinguished from Antiquity – privileged a binary distinction between the individual and society, and a view of the individual as rational, contractual and Cartesian. Modern individualism was institutionalised through property and contracts, and identity was prescribed in terms of the functional or specialist roles ascribed to individuals through family, class, work and civil society. For Maffesoli, however, we are no longer in the modern period. Although its categories and institutions continue to play a part, they are no longer dominant or as significant for understanding the contemporary world. In postmodernity, the binary opposition between the individual and society no longer holds, and both concepts have become unstable and fragmented. Beyond the now broken model of the social state, the argument goes, new forms of solidarity, expression and even suffering (though Maffesoli rarely touches on the latter) emerge. Nevertheless, the French-language sociological, political and journalistic discourse with which Maffesoli is in dialogue continues, he argues, to depend on a modern view of the individual and society, and on what are now outdated concepts and false assumptions.
Rather than modern society, Maffesoli talks of postmodern sociality, the basis of which is simply being-together in everyday life. Out of the habitus of this sociality, there springs a new form of individual (a person or self) and an ‘ideal of community’. Youth cultures, subcultures and interest groups are formed which are interstitial, transitive and temporary; and social media and other internet activities facilitate and expand such fragmentation. These new communities of shared taste are “not on the lookout for some distant, abstract and rather irrational utopia, but instead seek a fragmentation into small interstitial utopias experienced…everyday” (Maffesoli, this issue). They are, however, far removed from a form of communitarianism that Maffesoli reduces to communities of difference and non-integration, and are instead based on indifferentiation (Tester, 2003: 77) and in terms of their relations with other communities – always-already in relation with the ‘other’. Similarly, in terms of epistemological approach, while communitarians, such as Amitai Etzioni, critique individualism and its erosion of tradition, Maffesoli limits himself to an immanent analysis that is only concerned with ‘how things are or appear to be’ (Evans, 1997: 236); and whereas Bauman doubts the extent to which consumer subcultures can ever form a ‘public’, Maffesoli sees them as actually echoing the republican model of the res publica, which allows for “opposing forms and forces to coincide” (Maffesoli, this issue).
The individual becomes a provisional member of overlapping groups, and the roles that the individual plays and the masks they wear within these often temporary and transitive groups become the source of their identity. This new individualism is not necessarily irrational, but it is rooted more in taste and everyday life as the individual tears itself away from traditionally modern adherences. Less of an individual and more of a person, the self becomes fragmented and unstable – Maffesoli discusses the breakdown in gender and sexuality binaries and the rise of trans- or meta- categories among the examples of this – and a person becomes the amalgam of the roles they play within their tribes, rather than a Cartesian individual.
As well as being ‘duplicitous’, through engaging in role-play and the wearing of masks, as well as emotional, affective and instinctive, these tribes are relative or relational, in the sense that the self is effectively performed through its relationships with others, and through a tribe’s relations with other tribes. Rather than individualism or communitarianism, tribalism suggests a fragmented, splintered self, tearing itself away from traditionally modern adherences, but less as a lonely individual or an isolationist community that refuses to integrate than as part of a ‘vaster Self’. In a way, what we are witnessing is the loss of the individualistic self. The self fragments into the Self, a collective subject, as the distinction between individual and society blurs.
The rationalised society is replaced by an empathetic sociality (ambiences, feelings, emotions). Affectual tribes and a new social bond based on emotional pacts replace contractual groups, and we move from an abstractive and rational period to a more empathetic time (where experience is more direct). Far from the rigidity of traditional communities of class, gender and ethnic belonging, and contradicting those who bemoan the ‘fragmentation of society’, this idea accounts for the ways in which individuals converge to form open and flexible communities of interest, within and between which they interact with the ‘other’.
Maffesoli uses the term tribalism to describe this phenomenon because, although postmodern sociality is distinct from modern society, it is not exactly new. Indeed, he emphasises how these new forms of community are rooted in pre-modern and archaic forms that had been marginalised and repressed in modernity. At the same time, these tribal communities are not identical to their pre-modern ancestors, and Maffesoli doesn’t use the term ‘tribe’ in any anthropological sense, but only (and typically) as a metaphor. These neo-tribes – or pseudo-tribes – are determined as much by space and locality as the archaic versions, but more by transitivity and questions of taste, and embedded in the rituals and performances of everyday life. The tribal metaphor illustrates the process of disindividuation, the saturation of the function of the modern individual, and the new emphasis on the performative or ‘duplicitous’ role a person plays within their tribes.
This is what Maffesoli understands by community today. For him, the (neo-)tribal community is a postmodern concept that replaces the modern distinction between individual and society, while remaining distinct from a communitarian ethic, and which has its roots in pre-modernity. It is therefore important, when considering emerging forms of individualism and community today, to avoid dismissing them as ephemeral and inconsequential because of their failure to live up to a normative and ‘modern’, and therefore outdated, model. Rather, Maffesoli insists, we should look at how things actually are, and to the ways in which emerging practices, identities and communities illustrate the blurring of the boundaries between individual and society, and between self and other; to the ways in which they illustrate something new; as well as to how they relate to something older. Maffesoli provides some interesting concepts with which to make sense of these emerging forms; but while some seem to swallow whole and regurgitate his arguments and style, and others are intent on dismissing and even ridiculing his approach, critical engagement with his particular sociological approach and the concepts he proposes may be more fruitful.
Cassely, J-L (2014) ‘Michel Maffesoli, le troll de la sociologie française’, Slate (09.05.2014)
Evans, D (1997) ‘Michel Maffesoli’s Sociology of Modernity and Postmodernity: An Introduction and Critical Assessment’, Sociological Review, vol. 45, n°2, pp. 220-243
Floc’h, B (2015) ‘Victime d’un canular, Michel Maffesoli dénonce un « règlement de comptes » entre sociologues’, Le Monde.fr (18.03.2015)
Maffesoli, M (1996) The Time of the Tribes, London: SAGE
Maffesoli, M (2010) Le Temps Revient: Les Formes Elémentaires de la Postmodernité, Paris : Desclée de Brouwer
Maffesoli, M (forthcoming) ‘From society to tribal communities’, trans. Rob Atkins, Sociological Review
Magnin, B (2015) ‘Michel Maffesoli, « expert » sociologique de pacotille’, Acrimed (27.03.2015)
Quinon, M and Arnaud Saint-Martin (2015) ‘Le maffesolisme, une « sociologie » en roue libre. Démonstration par l’absurde’
Tester, K (2003) The Life and Times of Post-Modernity, London: Routledge
Tremblay, J-P (2014) ‘Automobilités postmodernes : quand l’Autolib’ fait sensation à Paris’, originally published in Sociétés, n°4/2014 (no longer available) ; now available at :