Peter Smith

Publications, Lectures and Other Stuff

‘Tribalism’ in Academe

Robert J. Sternberg has written a ‘light-hearted but serious’ critique of what he describes as ‘tribalism’ in academe.

Sternberg draws on his considerable experience as a leading academic and administrator: he is a professor of human development at Cornell University; a former president of the American Psychological Association and of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences; and a former dean, provost and university president.

He uses the term ‘tribe’ to refer to ‘a group of people who are united by customs, tradition, and adherence to a largely common worldview’. These ‘tribes’ can include behaviorists and Freudians in psychology; analytical and rationalist philosophers in philosophy; quantitative and qualitative methodologists in sociology; theoretical and experimental physicists; zoologists and botanists in biology departments; traditional literary scholars and creative writers in English departments; French and Spanish factions of modern-language departments; and across academe, scientists and humanists.

Sternberg sees tribalism as limiting ‘the realization of one’s own potential by limiting the scope of problems one allows oneself to pursue’, and more generally interfering with what might be described as the ‘academic mission’.

Specific possible problems include:

1. Limiting of self-actualization. You can’t study the topics that interest you if they don’t fit in with those of the tribe.

2. Uniformity of point of view. An inability or unwillingness to consider other perspectives.

3. Distrust of outsiders. Ignoring the possible complementary of different approaches.

4. Hiring and promotion wars. Battles for resources within a department which may hold back the whole department.

5. Rejection of interdisciplinarity. 

6. Transmission of a tribal value system to students.

The article includes reference to Tony Becher and Paul Trowler’s book, Academic Tribes and Territories (, and Hazard Adams’ The Academic Tribes.

To read the article in full, see:

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2014 by in Universities and tagged .
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