Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy by Joel Kotkin (1994)

In his book, titled Tribes, Joel Kotkin talks about the strong prevalence of tribalism on the 21st century. In the book the author starts with defining what he means by the word “tribalism”. The author then picks up 5 globally distributed ethnic tribal groups namely the Jews, British, Japanese, Chinese and the Indians and goes on to analyze each of these groups, in terms of evolution of the tribes, the prominent characteristics of each tribe, how they became more prominent in the modern world with the end of cold war and with the national boundaries getting more permeable. The author finally makes and attempt to predict how these ethnic groups will evolve and which of these groups will dominate the world going forward. The author believes that ethnicity will be the defining factor in evolution of global economy.
About the author
No book can be understood in depth without having a good understanding of the author himself. Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California. Kotkin has done extensive research on the global economics, political and social trends. Kotkin has also written several other books which include:
1. The City : A Global History
In this book Kotkin talks about the evolution of the cities and urban life over thousands of years.
2. The Third Century
In this book Kotkin discusses the role America can play in the era of Asian dominance.
3. The new Geography
In this book Kotkin analyzes the issue of how technology is impacting our lives, where we live and how we work.
4. California Inc
This is Kotkin’s first book published in 1982. It dealt with the California’s link to the emergent economies in the Pacific
Kotkin is also a very widely published journalist. He wrote the monthly “Grass roots” column in the NY Times for many years. He has also published articles in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The American etc.
Kotkin has worked as an editor of the Inc magazine for several years. Prior to that, Kotkin worked as a business trends analyst in Fox Television in Los Angeles. In this role Kotkin won the Golden Mike Award for Best Business Reporting on the changing dynamics of the entertainment industry.
Book Summary
Kotkin describes a global tribe as a group of people who have a strong sense of common origin and shared value with two critical characteristics of global dispersion and belief in scientific progress. He considers for tribes to be successful they should not lose their ethnic identify with the invent of new science and technology but use their strong historical identities and values to cope with the change. More formally Kotkin goes on to describe the three critical characteristics “must have” for becoming a global tribe

1. A strong ethnic identify and sense of mutual dependence that helps the group to adjust to global changes without losing its identify

2. Global network of people that lets them functional collectively across the national boundaries. These groups are formed and function based on mutual trust

3. An open mind with passion all forms of knowledge which enables them to drive cultural and technological changes, to be successful in the changing world. Based on the three criteria defined above, Kotkin selects five global tribes for further analysis. A brief summary of his analysis is captured below.

1. Jews

The Jews have been largely bound together by their common identification with God. They have been, for ages, surrounded by strangers in a hostile environment. The Jews have hence developed a powerful tradition of self help, strong identity, international mobility and other skills necessary to adapt to the changing situation around them. Trading, financing and mercantile business is central to the survival of Jewish Diasporas.

2. British
The British have been the most successful tribes of all times. Starting from the small island they grew their empire across the globe. The British tribe is based around the British Calvinist and other dissenting, but theologically distinct groups such as Quakers. The British were the capitalist who expanded around the world in pursue of business opportunities and in the process developed strong business processes (accounting for example). However, over the last few decades the Anglo-American hegemony has dwindled due to erosion of these core values that drove their success.


3. Japanese
The Japanese have been the most prominent of all Asian tribes. Their success came from their extraordinary organization skills and hard work. Here some differences can be drawn with the Jews and the Japanese. While the Jews carried out business through permanent settlements, the Japanese Diaspora conducted business primarily through temporary corporate sojourns to various parts of the world. However, Japanese have not been prepared for the multiracial economic reality. The author mentions that the Japanese have notable in their failure to accommodate others within their organizations and supply networks.


4. Chinese
As the communism faded in China, the linkages of Chinese with the world grew stronger. The Chinese Diaspora started in regions around Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore but quickly spread across the globe. Today Chinese community constitutes one of worlds wealthiest, technically sophisticated and highly entrepreneurial group. The Chinese have established presence in fields as diverse as business services, food products and toys and are challenging the Japanese in televisions, telecommunications and computers.


5. Indians
The Indians are probably the tribe which will gain significance in future. The Indians (which correctly includes Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Sikhs) have a long historical culture and a strong sense of unique identity. Even though, at the time of writing the book, the Indians were struggling with poverty and deep fratricidal divisions they had also started to develop and potent global diasporas. India’s scientific and engineering has talent developed into a major force constituting the second largest English-speaking technical workforce in the World. This sets up the stage for a significant Indian Diaspora to emerge and play a significant role in the global economy.


Kotkin ends his book with a chapter dedicated to future tribes. Kotkin writes “the story of global tribes is a protean one, with new groups always emerging.” The emergence of new Diasporas will hasten in today’s world mainly due to the free world after the falls of western and soviet imperialism, the return of interest on ethnicity and religion and finally due to the globally integrated environment we live in. Some of the notable emerging tribes are those of Armenians, Filipinos, Arabs, Lebanese and the Mormons.

Click here to read a Book Review by the L.A. Times in Feb, 1993

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