This study investigates the relationship between the liberal citizenship ideal underlying the Swiss political order and different reactions to migration in the country by asking how discourses and practices of autochthony and cosmopolitanism produce exclusionary or inclusive forms of identity. The aim is to contribute to a better understanding of the factors shaping social cohesion by drawing from the concept of “re-tribalization” deployed in Africa during the colonial period as a manifestation of fear concerning how Africans reacted to the challenges of modernity.

and citizenship

The concept of “re-tribalization” emerged in the 1940s and 1950s in Africa to account for the behaviour of African natives living in urban areas. The introduction of the cash economy and the emergence of urban settlements requiring African labour had seen the number of Africans living in those urban settlements grow. Colonial officials worried that the urban environment might harm Africans. Colonial officials thought that the absence of the normative canopy offered by “traditional society” in the form of “tribes” might culturally “uproot” Africans and render them vulnerable to the vices of urban life.

In contrast to the colonial officials’ worries, the anthropological literature of the time assumed that contact with strangers in a modernizing context would lead to a weakening of these identities in favour of a “proletarian” or a “nationalist” identity. This assumption gained strength in the context of modernization theories positing the dilution of primordial ethnic (or “tribal”) identities as Africans left tradition behind and became “modern”. Becoming modern came to be equated with the acceptance of belonging grounded on the liberal conception of rights translating into different forms of citizenship.

Citizens and subjects
in Africa

The project perceives colonial officials’ worries and anthropologists’ predictions against the background of the liberal ideal of citizenship and how it promotes a universal as opposed to a particularistic orientation. The perception of “retribalization” among Africans seemed to prove Africans’ inability to foster a universalist orientation. This tied in quite well with how the social sciences had come to deploy the notion of social change in accounting for social phenomena in Africa. Ideas of progress, civilization, secularization and development are made meaningful against the background of a teleological expectation concerning how change is consistent with a movement from tradition to modernity.

Theories of social change helped sociology sustain the illusion of a dynamic and progressive western culture in contrast to a stagnant African culture that should move forward through the positive impact of Africa’s integration into the cash economy. The narrative of the liberal citizen has been central to the justification of political order in Europe. The liberal citizen is judged to be free from primordial attachments and only respond to those forms of belonging that promote the wellbeing of the polity, which came to be understood as a community of rights-bearing individuals. On this account, citizenship did not rest on autochthony’s basic notions but instead on legal norms promoting merit over ascription, right over custom.

In colonial Africa, this narrative produced ambivalent results. On the one hand, it allowed colonial regimes to pursue their colonial projects premised on the distinction between citizen and subject, as convincingly argued for by Mahmood Mamdani. This distinction appealed to two distinct worlds. One was a modern world of rights, citizenship and freedom, and the other was a traditional world of custom, subjection and despotism. On the other hand, however, the narratives confronted colonial authorities, postcolonial regimes and, later, development organizations with the need for change, i.e. the requirement that traditional society changes to allow the human condition to take its course in Africa.

Migration and
in Switzerland

Our research seeks to test the analytical usefulness of the concept of “retribalisation” in the context of Switzerland. The study draws from the analytical relevance of “retribalization” to explore how the negotiation of the relationship between individuals and collectives constitutes political spaces. The research looks at two different reactions to migration and how they negotiate this relationship, one exclusionary and the other inclusionary, to understand the circumstances under which liberal values prevail. Since the 1960s, immigration into Western and Central European countries has placed these societies before the challenge of accommodating ethnic diversity. The framework of liberal citizenship ideals makes fine legal distinctions (citizenship, refugee status, immigrant), emphasizing rights over primordial identities. However, as the current refugee crisis reveals, primarily through the growth of populism exploiting public resentment and fears, the assumptions underlying such a framework do not seem to protect these societies from the appeal to primordial identities. They seem to foster them. Within the broader context of political radicalization as a response to migration, “retribalisation” can help describe the nature of the social and political response to migration and find potential answers to why societies react in specific ways.

Reversing the gaze

The study will focus on a description of the members of distinct politically active groups in terms of the concept of “retribalisation” as a response to challenges to livelihood. It will look into the differences between the two tendencies to specify the conditions under which humans respond to challenges by appealing to primordial identities. To do so, we will take an ethnographic perspective that seeks to understand how a culture-sharing group perceives social phenomena to describe how “retribalisation” processes structure the internal coherence of group identity. In other words, the study will focus on the life-worlds of activists as they are shaped by the dynamic socio-cultural change brought about by immigration. Our immediate research goal is to bring to the fore the functioning of the groups and the role of immigration in the coherence of these groups and to draw a cultural portrait that shows the working sets of rules and patterns of interaction shaping processes of retribalization.

This study is highly inspired by the Dutch anthropologist Peter Geschiere, with ground-breaking research on identity assertion in Cameroun and the Netherlands. We adopt the “reverse gaze” strategy to explore how the notion of “retribalisation” can help provide a cultural portrait of nationalism and liberalism in Switzerland. We aim to contribute to important literature in Switzerland, which has focused on communication issues, discourse electoral politics. Simultaneously, by drawing on a concept deployed in Africa to address challenges to the political order in Europe, the study looks for similarities that have been obscured by a strong emphasis on the radical difference of African polities.


Elísio Macamo (Centre for African Studies Basel/Department of Social Sciences, University of Basel)

Tebuho Winnie Kanyimba (Centre for African Studies Basel/Department of Social Sciences, University of Basel)

Matthias Maurer Rueda (Centre for African Studies Basel/Department of Social Sciences, University of Basel)