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In tribal societies, an "us vs. them" mentality frequently exists, probably because those who lack it don't survive conquest by those who possess it. As technological developments prodded larger and larger groups to co-operate together, people came to realize that neighboring tribes were really not so different and people came increasingly to see members of other tribes as people rather than as food (!) or slavess.

Most languages have one word for people who are a member of the tribe and another word for foreigner/barbarian. Typically, no word or concept exists either to distinguish foreigner from barbarian or which includes both members of the tribe and outsiders. As first city-states and then nation-states evolved, tribalism evolved into nationalism. With both tribalism and nationalism declining worldwide, this "us vs. them" mentality frequently expresses itself through the identification with and barracking for sports teams.

Contemporary Western cultures tend to disparage tribalism. Even if they no longer associate the word with the primitive and the backward (see cultural evolution), they often view tribal society as backward-looking, narrow in outlook and riven with "artificial" strictures and divisions. Perhaps in response to this attitude, groups formerly known as "tribes" may recast themselves as "First Nations" in North America, for example, or as "iwi" in New Zealand.

On the other hand, certain New Age groups aim at romantic revivals of certain aspects of perceived tribalism: community, ritual and shamanic theocracy. And see New tribalists.

Compare chauvinism, jingoism, cultural sensitivity.