Elections 8 Tribes Style

Back in early 2007 a book called 8 Tribes was published. It was described then by the publishers as a

“snapshot of contemporary New Zealand (that) explores our unspoken class system and the hidden social boundaries that separate us from each other”

In January 2007 I wrote about this concept of social and cultural archetypes in a post called Tribal Demographics which might be helpful background.

With an election due on November 8th for New Zealand – my best guess is that the extended metaphors around the 8 Tribes idea will give a better indication of voting preferences and eventual outcomes than most of the poll indications to date.

And over here for more polls. Or for a graph go here. Why 123 seats? – overhang potential.

BTW readers from anywhere would find local equivalents of these tribes. The labels would be different but much broader than the -too generic to be useful- urban city vs rural country dichotomies that might have worked 50 years ago.

Note: to US based readers – Flight of the Conchords are (almost certainly) members of the Cuba St tribe

As I recall part of the difficulty in the last election was that the National Party leader at the time Don Brash acted and spoke as if he was always talking to the North Shore and Remuera tribes.

Unfortunately for him the election was won not by a single political party but by a coalition of those mostly affiliated to the Grey Lynn tribe.

Consequently I would expect conversations among members of the Grey Lynn tribe to offer some interesting insights into voting intentions.

  • The questions are – What Can We Learn from 8Tribes thinking for the Election?

And –

  • Have our politicians learned anything about communicating with the 8 or 9 different tribal groups described in the book?

As a member of the Grey Lynn tribe myself I do think that Labour is missing an opportunity to speak fluently to each tribe and losing votes to the Greens and the Maori Party as a result.

In fact the PM – Helen Clark is apparently trying to convince us that tactical voting for the Greens is a bad idea. I note that those directions came from a meeting mostly attended by members of the Papatoetoe tribe who might take such guidance on-board.

I’d guess that members of the Grey Lynn tribe will still vote Green and probably in greater numbers which is an example of how the same message can have two very different results. Even worse it is seen as patently self serving and wrong by many who would usually vote Labour.

Language is full of dialects and meaningful quirks. “Divided by a common language” was a description I believe George Bernard Shaw used to describe UK and US cultures at one very obvious level.

On a macro level we often see the use of coded words and expressions which are meant to cross reference and signal particular meanings best understood by the party faithful and often described as dog-whistle politics.

However such “whistling” is often described as being a negative thing whereas a wider understanding of 8 Tribes social meaning and context would be a more positive approach, in my view.

Perhaps some kind of misguided dog whistling is why 3 very senior National party candidates have made such obvious political blunders; Lockwood Smith and Maurice Williamson in particular.

On the other hand – despite Smith and Williamson both having been Cabinet Ministers they do tend to come across as prize dicks /dorks on occasion.

I would note that politicians have long been experts at working and reading crowds and I’d say their comments were meant for those crowds but not for the wider media.

When their partly intuitive and highly tuned crowd decoders kick in they can often be brilliant in that exact context; but the when the sound bites get broadcast we are often left scratching our heads to explain why they spoke in a particular way.

I therefore find it hard to believe Smith (MP for 24! years) and Williamson (MP for 21 years!) are idiots and make silly mistakes on the election trail. However, others are not so sure.

If John Key is hoping to become leader he needs to actively demote both of them for their foolish comments – unless of course they are just saying in public what the National Party believes in private.

Besides the 8 Tribes idea there is a wealth of research on cultural imprinting that all politicians (and marketers) should be aware of. For example – Rapaille’s cultural anthropology work deserves much more of a review than I have time for below.

Dr. Clotaire Rapaille wrote* in his ChangeThis Manifesto Know the Codes in July 2006 (17 pages Creative Commons – free to download) about how to discover and understand similar social territory. (And in published book The Culture Code )

“The Culture Code is the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing—a car, a type of food, a relationship, even a country—via the culture in which we are raised.”

* A fascinating aside on Rapailles Influences from the well known – De Tocqueville, Freud and Jung to the lesser known Bettelheim, Laborit, Lorenz and Ruth Benedict.

Read more about Rapailles Influences here.

In July ’07 there was a feature article on the 8 Tribes by Gena Tuffery over at Idealog magazine called Tribal Counsel. As Gena noted then:-

“Reaction to this new form of social shorthand was strong and varied—which perhaps proves the book’s argument. Although the eight suburbs used to identify the tribes aren’t indicative of literal location, some Kiwis I canvassed feel penned in by the geographical descriptors.

They protest that to be labelled a representative of the ‘achieving’ North Shore, ‘intellectual’ Grey Lynn, ‘staunch’ Balclutha, ‘entitled’ Remuera, ‘free-spirited’ Raglan, ‘unpretentious’ Papatoetoe or ‘community-minded’ Otara is no more character-revealing than, say, being dubbed Dopey or Sneezy.”

Gena spoke with Chris Brown of Sputnik and Jill Caldwell of  Windshift who co-authored that book. Caldwell* is still using the insights and approach gained from the 8 Tribes research to look at trends and group behavious such as July 08 Newsletter : The Tribes as Consumers Jill writes (newsletter)

“At higher income levels, we found an urban intellectual Grey Lynn tribe who, though having no strong economic need to do so, have embraced a plain vanilla Papatoetoe / Balclutha frugality as a kind of moral imperative – though with a dispensation for overseas travel to places of culture.

The cut-backs the Grey Lynn tribe make are designed to save money AND resources – saving power at home for example, reading the labels, watching the consumer shows on TV for tips, taking the bus to work.

There’s concern for how other people are coping and the ever-present Grey Lynn guilt at their own relative fortune.”

Ongoing research project for 8 Tribes

Back when I first looked at the 8 Tribes concept  there was quite an (offline) side debate about how this didn’t really reference the Polynesian dimension in New Zealand on a more tacit basis. The idea that race, culture and language are independent has been well accepted for many years now. (Franz Boas)

The cultural bias of the observers needs to be taken into account and the sketch of the Otara tribe doesn’t really capture what I believe is happening within NZ culture.

I’m not sure that the 8 Tribes book successfully addressed the dimensions of race very well but I’ll raise that for your comments and inputs. (Go here for comments including 2 from the original authors.)

What makes the upcoming election very significant is a new found sense of wider Nationhood including acknowledgment of Tikanga Maori in the wider population. We have seen nothing less than a Maori led cultural renaissance only hinted at by reflecting on how the tribal archetypes might combine.

For example the confluence of Cuba St and Grey Lynn has created a wider market for cultural production and appreciation. This was noted in a chapter on trends at the end of the book but perhaps it has accelerated since then.

The rise of the Maori Party and a wealth of articulate urban Maori / Polynesian leaders across a wide spectrum means that the Labour Party will just have to hope they can negotiate successfully with the Maori Party.  I’m thinking more Tiki Taane or Selina Tusitala Marsh* than John Tamihere here.

Although the Maori Party should dump the nut jobs like Turia who is clearly sucking up to the National Party.

No one really wants a rerun of Winston Peters cynical behaviour in pointless coalitions. He should get zero votes but inexplicably some people still like him. The Maori Party should have learned from that.

* David Eggleton wrote “Poems, as the zen koan has it, can communicate before they are understood.” (Unlike most politicians?)

It’s a stretch but perhaps the 8 Tribes analogy is best understood as a diffuse form of poetry in motion?

I have just been referred to a very funny poem by Selina Tusitala Marsh that communicates more succinctly to the electorate than anything coming out of the major parties. (Will see if we can get a copy and/or link.)

Update: Here is that poem by  Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh, as a response to the comments made my Lockwood Smith last week. It was posted on the AEN (Aotearoa Ethnic Network) Special thanks to a clued up reader.

‘Mr Locksmith loses the key on the eve of the big party’

My name Fong or Wong…you chuse
my Engrand not bery  gud
but my hands dey quick
dey smal an fast
can sew your suit
can pick your fruit
can do many quick, fast fing
oh!  I gotta go
I gotta show my kiwi-mate
how to use da toilet
he from Samoa
he only got da flushing one

Mr Locksmith, he show me
how to dig da big hole
out back by da peach tree
we go see him now
he show us how to
squat and drop

Selina Tusitala Marsh

The emergence of the Ponsonby -proto tribe was noted as a trend that I would say has accelerated and it should not be ignored by the politicians. It should be no surprise that the Green Party has growing support among all tribes but especially Grey Lynn.

The political parties that communicate better with these 8 or 9 tribes will be the ones that do best in the upcoming election. Voters are much smarter than the sound bite signals we mostly hear.

Perhaps the best thing about the 8 Tribes concept is that it gives us a vocabulary  for discussing these ideas and articulating new ones. It also helps us uncover our deeper intentions and motivations and to decode our own cultural patterns and conditioning.

Thanks to Chris Brown and Jill Caldwell for the book which you can still buy. I should also make it clear that the analysis and opinions here are mine. Feel free to comment.

FYI – I did the 8 Tribes Diagnostic test in Jan 07 with the following results. Mostly Grey Lynn with Cuba St almost as high.

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