It’s time to revisit ‘tribalism’

Doris Corkin, Senior Lecturer (Education), School of Nursing and Midwifery, Queen’s University Belfast

Despite a dearth of literature, professional tribalism has been recognised both positively and negatively within healthcare for some time and is the state of existing as a group, who may have different training, but will have very strong feelings of loyalty, for example when working in the acute critical care setting.

Registered nurses are being given opportunities to work collaboratively within an inter-professional team and accept greater responsibility, whilst shaping their careers and deepening their roots (Baxter & Brumfitt, 2008). However, professional clinical differences known as ‘tribalism’ (Beattie 1995) can soon dissolve when experienced clinicians who often cluster in profession-based tribal silos are taken out of their comfort zone, become deskilled and feel vulnerable in their new environment (Braithwaite et al, 2016).

Also highlighted within Baxter and Brumfitt’s (2008) qualitative study and Stepney et al’s (2011) survey is the significant barriers of power and status within professional groups, which are closely linked with decision-making and the medical model. To-date any ongoing changes and modernisation within healthcare systems appears to have had little impact in changing the tribal power and status within medicine.

Furthermore, in relation to collaborative working, some nursing students have perceived professional tribalism as a problem during their experience of inter-professional education (Stepney et al, 2011). Acknowledging that issues such as power dynamics and clinical differences may influence the way different work cultures develop and the values healthcare professionals hold about themselves and the respect they should have for each other.

Every organisation has a tribe, which humans naturally form and always will, demonstrating how people’s values and qualities unite them, interacting and succeeding as thought leaders, who effectively go above and beyond the call of duty to get the job well done.

Question is … can our professional tribe continue to change the world!


Baxter, S.K & Brumfitt, S.M. (2008) Professional differences in interprofessional working. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 22(3): 239-251.

Beattie, A. (1995). War and peace among the health tribes. In: Soothill, K., Mackay, L. & Webb, C. (Eds). Interprofessional relations in health care. London: Edward Arnold.

Braithwaite, J., Clay-Williams, R., Vecellio, E., Marks, D., Hooper, T., Westbrook, M., Westbrook, J., Blakely, B. & Ludlow, K. (2016). The basis of clinical tribalism, hierarchy and stereotyping: a laboratory-controlled teamwork experiment. BMJ Open 6:e012467.

Stepney, P. Callwood, I. Ning, F. & Downing, K. (2011). Learning to collaborate: a study of nursing students’ experience of inter-professional education at one UK university. Educational Studies, 37: 4, 419-434.


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