The British Tribe Next Door. Working Title/Channel 4

Criticism of The British Tribe Next Door reveals deep biases in British culture says show’s anthropologist

The recent Channel 4 TV show, The British Tribe Next Door, compared life in Britain to how small-scale societies live sustainably. Controversially, this involved reconstructing a British terraced house and its contents, including the Moffatt family from the reality TV show Gogglebox, in the Himba village of Otjeme in Namibia.

The show has attracted some negative criticism. The representation of Himba participants has been described as racist and exploitative, while the Moffatt family were seen as selfish and ignorant.

Yet while critics of the show may be well meaning, their views portray the Himba as passive victims with neither agency nor power, and the Moffatts as uneducated intruders. This reveals a deeply embedded paternalistic and imperialistic view of both Indigenous and working-class people and highlights why we need TV shows that challenge these biases.

Children from the Himba village of Otjeme in Namibia. Working Title/Channel 4

As the consultant anthropologist on the show, I also initially had a number of misgivings about its content and approach. But The British Tribe Next Door projected some critical messages about the state of the planet and the diversity of the humans who inhabit it. I believe that we cannot hope to address issues of climate change, over-exploitation and sustainability until we overcome cultural biases both at home and overseas.

“Producers are basically rubbing the Moffatt riches in the face of an indigenous tribe,” read one review of the show. The Sun reported viewers complaining that the Moffatts were “Taking everything [they] have and forcing it in the faces of people who have nothing” and that the show was “peak poverty porn”.

The problem with such attempts to sympathise with the Himba is that they rely on the idea that Indigenous people are impoverished and that British life and culture is superior. These naïve (albeit unconscious) perceptions are sadly evident throughout British media representations of people from non-Western cultures and ethnicities.

Ideas that Indigenous people are impoverished are naïve. Working Title/Channel 4

Other national and ethnic groups are often portrayed on TV in ways that would never be considered appropriate for British people. This includes representations of supposed “uncontacted” and “ancient” tribes in shows such as Down the Mighty River. There are pervasive accounts of “impoverished victims” by Comic Relief and other charity campaigns. We’re even shown dead refugee children’s bodies in news reports. Such representations propagate stereotypes and breed naïvety. For viewers to see the Himba community as impoverished and having nothing is a significant problem.

This bias is also present in the treatment of the Moffatts. As one of the more polite reviewers states:

I can’t help but feel that the Moffatts are entirely the wrong people to explore and learn about the Himba way of life … The show would have been far better if they had sent a proper documentary film-maker (a bit like Louis Theroux, only more balls to the wall – think Bruce Parry in the early 00’s series Tribal [sic]) to fully embrace the culture.

The Bruce Parry programme the reviewer was referring to (actually called Tribe) was criticised for its inaccurate portrayal of the societies featured at the expense of the glorification of white, male machismo. The British Tribe Next Door, though not perfect, is at least a more accurate representation of a small-scale society, fiercely proud of its cultural traditions and keen to show them off to the world. It touches on important social issues such as marriage, childbirth, ageing, communality, sharing, and exchange. These are all refreshingly seen through the eyes of a female presenter (Scarlett Moffatt), while highlighting issues of sustainability and consumerism.

The show touches on marriage, child-birth, ageing, communality, sharing and exchange. Working Title/Channel 4

Indigenous people are the most sustainable and yet most marginalised on earth, consistently trampled on in the name of “progress” and dumped on to feed the needs and demands of the West. They face exploitation and discrimination from multinational corporations developing projects to produce the things we consume, while their sovereignty of land, nature and culture is ignored.

One of the major challenges the world faces today is that this pursuit of “global progress” is neither sustainable nor equitable. And yet it continues unabated for the benefit of those responsible for the deterioration of the planet while ignoring those who live sustainably. In the face of this exploitation, Indigenous people all over the world are mobilising to secure their human right to self-determination. They have gained recognition of the importance of their agency and institutions through international vehicles such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

The first and crucial step in tackling big global challenges is understanding the diverse human environments that we should be learning from in order to live more sustainably. This includes the need to address climate change, environmental devastation, pollution, food insecurity and conflict and end the overuse of natural resources. Accurate representations of environments such as the Himba’s that are unfamiliar to most Westerners is a step in the right direction.

Media needs to change

The British Tribe Next Door may be a baby step towards achieving this. But if it takes a well-known family to bring the richness of human relations to 2.7m of the British public, then those baby steps may very well be worth it. Hopefully, viewers have seen how the show challenges stereotypes (“Africans” as impoverished, passive agents of “first world” generosity) to reveal the social relations, interactions and characteristics that make us all human.

The British Tribe Next Door has achieved this by working with anthropologists such as myself, the first show of its kind to do so and an approach the broader media would do well to follow. As Dr Hannah Knox, associate professor of anthropology at UCL and media officer at the Association of Social Anthropologists, told me: “Anthropologists are often overlooked by the media when it comes to seeking out expert commentary on the social and cultural issues of our times.”

Through wider engagement with anthropologists, the media can address biases at home and show modern humans in all their diversity to tackle the big global challenges of our time.