The basic sense of the term tradition remains quite close to its etymological roots. The Latin noun traditio describes the handing over of an item or an idea, while the English tradition refers to a social or cultural institution that is handed down from the past. This much seems straightforward. Sacrificing cattle, singing at graduation, celebrating the New Year with fireworks: all these appear quite plainly to be traditions for their practitioners. For all its seeming simplicity, though, tradition is indeed the "particularly difficult word" that Raymond Williams called it in his account of its changing meanings over the centuries. Its intellectual usage is especially fraught with argument, and since the 1970s, the term has been subjected to so many debates and revisions that few scholars use it nowadays with any confidence in its transparency.
Let us first consider how tradition has acquired its specific ideological and academic meanings. Often these formal uses have expanded on, intensified, and arguably distorted the minimal sense of traditions as institutions passed on through historical eras.
For a start, the idea that tradition derives from the past has often involved a subtle shift in emphasis, from the process of transmission to the fact of repetition. In this view, deeming a cultural form a tradition implies that all its instances are identical, that it does not change over time. This is not necessarily the case, however. Think of how we refer to traditions like Greco-Roman sculpture or Renaissance painting. No one assumes these styles remained the same throughout the time they endured, only that their later manifestations were in some way shaped by precedents. Nor does derivation from the past exclude the idea that traditions embody active historical processes. A dynamic view of traditions as developing and changing continuities is intrinsic to the way we trace, say, a line from the Romanesque to the Gothic in the tradition of medieval European architecture. Nonetheless, the trend is to equate tradition with replication, to judge institutions traditions insofar as they reiterate past performance. Consider how we tend to think inauthentic any tradition that has been altered by contemporary practice. In this view we cannot adapt or reinvigorate real traditions, let alone create them. At best, we preserve them.
A closely related extension of the idea of tradition opposes it to modernity. If modernity is a state of ceaseless change, tradition, as unchanging repetition, is its antithesis. This notion is so well established it seems self-evident now, but it also subtly inflates the basic sense of the term. Its origins lie in the ideological conflicts surrounding the intellectual, political, and economic revolutions, starting in eighteenth-century Europe, that shaped what we now regard as modern society. On the one hand, the proponents of Enlightenment and their heirs have called for a world based on reason, not on what they regard as baseless custom. On the other hand, various strands of conservative and Romantic thought have celebrated tradition as the treasure chest of accumulated experience, collective cultural genius, and authentic human sentiment, all threatened by the totalitarian visions of social reformers. But the most important point here is that both camps see modern developments, like democracy or mechanization, as absolute departures from the past. The premodern or traditional past is not just what precedes these particular changes, then; instead, it becomes the opposite of historical change itself.
Once tradition acquires this extended sense as the opposite of modernity, it assumes quite a curious temporality too. It comes to be identified with the past from which it is passively handed down and not with the expanse of time through which it is transmitted, up to and including the present. But even while we insist that traditions are part of the past, we also thereby deny that they have real historical lives (except insofar as history has diluted them) precisely because we think they are unchanging. We think traditions persist across the passing of time, but we only think they are in it when we talk about their destruction. Modernity, on the other hand, exists in time inasmuch as it is constant change but precisely because it is change it has no past.
Another important effect of turning tradition into the opposite of modernity is that these problems with the concept seem to intensify the farther its objects lie from what we take to be modernity. Within societies felt to be mainly modern, for instance, an emphasis on static rather than changing continuity is much more pronounced in talk about folk art and custom than it is in high cultural criticism. An electronic composer can move the classical chamber music tradition forward, but a hip-hop artist who samples the blues is untrue to its authentic agrarian roots. Elite traditions can change and still be traditions, but folk traditions cannot.
The greatest confusions come, though, from describing non-Western peoples and their societies as traditional in contrast to a West conceived as modern. This idea has global reach now, and non-Western intellectuals use it if anything more often than their Western peers at present. But it first appeared in the West, and it found its strongest expression there in the theories of specialist anthropological disciplines and discourses (Kuper; Stocking, 1968, 1996).
Anthropology began life as the study of non-Western peoples, and it kept this orientation until the late twentieth century because of the idea that these peoples' communities somehow embodied the human past. In the nineteenth through to the early twentieth centuries, this idea informed evolutionary theories that pictured human communities climbing a ladder of cultural progress. Topmost was the industrial West, with its bureaucratic states, nuclear families, and monotheistic faiths; at the bottom were stateless foragers with extensive notions of kinship and beliefs in natural spirits. Anthropology was tasked, then, with discovering where in this evolutionary hierarchy to place the many communities known to the ethnological record. But it was largely taken for granted that all peoples evolved in one and the same direction. And if some were less advanced at present than others, this had to be because they had developed more slowly. Some communities ambled along the course of human historical development, whereas others raced ahead. Traditional peoples were still living in the same evolutionary past that modern societies had already left behind them.
The catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century made it hard to sustain such sanguine faith that Western history represented the course of progress for all humanity. Also, by the 1940s, the claim that Western societies were more advanced than others suffered the taint of associations with discredited racist and fascist thought. Anthropology turned away from evolutionary comparisons in this period, instead cultivating a relativist attention to the differences among cultural systems in terms of their internal patterns. This did not weaken the tendency to contrast types of societies as traditional or modern, however. If anything, ironically, it strengthened it. This is because the idea that some communities changed more slowly than others was now understood as a function, not of their place on the ladder of progress, but of their own internal resistance to change. Instead of being considered still traditional inasmuch as they were not yet modern, communities like these were now imagined to be traditional by nature. The structuralists of the 1960s thus distinguished "hot" from "cold" societies: those that changed dynamically from those that tried to conserve old institutions. While some peoples therefore had histories proper, others experienced change as an entropic force in the face of which traditions only survived if they imposed their older structures on new events. Insofar as they succeeded at this, traditions actually swallowed up all trace of the fact that change had ever happened (Levi-Strauss).
In other words, anthropology gave a cultural cast to the schisms of time already implied in the contrast of tradition with modernity. Traditional peoples derived their ways from the past but had no histories. They lived across time but not in it. Modern people had histories, but the burden of the past was far behind them. They lived in time but did not straddle its passing.
Despite this confusion, the notion that some communities are traditional, and therefore the antithesis of the dynamic, changing West, has proven very resilient and influential. Advocates of modernization often assert how peoples need to leave traditional ways behind them—not just because traditions are part of the past in this view but also because they are held to be antithetical to change. The model of a contrast between the West and the Rest is also used quite widely to explain social inequalities and differences within the so-called developing nations that used to be grouped as the Third World. In this view developing nations have both modern and traditional sectors inside them, as if time ran on unrelated tracks not just for the world as a whole but even within some societies. Nor are such beliefs only held by self-described opponents of tradition. Multiculturalists and cultural conservatives often cherish traditions because they see them as islands of stability, in a modern world they judge to be unmoored and inauthentic. These sentiments usually add a mid-twentieth century anthropological perspective to the doubts about modernity and nostalgia for the past derived from older forms of anti-Enlightenment thinking.
Ironically, however, anthropology itself has mostly abandoned these ideas. In part this shift is due to a growing awareness of the conceptual problems presented by older anthropological usages. But the impetus to question older usage in the academy has itself arisen from broader intellectual and political developments in the decades after World War II.
By far the most important of these developments is the wave of European decolonization that took place in the 1950s and 1960s, creating a host of new independent nations out of the formerly colonized territories of Africa and Asia. Once these nations' political representatives took their places on the international stage, it became increasingly difficult to describe them in terms that made them seem less modern or developed than their peers from the states of the West. And even amidst the divisions of the Cold War era, the rise of a set of global institutions like the United Nations fostered a new sense of planetary civilization. The notion of a shared human fate, demanding respectful dialogue, became more widespread than ever during these decades.
In this changed political climate, many intellectuals became concerned with what it meant to call non-Western peoples traditional. Since tradition was so strongly imbued with the sense of being the antithesis of modernity, it seemed less and less appropriate to apply the idea to societies that now had the very same sets of institutions and ambitions that were identified with modernity in the West. In fact, as many thinkers came to insist, the use of terms like tradition did much more than impose anachronistic mistakes about the contemporary social lives and institutions of peoples outside the West. For in so doing it also demeaned and diminished them. In the first place it belittled their modern achievements, such as their struggles for liberation and their quests to achieve economic and political equality with European and other Western nations. In this way it, if anything, distorted these societies' actual histories. This seemed all the more discordant in the context of the 1960s and 1970s, when the former colonies witnessed new waves of social and cultural dynamism while Western nations mostly seemed to stagnate. But secondly and even more insidiously, to call these peoples traditional seemed to deny that they possessed even the capacities to have such histories at all. The strong distinction this usage drew between those who were tradition-bound on the one hand and the dynamic West on the other now seemed offensive to the new international ethos of equality among peoples. Most important, it also echoed the sorts of colonial stereotypes about non-Western peoples that anticolonial movements had resisted in their struggles for freedom from Western domination. To say that people were ruled by the past began to sound suspiciously like an excuse for ruling over them in the present.
In the postcolonial era, therefore, many politically minded intellectuals found ideas about tradition versus modernity inseparable from the history of colonial rule over non-European societies. By the early 1970s, this judgment had also penetrated critical discussions within universities. Inspired by the radical social movements of the 1960s, a young generation of scholars had already started questioning the idea that the academy and its products were politically disinterested. Instead, they argued, the mainstream human or social sciences had tended toward complicity in modern structures of power (Foucault and Gordon). In the case of anthropology, its relationship with European colonialism was the form of guilt provoking most critiques it faced (Asad; Mafeje). In their harshest forms, these discussions even saw anthropology mocked for having been the willing "handmaiden" of colonialism. And if anthropology found itself accused of being the intellectual servant of the West's colonial projects, this criticism was largely due to the images of non-Western peoples the discipline had developed under the rubric of tradition.
To critical scholars who sympathized with anticolonial movements, then, the use of the term tradition became problematic. Influenced by critiques of colonial discourse in the humanities, such as Edward Said's Orientialism (1979), some began to see anthropology's emphasis on traditions as part of a broader set of misrepresentations of non-Western peoples in Western thought. In this view, the portrayal of people in terms of their traditions made them appear to be mysterious, accepting of authority, immersed in collective cultural and spiritual life—in other words, not at all like the rational, pragmatic individuals who had earned the rights and freedoms of modernity. In one such commentary, Johannes Fabian (1983) showed how many anthropologists had exoticized the peoples whom they studied. Even though they shared so much time with their subjects during field research, he pointed out, their writing tended to represent these people as if they lived in other epochs. Not only did this make them look as if they lived in the past, but it also made it possible to overlook the conditions of colonial domination they faced in the present.
Critiques like these are widely accepted by scholars now, and few would think it tenable to assert today that some peoples have traditions while others have histories. But this was not the only effect of the conversations that took place in this vein in the 1970s. By showing that there was a politics to the concept of tradition, these commentaries also opened up another kind of critical discussion about tradition in the 1980s and afterward. This second wave of studies has focused less on the ideological meanings implicit in the idea of tradition and more on the contested social contexts in which various parties refer to traditions in order to advance their own agendas.
The most important step in this direction was Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger's collection of historical essays that showed how several institutions generally thought traditional, from chieftaincy in Africa to tartan-wearing in Scotland, were actually of recent historical vintage. In each case, these historians argued, an institution was made to seem as if it came from the age-old past, in order to grant legitimacy to a social group and its projects in the present. The real task of scholarship, then, was to study not the transmission or replication but the invention of traditions.
This argument is radically unsettling, of course. Traditions are supposed to be the stable, enduring antitheses of invention, not its new, ephemeral products. So the claim that they are the latter has inspired an enormous body of literature by way of response in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Some have used this concept of invented traditions in order to revisit the relationship of ideas about tradition to colonialism. Instead of seeing tradition as a figment of the Western colonial mind alone, this kind of work examines the use of terms like tradition or custom by a range of social actors in colonial and postcolonial settings: by colonizers and colonized, urban elites and peasant villagers, nationalists and compradors, conservatives and modernizers, and even the scholars who study them all (Briggs; Foster; Jolly and Thomas; Keesing; Keesing and Tonkinson; Spiegel and Boonzaier). As these studies show, while Westerners may have used the idea of tradition to make non-Western peoples appear exotic and backward, non-Western peoples have used this concept to portray themselves as special communities, worthy of distinctive rights, entitlements, and identities. From this perspective tradition is less like an argument, true or false, about the lack of change in society and more like a language or idiom in which ever-changing arguments about social life are conducted. This treatment mitigates some of the most odious associations that critics of colonial discourse attached to the concept. It does not rescue the term itself for renewed academic use, however. Instead it demotes tradition to the status of a folk category—an excellent object of study just like any idea one finds in such wide social circulation, but hardly a viable tool of social analysis.
The convergence of the postcolonial moment with the critical turn in scholarship has thus made it very difficult for scholars to speak of traditions without embarrassment. One quite common response to this situation is to use the term as if in its naive sense, while hedging it in heavy layers of irony. While true to the uncertainties that now surround the label, this is a less than helpful strategy for conceptual clarification. Another more considered and productive response is to bite the bullet and try to understand the relations among society, culture, and history with more rigor, self-reflection, and complexity than contrasts between tradition and modernity allow (Axel; Bauman and Briggs; Comaroff and Comaroff; Sahlins; Trouillot). But here there is also an irony of sorts. Although it may not use the term tradition with any innocence, what all such work affirms is that there are few more worthy tasks for the humanities and social sciences than helping us appreciate and understand the changing continuities in our social lives: the institutions that all of us keep handing down through time.
- Trade - Approaches To The Study Of Trade, The Formalist/substantivist Debate, Trade And The Development Of Civilization
- Tradition - Bibliography
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