Anthropology Of Tradition Research Paper

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Few concepts have played a more central role in the development and practice of anthropology than tradition. We will first outline the principal senses in which tradition figures in anthropological thought, then trace the historical foundations of these contemporary usages, and conclude with the major lines of inquiry centering on tradition in contemporary anthropology.

1. Tradition As Substance, Process, Practice

In its most general usage, tradition may be defined as the element of historical continuity or social inheritance in culture, or the social process by which such continuity is achieved. More substantively, tradition refers to the collective social inheritance of particular people, culture, society, group, or collectivity, and as such, stands as the referent of its collective identity. In this sense, tradition is generally conceived of as the aggregate mass of cultural forms—cast as knowledge, beliefs, practical routines, or texts—that are the constituent elements of a culture, handed down from one generation to the next. One may speak also of ‘a tradition’ as any discrete element or trait within the general mass. Here, tradition takes on the sense of an inherent quality of the past which is diagnostic of traditionality; hence, ‘a traditional practice,’ ‘a traditional belief,’ ‘a traditional tale,’ and so on. So conceived, a tradition assumes the guise of a durable natural object, passed down through time by successive generations of ‘culture bearers.’

A more concrete and practice-centered understanding of tradition recognizes that the temporal continuity of tradition is instantiated in successive enactments of cultural forms that are guided by precedent and convention and construed as replicating, in some essential sense, what has been done before. When the focus is on the dynamics of tradition, the process of handing down, or intergenerational transmission, the element of social learning is often emphasized, whether under the rubric of enculturation, which foregrounds the acquisition of cultural knowledge, or the now preferred socialization, which foregrounds the social matrix of the acquisition process.

The conjoint consideration of socialization and tradition tends to foster a conception of intergenerational transmission as the replication of uniformity, in Anthony F. C. Wallace’s (1970) apt phrase. This orientation points to what is perhaps the most common theme in anthropological considerations of tradition, that is, its normative force, the notion that tradition enjoins conformity. The binding force of tradition is variously attributed to the force of precedent or habit inherent in the routinized quality of replicated practice, the psychological pressure attendant upon deviating from accustomed modes of thought and action, the moral weight of public opinion, and—most strongly—the power of a coercive apparatus of external sanctions sustained by sacred mandate (as from the ancestors) and intensified by ritual enactment. Where such discriminations are made systematically, they are generally marked by terminological distinctions, as between custom and tradition, with tradition reserved for the most strongly sanctioned and ritualized elements of the social inheritance. In general, however, there is little definitional rigor or regularity of terminological usage in the field; as often as not, terms such as tradition, custom, or folkways are employed as loosely equivalent. In such systematization, again, tradition may be distinguished from law, the former deriving its force from ‘the sanctity of immemorial traditions,’ the latter from ‘the legality of enacted rules,’ in Max Weber’s classic formulation. Others, however, such as Bronislaw Malinowski, take custom and tradition as more or less equivalent, but argue that certain traditions, those surrounded by supernatural sanctions and sustained by coercive machinery, are the functional equivalent of law in ‘primitive’ societies.

Perspectives also vary in regard to how they frame the locus of traditional authority. One line of inquiry focuses on epistemological issues, emphasizing the binding force of traditional modes of thought, characterized by a purported resistance to or incapacity for rational, reflective, critical, or skeptical stances toward knowledge and belief. In a related vein, the emphasis may fall on the behavioral correlates of such epistemological conservatism, manifested in traditional patterns of ‘tried and true,’ naturalized modes of action and in ritual. A third line maintains a discursive focus, concentrating on authoritative discourse; here, authority is vested in the weight of ancestral and collective truth expressed in oft-repeated, socially resonant texts, such as proverbs, myths, or legends. Finally, we may identify a sociopolitical frame of reference, which is primarily concerned with traditional authority as vested in particular statuses or roles, such as elders (by virtue of their accumulated knowledge and the historical reach of their experience into the past) or ritual specialists (who control the coercive machinery of supernatural sanctions), whose claims to authority rest upon their connection to an authorizing past. These distinctions are analytical; much work, both theoretical and substantive, explores dimensions of inter-relationship among these loci of traditional authority.

2. Tradition And The Construction Of Modernity

The roots of the anthropological preoccupation with tradition lie in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the epistemological challenges of enlightenment empiricism, the religious overturning of the Protestant Reformation, and the interpretive explorations of classical and biblical philology. Enlightenment philosophers, such as Bacon and Locke in the UK and Condorcet in France, insisted that the rational, empirical pursuit of true knowledge required a throwing off of traditional authority, which demands the surrender of one’s capacity for independent thought and renders one incapable of making new contributions to knowledge.

Baconian natural philosophy and the concomitant enlightenment ideology of progress were foundational to the development of antiquarianism in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Antiquities were the etiolated remnants of past ways of thinking, acting, and conveying knowledge that were ‘derived down’ uncritically into the present, shorn of their original meaning and functional coherence. In this sense, the notion of antiquities anticipates E. B. Tylor’s concept of survivals. Only by rigorous historical investigation of their origins could they be fully revealed as irrational survivals of ‘old customs’ and expunged from modern life. For Protestant reformers, the remnants of old ‘heathen’ and ‘Romish’ ‘superstitions,’ handed down to the credulous members of the populace by ‘custom,’ ‘tradition,’ and ‘hearsay,’ were likewise to be revealed by historical investigation and extirpated from modern life. There was a clear sociological component to the antiquaries’ and reformers’ antiquarian programs as well, identifying the ‘vulgar’ classes, country people, the elderly, the uneducated, and women (as in ‘old wives’ tales’) as the segments of the population among whom the survivals of past error were most likely to persist, thus, in effect, constructing a set of social ‘Others’ within contemporary society who were to be the special targets of tradition-oriented antiquarian investigation.

The development of eighteenth-century classical and biblical philology was stimulated by the literary battles of the Ancients and the Moderns, contesting the proper basis of contemporary literary production. This line of inquiry had a textual and interpretive focus: to render ancient and exotic texts, like the Homeric epics and the Hebrew Old Testament, intelligible, coherent, and meaningful to contemporary readers and to secure their canonical status and value. This interpretive approach combined a kind of proto-relativism, reading the texts as shaped by the social, cultural, and linguistic milieu of ancient Greece or Israel—that is, as the inspired expressions of a nation—with a species of conjectural history, in terms of which the ancient texts were characteristic expressions of an early stage in the development of human society. One of the most significant methodological consequences of this approach was to motivate the use of data from living cultures—chiefly peoples of ‘the Orient,’ such as Arabs, Turks, East Indians—viewed as developmentally behind their modern European contemporaries, to illuminate the archaic cultures reflected in the Homeric epics and the Old Testament. These peoples of the East, then, took on the guise of exotic ‘Others,’ living exemplars of a ‘rude’ and ‘primeval’ age, bound by tradition rather than by an ideology of progress, reliant on oral communication rather than literacy, credulous and emotional rather than rational, and so on.

In a sweeping synthesis and extension of the philologists’ program and a critical counterstatement to the social contract theories of enlightenment political philosophers, the German political philosopher, Johann Gottfried Herder argued that the authentic foundation of a viable polity is the poetic tradition of its people, made up of the inspired expressions of its poets—who are also its ‘lawgivers’—who give voice to the spirit of the Volk, rooted in its particular time and place. This intertextually constituted tradition became ‘the archive of the people,’ the principal expression of national identity, the mechanism of its cultural cohesion and continuity, and the charter for its social and political life. In the most general sense of the term, Volk designates a nation, a people in its organic wholeness, but it may also designate that portion of a more complex, stratified society that remains ground edinit sinherited language and traditions and still open to poetic feeling, as distinct from those who have been distanced from their traditions and feelings by over-rational refinement, the alienation of writing, or the adoption of foreign languages and alien ways. In Herder’s (see Bauman and Briggs 2000) intellectual synthesis, then, a precursor to Boasian anthropology, tradition is most powerfully operative in simpler, premodern, community-based societies and in those sectors of complex modern society in which a sense of community cohesion, the emotionally resonant ties of locality, kinship, and attunement to the national spirit still prevail.

Herder’s thought was influential in the emergence of Romanticism, which was also inflected by the violent upheavals of the French Revolution. One response to the Revolution took the form of a conservative reaction, in which the sanctity of tradition and the cohesive force of kinship, religion, customary law, rootedness in place, and traditionally founded hierarchy were valorized as the essence of an authentic national character and a viable and moral polity. What is noteworthy, however, is that traditionalist conservatives tended to see the trajectory of change in the same terms as the rational reformers, framing an oppositional contrast between tradition and modernity. This contrast, convergent with jurisprudential investigations and symbolic constructions of ‘customary law,’ became the core of the classic typological tradition in social thought out of which emerged the modern social disciplines, including anthropology, in which the force of tradition served as a defining criterion of social types.

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the foundational ideas we have summarized coalesced in a series of typological syntheses aimed at comprehending the broad historical trajectory of human social and cultural development and at providing a classificatory framework of social formations based upon stages of evolutionary progress. Whether framed in terms of ideal types, developmental continua, or evolutionary stages, these magisterial syntheses all accorded a defining or diagnostic role to tradition in the construction of contrastive social types. E. B. Tylor (1960 [1881]), for example, in contrasting ‘savage’ and ‘civilized’ man, ascribes the former’s intellectual conservatism and aversion to change to his ‘tendency … to consider his ancestors as having handed down to him the perfection of wisdom.’ Ferdinand Tonnies (1988 [1887]), in basing his classic distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft on contrastive forms of common will, characterizes the ‘natural will’ that predominates in Gemeinschaft societies as becoming naturalized ‘through practice and tradition.’ Emile Durkheim, in outlining the contrast between mechanical and organic solidarity, attributes the authority of the collective conscience in mechanically solidarity societies to ‘the authority of tradition.’ Max Weber, in constructing his three pure types of legitimate domination, maintains that ‘the validity of a social order by virtue of the sacredness of tradition is the oldest and most universal type of legitimacy.’ These and related formulations served to crystallize the notion of ‘traditional society’ as a typological category, intellectually and behaviorally conservative, bound by an unreflective and unquestioning adherence to traditional ways and submission to traditional authority, and slow to change, in contrast to ‘modern society,’ dynamic, impelled by the exercise of reason and rationally motivated innovation, and open to change. This typological contrast has proven remarkably durable, persisting to the present day as an orienting framework in the social disciplines, not least in anthropology. Mutatis mutandis, it underlies Robert Redfield’s folk-urban continuum, Karl Popper’s closed versus open society, Talcott Parsons’ pattern variables, Levi-Strauss’ cold vs. hot society, and a host of other variations on the theme, persisting in the face of trenchant criticisms of its resistance to operational specificity, its lack of analytical utility in the investigation of empirical cases, its masking of the dynamics of tradition in so-called ‘modern’ society, and its role in sustaining structures of social inequality and policies of domination.

3. Tradition In Contemporary Anthropology

The conceptual and critical reach of tradition in contemporary anthropology is pervasive, especially as it implicates the element of continuity in culture. We may, however, outline several foci of empirical, conceptual, and critical interest in which the notion of tradition figures relatively explicitly.

3.1 The Social Organization Of Tradition

One prominent line of inquiry concentrates on what we might call the social organization of tradition, addressing those aspects of the typological model that cast traditional societies as homogeneous or undifferentiated, with the implication that tradition is collectively shared within the group. This understanding may be called into question in several ways, most directly by the recognition within the group of cultural specialists, who are charged with or have an individual bent toward the cultivation, formulation, or communication of tradition, as ritual specialists, elders, reciters, or other custodians of expert or esoteric knowledge. The foci of investigation here include the definition and organization of specialist roles; the recruitment, socialization and careers of cultural specialists; and the institutional and situational context in which cultural specialists act in their expert capacities.

This latter focus may direct attention to cultural performances or display events, such as rituals, festivals, contests, or dramatic performances in which the knowledge, symbols, and values of the group are embodied, enacted, and placed on public display. The production of such events typically requires the efforts of specialists in various capacities, and an organization of production by which the performance is accomplished. These lines of inquiry have been especially prominent in studies framed in terms of the distinction between the Great Tradition (cf. ‘high,’ ‘classic,’ ‘cultivated’) and the Little Tradition (cf. ‘low,’ ‘folk,’ ‘popular’) developed by Robert Redfield.

Investigation of the social organization of tradition may converge as well with the study of socialization and enculturation: the roles, contexts, and practices by which knowledge and behavioral patterns are conveyed to, and acquired by, succeeding generations. Finally, it is worth noting that the social organization of tradition has critical implications for anthropological method, insofar as cultural specialists figure prominently in ethnographic work as favored sources of data, and that ethnographic encounters, organized around the getting and giving of knowledge, are frequently framed as pedagogical events.

3.2 Tradition And Creativity

A further variation on the categorical opposition between tradition and modernity is the contrast between tradition and creativity, especially prominent in the anthropology of the arts. Classic work in this area, such as Franz Boas’s Primiti e Art (1955 [1927]), tended to view tradition as a constraint on the ‘primitive’ artist, consistent with the typological conception of traditional society as inherently conservative and Herderian notions of artistic forms as the collective expression of a national spirit. Thus the convention of collective attribution that has dominated the presentation (with a few notable exceptions) of verbal and material art forms from ‘primitive’ or ‘traditional’, or ‘folk’ societies (a Navajo chant, a French folktale, a Yoruba staff ).

Since the 1960s, however, there has been an accelerating shift in the anthropology of the arts toward greater attention to the role of the individual artist performer, and more nuanced investigation of the interplay between convention and creativity in artistic practice. In the anthropological study of the material arts, the distinctive styles and virtuosic achievements of individual artists and the situated practice of artistic production, use, and evaluation have aided significantly in the recalibration of the balance between tradition and creativity, and even further to a reevaluation of what constitutes creativity, no longer restricted to novelty but understood to include the use of conventional forms in new ways.

There has been a parallel development in the study of the verbal arts, stimulated by Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s pioneering studies of the composition in performance of Serbo-Croatian oral epic and by the correlative turn to the ethnography of performance by linguistic anthropologists and folklorists. Central to these investigations is a focus on the situated nature of performance as a mode of communicative practice and recognition of the emergent quality of performance. In linguistic anthropology especially, the ethnography of performance has incorporated the close analysis of formal, functional, and intertextual relationships as a vantage point on the calibration in performance of conventional, ‘traditional’ orienting frameworks for the production and interpretation of discourse on the one hand, and the exigent and emergent ‘creative’ qualities of situated performance on the other. Both qualities are always present, and the task becomes one of determining the relative weight and the dynamics of interplay of the two in particular social and historical circumstances.

3.3 Tradition And Communicative Technologies

Closely related to the typological contrast between traditional and modern societies is the distinction between oral and literate societies, which foregrounds specific technologies of communication as diagnostic—even determinative—of the contrastive types. The typological uses of orality and literacy have their roots in eighteenth-century philology, which in turn had a shaping influence on anthropology. The twentieth century revival of this framework by classical scholars has once again infiltrated anthropology and re-energized debates concerning the validity of ‘Great Divide’ typologies. Stated in very general terms, the ‘literacy hypothesis’ attributes to the advent of writing, the invention of print technologies, and the associated spread of literacy, a concomitant transformation of modes of thought, specifically the objectification and decontextualization of knowledge, and the encouragement of a critical or skeptical orientation toward received truth. These intellectual (or cognitive) orientations, according to proponents of the literacy hypothesis, had a transformative influence on society and culture, effecting an epochal shift from a blind and unreflective adherence to traditional modes of thought and practice to the rational, scientific openness to change that is diagnostic of modernity.

While some anthropologists have endeavored to find ethnographic corroboration of the typological contrast between traditional and modern modes of thought, the weight of ethnographic evidence has tended to call the literacy hypothesis into question. The most effective and persuasive critiques have come from linguistic anthropology and related work in the anthropology of teaching and learning. A large and growing body of ethnographic studies, focusing on speaking, writing, reading, and the acquisition of communicative competence as social practices embedded in situational and institutional contexts of use, has provided a range of critical correctives to unitary conceptions of orality and literacy studied in relation to abstract systems of thought. These lines of research, illuminating the role of communicative technologies, forms, and practices in the production and reproduction of social life, offer as well an increasingly ramified and nuance understanding of the dynamics of continuity and change in human society, to supplant the classic categorical distinction between tradition and modernity.

3.4 The Politics Of Tradition

The political force of tradition has been a consistent theme in anthropology, built into the very foundations of the discipline and epitomized in Weber’s identification of traditional authority as one of the three pure types of legitimate domination. Oriented by classic conceptions of traditional authority and ‘traditional’ society more generally, foundational studies of traditional authority in anthropology have tended largely to view it as a unifying force in the service of social system maintenance, sustained by the mechanisms of socialization, the mythological charter of institutions, and the rigid formalization of ritual and traditional oratory.

Here again, however, the ethnographic turn to situated practice, and especially to discursive interaction and performance, has led to recognition of the ways that traditional tales, for example, may be instruments of divisiveness rather than unity, insofar as they may be performed in defense of competing claims to status, or that the formal regimentation that marks the performance of oratory as ‘the words of the ancestors’ may serve to enhance the rhetorical power of disputants in political conflict. That is to say that rhetorical appeals to tradition and the public ideologies of traditional authority that motivate them do not necessarily have the binding force in practice that participants and observers alike may claim for them. Ideologies of traditional authority—like all ideologies—are positioned, interested, and strategically invoked, and tradition as a rhetorical resource may serve as well for conflict as for the ‘binding force’ of acquiescence.

The ideology and rhetoric of tradition are understandably more apparent under conditions of marked social and cultural change; indeed, the capacity of ‘traditional’ peoples consciously to intervene in the management of tradition was recognized earliest in anthropology in the study of nativistic movements, ‘any conscious, organized attempt on the part of a society’s members to revive or perpetuate selected aspects of its culture.’ (see Linton 1943) This work anticipated a vigorous line of anthropological inquiry that has burgeoned since the 1980s, devoted to the investigation of tradition and related notions of authenticity as symbolic, interpretive constructions in and of the present through the invocation of links to a meaningful past.

The process of traditionalization—under the rubric of tradition, heritage, patrimony, custom, or the like—is a prominent resource in the service of nationalism, whether cultural nationalism or nation-state formation, and it is a conspicuous aspect of the politics of culture in many parts of the world in which there is an extended history of anthropological research but which are now increasingly determined to shed the vestiges of a colonial past and assert the integrity and authenticity of their own ‘cultural traditions.’ The readiness of anthropologists to identify the tradition or custom, or patrimony on which such claims stand as selective, strategic, symbolic constructions is a source of tension both within the discipline and between anthropologists and their ethnographic interlocutors: whose interpretations and constructions are to be accepted as authoritative?

This question and the further problems it raises afford an illuminating critical vantagepoint on the historical formation of anthropological theory and practice. The modern conception of tradition was shaped in an intellectual arena that was defined largely in political terms. What are the foundations of a viable polity? A legitimate authority? A national culture? What are the bases of social inequality? Who is authorized to intervene in the management of these formations? Tradition and allied conceptions of culture proved to be foundational to the emergent discipline of anthropology and the definition of its purview. A measure of the success of anthropology may be strength with which its core concepts have come to be accepted by the formerly ‘traditional’ peoples who have been its central objects of study. One of the challenges that now confronts anthropology is that in asserting their own subjectivity, these peoples should base their claims on those foundational concepts just as anthropologists themselves are increasingly inclined to deconstruct them, to recognize traditionalization as an interpretive process, to challenge the reification of tradition, or to unmask primordial traditions as recent inventions.


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