Essay on Tradition

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Tradition is generally understood as a body of values, beliefs, rules, and behavior patterns that is transmitted generationally by practice and word of mouth and is integral to socialization processes. Connoting fixity, stability, and continuity, it guides daily behavior and justifies shared beliefs and practices. In small-scale societies, where tradition offers the dominant blueprint for acceptable behavior, its status is that of sacred lore. Where orally transmitted, however, tradition is always open to variation, contestation and change, and becomes a model of past practices rather than a passively and unreflectively inherited legacy.

Heuristically, tradition can be usefully conceptualized as a resource, employed (or not) strategically by individuals and groups. Tradition is subject to a range of moral evaluations by its carriers over time; it is understood by all as a symbol but no one can agree on its meaning, since understandings are embedded within rival groups and become part of competing political ideologies. Tradition can be invoked just as effectively to manifest ethnocentrism and disunity, by emphasizing local differences and reinforcing boundaries, as it can when functioning as a political symbol of unity (in which case it is deliberately left vague and internally undifferentiated, so as to minimize its potentially divisive aspect).

Since the 1990s, the historical turn in anthropological theory has led scholars to contextualize the emergence of particular constructions of tradition within colonization, missionization and post-war ”development” and in articulation with the global political economy. Since it burgeoned in the 1980s, the topic of tradition has proved remarkably durable, engendering a multilayered body of knowledge about constructions of the past in contemporary societies. Social actors’ received notions of tradition as the solid foundation that underpins customary behavior have been deemphasized in scholarly analyses in favor of conceptions of it as constantly subject to reinterpretation and rereading by each new generation of carriers, who construe their past in terms both of present perceptions and understandings and future hopes and needs.


  1. Hobsbawm, E. & Ranger, T. (eds.) (1983) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  2. Tonkinson, R. (1993) Understanding ”tradition” – ten years on. In Lindstrom, L. & White, G. M. (eds.), Custom today. Anthropological Forum (special issue) 6 (4): 597-606.

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