Following tradition is fundamentally a statement of identity

There is no generally accepted “theory of tradition”. In fact, there are few theories – psychological, social or anthropological – which explain why we follow tradition. Edward Shils presented his book Tradition (1981) as the first extensive study of the subject. James Alexander in his article writes:

Shils observes, as everyone does, that the word tradition comes from traditiowhich is derived from the verb tradere, a combination of trans and daremeaning to surrender, deliver or hand over. Tradition is not as simple as trade, that is, simple exchange: it is a word which for about two thousand years has been particularly associated with the handing over of something in time, by some sort of deliberate act of preservation or repetition or recollection, so that the something is not lost to the past. Traditions enable us to inherit things from our ancestors, bestow them on our successors. Shils understands tradition in terms of tradita (the plural of traditum): things which are handed over. These, he argues, can be objects, or beliefs, or simply the ways things are done. He defines tradition simply as “anything which is transmitted or handed down from past to present”

Shils definition of tradition is all encompassing

It includes buildings, monuments, landscapes, sculptures, paintings, books, tools, machines. It includes all that a society of a given time possesses and which already existed when its present possessions came upon it and which is not solely the product of physical processes in the external world or exclusively the result of ecological and physiological necessity.

This is too wide a definition of what tradition is and is not convincing. It is however clear that actions or behaviour or things that are solely the product of physical processes in the external world or exclusively the result of ecological and physiological necessity” cannot be tradition. We breathe because we must and breathing is not “tradition”. But the manner in which we name ourselves is not dictated by necessity but by choice. Our names are established by, and are the continuation of, tradition.

But I observe that if what is/was necessity cannot be a tradition, then it must also mean that to become a tradition, some choice must have been made. An alternative to that tradition is, or must have been, available. The “handing down” across generations has not been eliminated from the definition of what tradition is but “repetition” even within the same generation has greater emphasis for any custom or behaviour to be considered tradition. 

This leads me to the hypothesis that only such actions or behaviours or production of artefacts which can later become traditions are those which involved a choice. Thereafter, repetition by others is necessary. Repetition by sufficient “others” and over a sufficient length of time converts those actions or behaviours first to customs and thence to traditions. Traditions eventually die and so, my hypothesis continues, every tradition has a life cycle. It is born, it grows up, it continues and it dies.

Why then do some actions, customs, behaviours become traditions and others do not? I suspect it is an existential thing and has to do with the preservation of our identity. Where our identity, as an individual or as a group, is reinforced or enhanced by the repetition of some custom or action or behaviour, then that survives under the label of being a tradition. Every example I can think of as “the following of a tradition”, is, at source, a statement of identity. Traditions underscore differences. Different traditions define different groups. They may be family, or social group or caste or class or ethnic or national traditions. Traditions may involve choice of dress or food or music or literature or behaviour or a method of proceeding, but they all exhibit choice. They each have something to say about the identity of the practitioner and the group he associates with or belongs to. A Sunday roast is an identifying family tradition. A school uniform or military dress is identifying. The Pyramids are identifying of the Pharaonic culture. A suit in japan identifies the salary-man.

Whenever we follow a tradition we identify ourselves and the group we belong to. Every tradition is a primal statement of identity. We follow tradition to reinforce identity.



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