Invented Traditions: paradox or reality?

An invention describes (the process of creating) something novel that has never been made before. A tradition on the other hand is a belief or behavior passed down within society over generations, with origins in the past. You think this sounds like a paradox? Well, you couldn’t be more wrong.

The two mentioned concepts seem to neglect one another – which makes the existence of “invented traditions” even more curious. While one could argue that every tradition was once an invention, the term “invention of tradition” means something different – at least in the context of a prominent a book by the same name, written in 1983 by E. J. Hobsbawm and T. O. Ranger. Their idea describes (ab-)using the means of deliberate deception – to present something new as though it were ancient

“Why would someone even bother to do invent a tradtion,” you may ask. Let’s have a closer look at the Scottish national identity: Men wearing kilts, with each clan having its own tartan, their ceremonials accompanied with bagpipes. By means of these symbols, they show their loyalty to ancient rituals – except for the fact that they don’t.

Scottish Identity – Made in England

The kilt as we know it was invented by English industrialist Thomas Rawlinson in the early 18th Century. He set out to alter the existing dress of highlanders to make it convenient for the rest of society – who considered the highland dresscode as barbaric. Similarly, many of the clan tartans worn now were devised by enterprising Victorian tailors who wanted to make some money with them.

As you can see, what we think of as traditional and steeped in the mists of time, is sometimes just a product of the last couple of centuries – and often much more recent than that. The case of the Scottish is only one example of invented traditions from a variety of different nations mentioned in the celebrated volume by Hobsbawm and Ranger.

The Pizza Effect

An interesting modification on the original concept of invented traditions can be found in the so called “pizza effect”. For those who who are not familiar with it, let me elaborate: The origins of the probably most-delivered food item in western culture are actually more distorted than you may think. Pizza was first exported to the United States, processed and reshaped by Americans, and then exported back to Italy – where it eventually became the “traditional” Italian culinary masterpiece the world knows today.

One implication of the term “invention of tradition” is that idea of tradition is itself often a creation of modernity. In turn, all traditions are somehow invented traditions. No traditional society is wholly traditional, with customs being invented for manifold reasons. Also, conscious construction of tradition is found only in modern times: kings, emperors, priests and others have used “invented traditions” to suit themselves and to legitimate their rule.

Rationality and science can help sort out the “helpful” from the “harmful” – or even the “useless” ones. For our ancestors, though, it was nearly always a good idea to reject any cultural change and even now, “we have always done it that way” is often enough reason to continue. The result: conservatism and fear of innovation.

However, it is a myth to think of traditions as impervious to change. Traditions evolve over time, but also can be quite suddenly altered or transformed, they are invented and reinvented. Conclusion: let’s get right to it – because it is never too late to start a new tradition.


header image: pexels

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