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Defining the Concept of Tradition

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2786 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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  1. Introduction

Tradition, generally defined as the handing down of customs or beliefs from one generation to the next, is a well-established concept in society and one that is often explored in communications and cultural studies. Tradition provides the basis for which we understand our socio-cultural environment, be it our society, our community or our families. From our early years as human begins, tradition has been the foundation that gives meaning and purpose to our social lives and serves as a guide to our beliefs, values and behaviors.  “Tradition emerges as a rather dynamic meta-structure into which one is born, within which and through which one acquires her sense of the world, and develops her sense of agency, subjectivity, or selfhood: in short, her individuality” (Yadgar, 2013, p. 455). The concept is a fundamental concern in many other disciplines including philosophy, history, religion, art, literature and law. “Scholars in these fields confront highly self-conscious bodies of ideas as they are transmitted over time.” (Phillips & Schotchet, 2004, p.10). This paper looks at the various scholarly definitions that have been assigned to the concept of tradition, including as a handing down, a passing down, or a delivery of an object from one generation to the next.

  1. Scholarly Definitions of Tradition

The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism defines tradition as a passing down of elements of culture “The concept of tradition involves the recognition that customs, beliefs, values, styles, and other forms of culture are passed down from one generation to the next, as well as the feeling – sometimes encouraged, sometimes resented – that this inheritance should be respected for the beneficent influence that it exerts on the present” (Childers & Gary, 1995, p. 362).

A definition of tradition in Christianity which has its roots in the biblical scriptures, describes the concept as a delivery by a higher figure. “Tradition which in English is no more than delivering unto another, and by a figure, signifies the matter which is delivered, and among Christians, the Doctrine of our religion delivered to us. There is no better way to judge aright of such traditions than by considering these four things: firstly, the authors of them; secondly, the matter of them; thirdly, their authority and lastly, the means by which we come to know they derive themselves from such authors as they pretend unto and consequently have any authority to demand admission into our belief” (Simon, 1685, p. 2)

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Perhaps one of the most influential scholars on the history and meaning of the concept of tradition, is sociologist  Edward Shils, who defines tradition as a handing down or in its simplest sense as “a traditum: it is anything which is handed down from the past to the present” (Shils, 1981, p. 12) .  He says that the word comes from traditio, which is derived from the verb tradere, a combination of trans and dare, meaning to deliver or hand over. “The decisive criterion is that, having been created through human actions, through thought and imagination, it is handed down or transmitted from one generation to the next” (Shils, 1981, p.12). This suggests that elements which are passed down are not a result of coincidence or done without an intention but are transmitted purposefully. “Tradition includes material objects, beliefs about all sorts of things, images of persons or events, practices and institutions. 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 possessors 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” (Shils, 1981, p.12)

Many scholars agree that the identity or essence of transmitted things in a tradition remain the same over time. “In art – an art piece or painting remains the same. An artistic style does not remain the same, although each of the particular paintings or statues in which it has been embodied does remain the same The connectedness of the variations may consist in common themes in the contiguity of presentation and departure and in a descent of common origin” (Shils, 1981, p.13). So is the case with traditions transmitted from generation to generation, which are likely to go through some changes, although its essential elements remain. This is the case with religious texts in the bible, whose core remains the same despite the improvements made in the various version that have been printed over time.

Childers & Gary (1995) offer a different perspective which asserts that traditions are upheld based on the realities of the present is presented  “In his influential essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot observed that the most individual parts of a poet’s work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously, in the course of explaining that each new work fundamentally alters the tradition that it joins. The importance of this view lies in its understanding of tradition as a living and changeable force, something that is at least partially chosen and constructed in the present rather than received as an inert lump from the past” (p. 362).

When defining the concept of tradition, it is often important to distinguish this concept from that of “customs” as the lines between the two concepts are blurred, and they are often referred to in conjunction, or in place of one another. “A custom is an established social usage that has been built up through repetition over a long period of time” (Gross, 1992, p.12). The difference is that unlike a tradition, a custom does not have to be passed down from generation to generation, although when it does then it becomes a tradition. Gross however insists ion putting the moral authority of tradition at the centre of its understanding. He views traditions as being held in high moral authority in that we place more value in them, more than we do with customs. “A custom may originate to satisfy some immediate need, but in the course of being transmitted from generation to generation, it gradually comes to be accepted simply because it is convenient, or because it has been in operation for so long that no one questions its rationale (Gross, 1992, p.12).

Similarly, a tradition can become a custom.   “The conversion of a tradition into a custom takes place when a tradition becomes routinized or when its moral authority wears down after a long period of transmission” (Gross, 1992, p.13 )

The literature on the concept of tradition do though leave some gaps and questions unaswered. One of the gaps is that the scholars do not identify how long something must be passed down for it to be considered a tradition. For an example, is a school ritual  that has been practiced and been active in the school for last 12 years such a valedictory occasion a tradition however short the period that it has been passed down from one class of learners to the other? Also, what is not addressed is whether there must be some evidence of truth or validity to the object being passed down for it to be a tradition. Lastly, it is not clear whether traditions can be broken and still be recognised as traditions, that is, can it skip one generation after 100 years and then revived again by the next generation – will it still be considered a tradition if its continuity was broken at some point?

  1. Relationship Between the Concepts of Tradition and Communication

Like communication, tradition is also a concept that has a rich historical background, the concepts are related in that they both deal with acts of transmission, transfer or sharing. “From the latin, communicare meaning to impart, share or make common, communications entered the English language in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries” (Peters, 1999, p.7). This definition is connected to the latin word of tradio, of which the word tradition is derived from, meaning to deliver or hand over. Peters (1999) explains further “Communication involves transfer or transmission. The sense of physical transfer is now largely archaic, but it is the root of the notion of communication as the transfer of psychical entities such as ideas, thoughts and meanings” (p. 8).  This in essence means that communication is at the centre of the creation, and sharing of traditions that exists in society, the transmission of which is in itself an act of communication. Traditions are often passed from one generation to the next through the process of communication – be it verbally or non-verbally (in writing).

In addition, the two concepts are related in that they both are a form of exchange. “A third branch of meaning is communication as exchange, that is, transfer times two. Communication in this sense is supposed to involve interchange, mutuality, and some kind of reciprocity” (Peters, 1999, p.8). Just like with communication, traditions are a form of exchange of material or immaterial objects, exchanged from one generation to another. In return, there is an expectation that there will be some form of reciprocity from the recipients of tradition who are in return expected to uphold and preserve them for the benefit of future generations.

In communications practice, particularly in intercultural or cross-cultural communication, it is important for communication practitioners to be aware of the message recipient’s cultures, traditions or customs as these often have an influence on how messages are decoded and whether or not these messages will be accepted.

  1. Boundaries of the concept

As a concept, tradition has, like many other concepts clear limitations in that not everything that has been passed down from the past should be considered a tradition.  Gross (1992) sets some boundaries and puts forward three conditions that need to be satisfied for it to become a tradition:

1) At the very minimum, a tradition must link together three generations

2) A tradition must not merely represent something old or ancient, but must also carry a certain amount of moral prestige

3) A tradition must convey a sense of continuity between the past and the present (p. 10).

Shils adds that “the presence of something from the past does not entail any explicit expectation that it should be accepted, appreciated, reacted or otherwise assimilated.” “Other things in the present that come from the past are not traditions. These would include various manmade objects or artifacts from former times, symbols or images passed down through the centuries, or institutions that survive from one generation to the next. All of these may be conduits of traditional attitudes or patterns of conduct, but they are not themselves traditions.” (Gross, 1992, p. 8). This would mean that the church, for an example, as an institution where certain religious beliefs are practiced, should not in itself be viewed as tradition.  It is rather the religious beliefs themselves that are being preached in the church that are what would constitute as traditions. The church in itself only functions as a channel which facilitates the practice of these beliefs and is an institution that is meant to keep these traditions active among many generations.

  1. Definition of Tradition

The common elements of tradition that have been identified by various scholars are useful in my coining of a definition, and they entail the following fundamentals:

  • Object: Central to the concept of tradition is the presence of a thing or an object that is being transmitted or handed over, this may be a material object or an immaterial object such as a belief, a ritual or a custom.
  • Transmitter: For it to be a tradition, there should be an original source who is the creator of the object that is being transmitted. Generally, the authors of traditions are individuals who existed in our past.
  • Recipient: It is a key requirement for there to be a recipient of the object that is being transmitted.
  • Time: Time is of essence when defining a tradition. There needs to be a continued progression of transmission from a historical period to another period. The object being transmitted has to exert an influence on the present.
  • Essential elements remain, besides changes: What is thought to be the core elements of a tradition must remain despite the various changes that it has undergone over time, while being transmitted from one generation to another.
  • Moral authority: The object being transmitted is generally respected as it is perceived to have a high moralstanding.

Stemming from the above, I can therefore compile a working definition of tradition as: “A process that takes place over a long period of time, in which a generation transmits a valued material or immaterial object for the use and preservation by future generations”.

  1. Tradition in Practice

In almost all societies, a lot of what we do in our everyday lives are things that have been learnt over many years and what has been practiced or taught to us by past generations.  We live a great deal of our life in accordance with practices, and ideas from the past which have been passed down to by past  generations.

In cookery, for instance, we often refer to traditional food and culinary dishes that are unique to certain cultures and have been enjoyed in our families through many years.  The recipes and methods of preparation of these dishes are traditions which have been in our homes and taught from generation to generation by our family members. We learn how to prepare these dishes because they have been communicated to us either through writing e.g. written recipes, or we are told what to do or we simply observe how it is done.  “Different individuals are solicited for their allegiance according to their different homes; in different homes different kinds of life have become traditional” (Kaye, 1932, p. 71). What this means is that, taking the same dish, another cook from a different cultural background would take from the culinary traditions of their own family and handle the dish differently based on the traditions that have been passed down in their home or culture. Traditional food may go through some variations e.g. by adding a new ingredient, however its recipients should regard it as significantly unchanged for it to remain as a traditional dish.

  1. Bibliography


  1. Childers, J.W. & Hentzi, G. (Eds.). (1995). The Columbia dictionary of modern literary and cultural criticism. New York : Columbia University Press.
  2. Gross, D. (1992). The Past in ruins: Tradition and the critique of modernity. Armherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
  3. Kaye, M. (1932). Tradition. Philosophy, 7 (25), 68-75.
  4. Peters, J.D. (1999). Speaking into the air: A history of the idea of communication. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  5. Phillips, M.S. & Schochet, G. (Eds.). (2004). Questions of tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  6. Shils, E. (1981). Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. Simon, P. (1685). A discourse about tradition: Shewing what is meant by it, and what tradition is to be received, and what tradition is to be rejected. London: T. Baffet.
  8. Yadgar, Y. (2013). Tradition. Journal of Human Studies, 2013, 36 (4), 451 – 470.


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