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  Traditions (from Latin tradere, ‘to hand down’), in anthropology, refer broadly to beliefs, customs and values passed down through successive generations. The ethical and moral connotations of traditions have three primary functions: to establish social cohesion; to legitimize forms of behaviour; to inculcate beliefs.

The terms ‘great’ and ‘little’ traditions were introduced in 1956 by Robert Redfield, to show that there could be local alternatives to a tradition invested with authority by the custodians of culture. In the case of a world religion, such as Islam, ‘great tradition’ referred to the textual orthodoxy of the élite, while ‘little tradition’ referred to folk practices often informal and orally transmitted. This distinction was useful because it illustrated the way alternative interpretations could coexist with formal, established traditions.

The concept of great and little traditions has been replaced with Michel Foucault\'s notion of discourse: a multiplicity of coexistent interpretations, rather than just two. Traditions are not always rooted in the past, though their initiators may claim that they are. Traditions may be invented as a response to new situations, legitimizing their significance in the present by recourse to the past. As an adaptive attempt to situate current solutions in some kind of cultural continuity, invented traditions are often utilized by groups such as immigrants who are concerned with maintaining a defined identity. The importance of tradition is often elevated at times of great social change or to promote a political cause. CL

See also authenticity; ethnohistory; religion.Further reading E. Hobsbawn and , T. Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition.



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