Academic journal article Western Folklore

"Tradition" in Identity Discourses and an Individual's Symbolic Construction of Self

Academic journal article Western Folklore

"Tradition" in Identity Discourses and an Individual's Symbolic Construction of Self

Article excerpt

In his eight-page introduction to The Study of American Folklore (1978), Jan Harold Brunvand employs "tradition" 46 times to characterize and explain what folklorists document and analyze. From the Latin tradere - to give, deliver, hand down - tradition is crucial to all definitions of folklore. Explanations of the concept tradition are notably missing, however, not only from Brunvand's book and most other texts but also standard references like Kenneth and Mary Clarke's A Concise Folklore Dictionary (1965), Maria Leach's Funk and Wagnalls Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend (1949-50) and the International Dictionary of Regional European Ethnology and Folklore (1960; vol. 1 ed. Ake Hultkrantz). Even the venerable Journal of American Folklore from its inception in 1888 to the year 2000 published only three articles about the concept (Handler and Linnekin 1984; Glassie 1995; McDonald 1997). A few treatments of tradition appeared in other journals in the 1980s, e.g., Ben-Amos 1984; Congdon 1986; and Honko 1983. The 1990s saw three short essays in Folklore: An Encyclopedia (Green 1997), which include "tradition" (Allison), "tradition-bearer" (Pentikainen) and "invented tradition" (Tuleja). Occasionally researchers in other fields have addressed the concept of tradition, e.g., Coplan (1991), Finnegan (1991), Rice (1994) and Shils (1981). It was not until 1998, 110 years after the founding of the American Folklore Society, that folklorist Simon J. Bronner authored an extensive work on the subject called Following Tradition: Folklore in the Discourse of American Culture.

As Bronner suggests (1998:9-10), researchers usually treat tradition separate from considerations of originality in art and individuality in society. Many people, however, draw upon tradition to create objects or to perform, and thereby fabricate a personal identity and social role for themselves. In this article I survey research directions in studies of individual artists involved in different traditions and then focus on one person who has utilized tradition as a resource with which to construct his identity as he grapples with vicissitudes in his life. The overview of other studies helps place my analysis within the continuum of scholarship while my interpretation of one individual's behavior suggests a possible direction for future research.

TRENDS IN THE LITERATURE ON TRADITION AND THE INDIVIDUAL

Several ideas emerge from writings about the concept of tradition. It has both a vertical and a horizontal dimension (Honko et al. [Klintberg] 1983:238), that is, tradition consists of not only continuities - what is "handed down" through time - but also consistencies - similarities in behavior across space (Georges and Jones 1995:1). It is social or communal, not individual. Only some aspects of culture are considered traditions, and value judgments are made about them; that is, some are viewed positively, others negatively (Radin 1935:63). People learn, perform and actively transmit some traditions while only passively responding to others (von Sydow 1948). Performers actively engage in certain behaviors in their repertoires while other elements remain latent (Goldstein 1971). Traditions may become moribund, or the behavior "extinguished" (Georges 1990; Skinner 1957:206), only to be revived and engaged in later - as much as 43 years later, in one documented case (Kongas 1960). Traditions define events (Jones, Giuliano and Krell 1981:41), mark major passages in life (van Gennep 1909) and are used to express, reinforce and promote group identity (Kalcik 1984). Traditions are symbolic constructions of the past in the present for the future (Allison 1997; Handler and Linnekin 1984; see also Hobsbawm 1983 on so-called "invented tradition").

If the literature on the concept of tradition is minimal, works about individual composers, performers and object makers in relation to tradition are far more numerous: perhaps 375 to 400 articles, books and films or videos (compared to thousands preoccupied with groups and a cultural perspective, or a literary or historical orientation). …

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