Thoughts on ‘tradition’

treeSince early on in the Design Routes project, I’ve been using ‘tradition’ as a central concept in our research, and one identifying component of what we’re referring to as ‘culturally significant’ designs, products and practices.

However, I’ve become increasingly aware that the meaning of ‘tradition’ isn’t straightforward. The popular understanding is of something pretty static; after all, if we learn a ‘traditional’ dance, eat ‘traditional’ food, or wear ‘traditional’ clothes, we tend to feel that we’re connecting with an established activity, stretching far into the past. While this lack of change might be true for what Eric Hobsbawm calls ‘invented traditions’ (many of which have surprisingly recent origins), I agree with sociologist Edward Shils that genuine traditions actually evolve in the process of transmission - and that it’s precisely this adaptability that enables traditions to remain relevant over time.

(There’s another issue that can be debated here: some people see the word ‘traditional’ as having a different meaning to ‘tradition’ - but I simply see ‘traditional’ as being the adjective linked to the noun, and therefore give it basically the same meaning.)

While reading around the subject, and hearing lots of fascinating talks at various events, I’ve picked up a selection of useful quotes and snippets about tradition and related concepts, which I thought I’d gather together here.

On tradition as looking forward:

Tradition is the creation of the future out of the past. (Henry Glassie, Tradition1995)

Local distinctiveness must be about history continuing through the present (not about the past) and it is about creating the future. There is a great difference in people simply dressing up in Victorian clothes and a festival such as Carnival which builds on gutsy traditions carried forth and back and changed to new circumstances. (Sue Clifford & Angela King, Local Distinctiveness1993)

When vibrant, traditions are always in the process of being recreated… and subject to evaluation in terms of what they bring to a contemporary situation. (Michael Pickering, Stereotyping2001)

If craft is entirely backward-looking, you’re just trying to breathe life into dead tissue. (Sir Christopher Frayling, Heritage Crafts Association conference 2015)

On keeping traditions going:

Tradition is tending a flame, not worshipping the ashes. (Sam Lee, Englishness Rising symposium)

You don’t own the songs but look after them for the next generation. (Sam Lee, Englishness Rising symposium)

On traditions evolving:

From the outside, traditional work can look very static, but the closer you get, the more you realise that it’s experimental. (Joe Hogan, quoted in Craftsissue 248)

To preserve tradition means to continuously develop it. (Adhi Nugraha, Transforming tradition for sustainability through “TCUSM” tool, 2010)

Practice as social action cannot be preserved. It has to change in order to stay the same. (Antonio Arantes, quoted in Design + Craft: the Brazilian path, 2011)

On tradition supporting experimentation:

The deeper the roots, the longer the branches can be before the tree falls down. (Alistair Anderson, Englishness Rising symposium)

If you have any more quotes or thoughts to share on the concept of tradition - particularly in terms of material culture, designs, products and practices - we’d be very interested to hear them!

Photo by Flickr user Jereme Rauckman (see original), used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.

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