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Definition: Tradition from The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

A general term used to describe the beliefs, legends, rituals, or customs handed down from one generation to the next, especially orally or by example. Traditions may be societal, cultural, or religious and function as a way to transfer knowledge. While traditions are often assumed to be ancient, many traditions, in order to survive, adapt to contemporaneous economic, social, political, and cultural environments. Some scholars argue that tradition may be invented to maintain hegemony or power.


Summary Article: Tradition from Encyclopedia of Governance

Traditions are webs of related practices comprised of inherited patterns of thought and actions. They are constituted by beliefs and practices that are handed down from the past. A tradition is a temporal chain that exhibits the historical continuity of the individual beliefs and practices that make it up, each of which expresses some formative influence on subsequent incarnations. In addition to the temporal connections that result from providing the starting point for its later exemplars, the instances properly thought to make a tradition embody conceptual connections with one another. The beliefs and practices of a tradition that are transmitted over time exhibit at least a minimal level of conceptual coherence and consistency, forming an intelligible whole that evinces why they go together. Thus, we call tradition the chain of variant interpretations that people make, as in the Kantian tradition or the liberal tradition. As a sequence or chain of interpretive variations that people receive and transmit over time, traditions are connected by the development of common themes, not limited to the contiguity of presentation and departure or descent from a common origin.

Many things affect human behavior and that which can be socially transmitted through time is a broad category, including ritual practices, habits, images of people and events, and beliefs of all kinds—be they secular or sacred, transmitted orally or through writing, formed through experience or arrived at by ratiocination and logical deduction. Material objects may well be thought to comprise traditions—a particular monument, building, machine, painting, or novel is sometimes invoked as a particular tradition. But it is the cluster of qualities and ideas they embody in representation that are properly thought to make a tradition. No concrete practice, institution, or object itself endures through time, since an action ceases to exist once it is performed and objects are undergoing continuous morphosis due to their inherent molecular activity and by dint of their changing environment. The transmissible parts of human life that can endure as traditions, however, are the mental images, memories, patterns of actions, and clusters of related ideas about them.

Traditions are normative as they constitute conditions for subsequent actions and in most cases also precedents for what future actions should be like. The patterns that guide action have to do with not only the ends sought but the conceptions of appropriate and effective means to attain those ends, along with the relationships that result from and are maintained by those actions. Traditions are thus normative in the sense that they incorporate beliefs for requiring, permitting, recommending, or otherwise regulating its reenactment. For this reason, traditions perform the role of socialization and the inculcation of particular beliefs, value systems, and specific conventions of behavior. Because traditions rely on group membership—in the form of communities that are either real or artificial—they not only symbolize but also legitimize social cohesion. Traditions are further normative in the sense that they establish or endorse particular social institutions and relations of power and authority.

Despite the many normative aspects of traditions, being handed down does not itself logically entail any explicit expectation that it should be accepted, appreciated, or otherwise assimilated. Traditions do not independently establish or reproduce themselves; no tradition can elaborate or promulgate itself. Only living, knowing, and desiring human beings can enact and reenact a tradition. No tradition exists apart from those who propound, subscribe to, and otherwise recognize various conceptions as such. Above all, the characteristic feature of a tradition is that the pattern of thought and action in question is created and recreated by people through their interactions with each other, relayed through several generations of remaking by interpersonal means. When we speak of any tradition, thus, we speak of that which has exemplars and custodians.

Because a tradition’s constellations of symbols and meanings are only received and modified through interpretations by people, traditions remain contingent, open to change both while in the possession of their recipients as well as in the process of transmission. No tradition can be fully closed, if for no other reason than that its practitioners must face constantly changing circumstances. In the course of events over time, a tradition will evolve, shift, and change as the constitutive people respond to challenges from the outside or otherwise discover that aspects of their beliefs conflict with other, higher order, beliefs. In facing changed circumstances and responding to dilemmas that arise as a result, adherents of a tradition may adopt new beliefs or reject certain portions of their shared ideas. Particular traditions can develop because a desire to create something truer, better, or more convenient motivates those who acquire and possess them. Traditions can also deteriorate, in the sense of losing their adherents, because possessors cease to present them, or those who once received and reenacted them come to prefer other lines of thinking and conduct, or because new generations to which they were presented find other traditions of belief more acceptable according to the standards they accept.

The continuity through discontinuity present in any tradition is best understood as the emergent, (i.e., generative) interplay between inherited ideas and rational reflection against the wider social circumstances in which people are situated. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that what exactly is handed down, how long it has been so, and the degree of rational deliberation that entered into a tradition’s creation, presentation, and reception are all likely to be contested to the extent that they are interpreted differently. Even if we had sufficient records for named institutions and could presume their dates of foundation precisely, it is much more difficult to assert the point of origin of ideas, the webs of beliefs and patterns of meaning that comprise traditions. Moreover, although traditions shift and change as people are compelled to reinterpret and rearticulate their beliefs, they require sustained assault from many sources before giving way to significant change because traditions also encompass tacit beliefs and habitual relations between practitioners and their objects. Despite their essential flexibility, traditions are generally enduring webs of beliefs and modes of conduct.

The concept of tradition is useful for explaining governance where governance is broadly understood as ways in which the state exercises power as well as the various ways in which power operates in and through nonstate actors and practices. More specifically, governance refers to a pattern of rule and public administration through networks of various kinds. Insofar as studies of governance attempt to give accounts of why certain forms of life, power, and utterances have the content that they do, the concept of tradition allows us to explain governance processes, modes, and trends by helping us to elucidate the relationship between conduct and contexts for action. As agents that are always embedded within some social context, people exercise the capacity to adopt new beliefs and actions for reasons of their own against a background or social context that already exists as a common heritage, which provides them with the situation for doing so. We can understand the concept of tradition as that which provides this social background for agents to come to hold the meanings they do, which in turn informs their beliefs, actions, and practices. Thus, we can understand people as always situated against the background of some social tradition, or overlapping traditions, which at least initially provides them with a set of theories and ideas and thus a context for adopting new beliefs and acting in novel ways to modify, develop, or even reject their inheritance.

Even as a tradition forms the background to people’s utterances and actions, the content of their utterances and actions does not come directly from these contexts but rather from the ways in which they replicate or develop these traditions in accord with their intentions. Thus, traditions constitute a necessary background to the beliefs people adopt and the actions they perform, but they do not determine their beliefs and desires, nor do they fix or limit the actions they can perform successfully. Tradition is an initial influence on people. Its content will appear in their later actions only as far as their situated agency has not led them to change it. Because tradition is unavoidable only as a starting point, traditions do not possess a fixed context to which we can ascribe variations. There may be occasions when we can point to the persistence of some core idea within a tradition over time. In other cases, however, we might identify a tradition with a group of ideas that were widely shared by a number of people, although no one idea was held by all of them. Alternatively, we might equate a tradition with a group of ideas that passed from generation to generation, changing incrementally each time, so that no single idea persisted throughout. A particularly long-lasting tradition, such as Roman Catholicism, incorporates so many developments and changes of emphasis that many of its historical aspects may be unrecognizable to some of its contemporary adherents.

As an explanatory concept, the concept of tradition provides a means of analyzing social change because it allows for situated agency. Change arises as a result of people’s ability to adopt beliefs and perform actions for reasons of their own when they creatively respond to dilemmas from within their existing beliefs. A dilemma arises for individuals whenever they adopt a new belief that stands in opposition to their existing beliefs and so forces a reconsideration of the latter. In accepting a new belief, people pose to their existing beliefs the question of how they will accommodate it. They respond to the dilemma, whether explicitly or not, by changing their beliefs to accommodate the newcomer. Traditions change over time and we cannot explain these changes unless we accept that individuals are capable of altering the traditions they inherit.

We should not understand traditions as having a given or necessarily rational path of development because the way in which people respond to a dilemma is open ended in that there are always many plausible ways in which they might modify their existing beliefs. It is entirely possible for a tradition to include, or be largely composed of, beliefs that are accepted without intense reflection or explicit articulation as such. In fact, to the extent that they provide a background context for action, traditions will often remain abstract and largely unarticulated. Neither of these conditions, however, cancels out the fact of beliefs being held and transmitted by people through time. Whether there is acceptable evidence for the truth of the tradition or whether the tradition is accepted without its validity having been established in no way discounts a tradition’s ontological status as providing contexts for action or the explanatory usefulness of the concept of tradition for understanding social and political phenomena.

The concept of tradition, together with that of dilemma, provides us with a means of giving accounts of governance that embody recognition of the particularity and contingency of social life. The concept of tradition suggests that a social inheritance comes to each individual who, through his or her agency, can then modify and transform this inheritance, even as he or she passes it on to others. Because the concept represents an abstraction, it can do explanatory work only insofar as we can unpack it, at least in principle, in terms of contingent, intersubjective beliefs, desires, and actions—these typically incorporate specific ideas about human nature, right conduct, social inquiry, and the good that may be taken for granted to some degree by the participants in the relevant mode of governance. Because traditions provide the framework in which problems are conceived and addressed, we can reveal the historical contingency and contestability of these shared beliefs by showing how they arose against the background of a particular tradition. Thus we can unpack the composition of governance in terms of the beliefs of individuals, where these beliefs are necessarily influenced by a social inheritance. We can explain the rise of new patterns of governance by reference to the intersubjective traditions and dilemmas that inform the changing activities of various clusters of situated actors—be they officials, politicians, or citizens—who all participate in governance processes.

A special 2003 issue of Public Administration on recent public-sector reforms across seven advanced, industrial democracies serves to demonstrate the usefulness of the concept of tradition both for explaining the particular trajectories of public-sector reform in the several countries and for lending a comparative perspective on the changes cross-nationally. In it, scholars identify the multiple and competing governmental traditions in Australia, Great Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States and explore how particular state traditions have informed the beliefs and practices of national political and administrative elites. The authors identify the variously constructed dilemmas, problems, and issues that promoted the search for new practices and thus explain how national governmental traditions helped to shape reform. To explain why elites and officials held the beliefs they did and sustained the particular practices of governance they did, the authors use the actors’ own words or texts drawn from primary sources, such as parliamentary debates, committee hearings, government papers and statistics, media reports, memoirs, diaries, and biographies, and interviews with officials past and present.

Each of the studies documents elite constructions of dilemmas using historical narratives that provide distinctive interpretations of state transformations from American antistatism, Norwegian pragmatism, British gradualism, Dutch consensual corporatism, French statism, and the German classical tradition to Australian antipodean exceptionalism. The comparative perspective that emerges shows the contrast between European parliamentary systems and Westminster systems. The editors show how the latter share a tradition of strong executive government such that reform in response to economic pressures could be pushed through. In the Netherlands, despite ostensibly similar economic pressures, reforms hinged on coalition governments operating in a tradition of consensual corporatism, while in France, the combination of departmental fragmentation at the center, coupled with the grand corps tradition and its beliefs about a strong state, meant that public-sector reform rested on the consent of those about to be reformed. Antipodean exceptionalism is also accounted for by the way elite actors in New Zealand and Australia saw their country as acutely vulnerable to the pressures of globalization. The editors also show how the concept of tradition and dilemma are useful for explaining variations in the speed of reform across states, so for instance, Westminster systems with executives subjected to few constraints have been able to legislate with relatively few obstructions.

The concept of tradition thus enables scholars to explore the changes in the governance of the state and notably serves to compare stories that inform the actions of national elites across states. The elucidation of particular traditions and dilemmas shows how reform is a continuous, contingent political process in which the meaning of change itself is also contested. More broadly, the concept of tradition helps to show how governance is constructed differently and continuously reconstructed according to the intersubjective understandings of political actors.

    See also
  • Decentered Theory; Dilemma; Interpretive Policy Analysis; Interpretive Theory; Neotraditionalism; Situated Agency; Social Constructivism; Social Learning; Social Practice

Further Readings and References
  • Acton, H. B. Tradition and some other forms of action. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 53, 1-28. (1952).
  • Bevir, M. (1999). The logic of the history of ideas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bevir, M.; Rhodes, R. A.W.; Weller, P. (Eds.). Traditions of governance: History and diversity [Special Issue]. Public Administration, 8, 1. (2003).
  • Hobsbawm, E.; Ranger, T. (Eds.). (1983). The invention of tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Oakeshott, M. (1991). Rationalism in politics and other essays. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.
  • Shils, E. (1981). Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Naomi Choi
    Copyright © 2007 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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