Negotiating Tradition by Stefan Groth

By Stefan Groth

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A special issue of the journal “Ethnologia Europae” edited by Regina Bendix and Valdimar Hafstein (2009) highlights the “triad of culture, politics and economics” (10) which serves to constitute the terms of reference for ethnological debates on cultural property. An interdisciplinary edited volume by Bendix, Bizer, and Groth (2010) sheds light on the processes of constituting cultural property from economic, legal and anthropological perspectives. The “institutionalization” of cultural heritage and cultural property studies is illustrated both by two chapters in a recent “Companion to Folklore” (Hafstein 2012, Skrydstrup 2012) and a paper on the “principal points of irritation” in debates on traditional culture (Noyes 2010: 1).

Consider the term “tradition”: it can point to valued practices developed over time and esteemed by a group of social actors. It can also be used in a negative manner or in contrast to “modern” and “better” practices. Then, “tradition” can have legal implications. When it is used in legal texts, what qualifies something as “traditional” must be defined, and such a definition differs from the two previous uses of the term. The perspectives on the term and on what it signifies are manifold. They range from appreciation to 12 For broad and basic critiques, see Adorno’s lectures on Philosophische Terminologie (Adorno 1997); Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (Wittgenstein 1963), Bakhtin’s work on heteroglossia (Bakhtin 2007), Fabian’s “Taxonomy and Ideology” (Fabian 1977), or – for a more recent view from linguistic anthropology – Silverstein 2004.

These questions are especially important when the object of study is embedded in everyday language use (Adorno 1997: 29): if the uses of tradition are intentional and strategic, the uses of the term are contingent on these intentions and strategies as well. Hence, the different uses of the term entail perspectives on what it signifies, and these perspectives are coupled with interests. Similar to the insight from anthropology and folkloristics that tradition is used intentionally, employing the term “tradition” is strategic as well.

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