Book review: The Invention of Tradition


I find this to be a fascinating subject. The traditions that we follow offer clues as to which tribe we want to join or those to which we already belong; they also indicate which authorities we follow.

As pointed out in the excellent introduction, tradition is a different matter than customs. Tradition is what has become unvaried or fixed, while customs “serve the double function of motor and fly-wheel.” Customs have more to do with the delicate give and take of civil society, and can become tradition and often do. For example, the author points out that much of what judges do is included under customs, but what they wear is tradition.

This collection covers some great examples of invented traditions from different colonial systems, the British monarchy and the European industrial age after 1870 to the start of World War 1. The term invented tradition in this book includes those constructed to assert authority or dominance, and those that simply emerged over a brief period of time. With those definitions, one can easily see how knowing how to untangle which is which (and devised by whom) is vital before adopting or defending them.  For example, it seems that recently the singing of the national anthem has become a place of protest at sporting events. While writing about the issue, many reporters began to examine this tradition and found it only became the custom around WW2,  with the song itself protested by citizens from its adoption as our anthem in 1931. Even Jackie Robinson wrote of his inability to stand and sing the song in his 1972 autobiography.  No matter how one feels about the protesting, one can see how it has been hardened into tradition that is now so dearly held by some that the flouting of it is seen as an unpatriotic act.

Upon investigation, it may  turn out that some of these dearly held traditions began from pure myth or even from the cooptation of another culture. But knowing which invented traditions are problematic may be difficult to uncover and in many cases,  may not really matter.  After all,  all traditions are manufactured by people and their meanings changing with the times.

In terms of community food systems, it seems to me that its invented tradition and customs should be at least understood before adopting. The adoption of some customs (old-timey signage for example) may presume an allegiance to a past that not everyone is excited about repeating or even remembers. Or the tradition of Saturday morning markets meant a smaller audience for our farmers than the modern world could offer us, yet still felt appropriate for the first founders to honor it by adopting it. Since then, by acknowledging that tradition and finding ways to pay homage without being wedded to it, the market field has vastly expanded its number of days and therefore its reach. Another example may be the traditional audience of the farmers market field: in almost all cases, our markets serve family tables and not larger entities. Could we invent a new tradition where we use the  weekly open-air market model to build another that serves intermediate and wholesale customers exclusively? As long as we made sure to  build transparency and  payment options for bulk purchasers, restaurant, grocery and wholesale customers couldn’t  the market serve the same role as curator and connector that it does in the traditional model?

In any case, installing meaningful traditions and customs into food system work is vital. After all, a generation is around 30 years in span;  this means that the kids and grandkids of the original visitors and farmers are using this new tradition of markets, and assuming the customs and routines of it. The more that those traditions are made to fit the values of the people that are using them, the more that we can clearly indicate the role we want the places of good food to play in civil society.

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