Great and little traditions (Anthropology)

The issue of great and little traditions did not arise for the first generation of anthropologists who, following the example of Malinowski, mainly studied remote, self-contained, small-scale societies. It was only after World War II, when anthropologists began to study communities integrated within larger states and participating in centuries-old religious traditions such as Buddhism or Christianity, that the problem arose. The terms ‘great’ and ‘little’ traditions were actually introduced and elaborated in the 1950s by the University of Chicago anthropologist Robert Redfield. In Redfield’s vision: ‘The studies of the anthropologist are contextual; they relate some element of the great tradition — sacred topic, story-element, teacher, ceremony, or supernatural being — to the life of the ordinary people, in the context of daily life as the anthropologist sees it happen’ (1956).

An important early contribution to the study of great and little traditions came from Red-field’s protege McKim Marriott (1955) who contrasted Indian village religion with the San-skritic textual tradition of Hinduism. Marriott observed that fifteen of the nineteen village festivals celebrated in the village were sanctioned by at least one Sanskrit text. To explain the interaction between little and great traditions he theorized a two-way influence: local practices had been historically promoted into the Sanskrit canon in a process he labelled ‘universalization’, and ideas and practices already contained in this canon were locally adapted in a process of ‘par-ochialization’. Of course some rites may have been parochialized and then re-universalized in a circular fashion.

Additionally, Marriott stressed that in the North Indian context, the great Sanskritic tradition could be viewed as an ‘indigenous civilization’; a body of cultural forms elaborated in an orthogenetic fashion from a regional pool of ideas. Great tradition Hinduism thus constituted a primary civilization by contrast with other great traditions such as Spanish Catholicism in Latin America which were foreign impositions rather than the orthogenetic outgrowth of indigenous culture. Such heterogenetic great traditions did nonetheless amalgamate, or syncretize, with indigenous traditions to form ‘secondary civilizations’.

Marriott’s views on great and little traditions were disputed by Dumont and Pocock (1957) in the very first issue of their journal Contributions to Indian Sociology. They pointed out that the villagers themselves were unconcerned with distinguishing between the presence of separate traditions — ‘For them there are not two traditions but simply the one which is their life’. In their view local religious practices required consideration as a whole, understandable as the realization of general principles such as the opposition between pollution and purity or the recourse to the sacred through either priests or possession. A common ideology of Hinduism could be discerned at all levels and in all localities. The recognition of different ‘levels’ in Hinduism (Dumont and Pocock 1959), however, came close to reproducing the great and little tradition distinction against which they were protesting. The difference was that for Dumont and Pocock the little tradition was not a residual category of rituals not found elsewhere, but the whole cycle of festivals found in their local context.

"Tambiah (1970) objected that a distinction between two traditions was an ahistorical artefact of anthropological enquiry because the great tradition for religions like Hinduism and Buddhism consists of a variable selection of texts written in widely different historical periods yet often presented as if they were a synchronic totality. This objection may apply in Asia, but not in the study of European Christianity where the principal sacred texts and ritual liturgies are very much agreed upon within each denomination (Stewart 1991). One cannot so easily accuse anthropologists of European Christianity of running amok in the library and inventing their own great tradition. In place of a distinction between great and little traditions, Tambiah proposed substituting a distinction between historical and contemporary religion with the primary task being to look for continuities and transformations between them.

Another promising line of approach may be borrowed from studies of orality and literacy. A focus on the differences between the written and the spoken word enables us to qualify and better specify the transformations which knowledge and practices undergo when they are translated into texts, or from texts back into oral and practical repertoires. Writing fixes a given text and facilitates the elaboration of consistent, often highly abstract, philosophical principles. It converts practical local religion into universal theology while also permitting the dissemination of these complicated ideas over broad areas. Literacy is one of the keys in creating a system of rules which can be used to keep a tradition orthodox partly through its power to define local traditions as heterodox or ‘superstitious’ (Goody 1986).

Mastery of great tradition texts usually brings prestige, but it is not the exclusive prerogative of the urban or the wealthy. Poor villagers may also gain access to great tradition knowledge either through their own learning or through the mediation of local priests or monks. These villagers are often capable of discerning the hegemonic authority and status value of great tradition knowledge. If visited by a bishop, or a government minister, they might try to conceal those aspects of local practice which they know to be part of a divergent little tradition. This situation weakens Dumont and Pocock’s assertion that there is only one tradition. Analytically it may be useful to consider village practices as an integral whole, but the villagers themselves recognize the existence of another, more prestigious, tradition.

The distinction between great and little traditions thus remains valid and vital although relatively few anthropologists have, over the years, been able to achieve the balance of philological, historical and anthropological talents required for their ideal study. As Redfield (1956) under-statedly acknowledged when he outlined his vision, ‘It makes anthropology much more difficult and very much more interesting’.

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