This Werkstattbericht is based on a paper presented at a workshop held at the Fondazione Collegio San Carlo in Modena on 15 June 2018. The paper addresses the topic of that workshop, “tradition”. I take this as an opportunity to view questions I have been occupied with since long from a new angle and through a new lens. The focus is on the meaning of tradition for social actors. The paper tries to shed some new light both on the concept of “tradition”, and on tenacious issues concerning India. It ends with some general and basic questions.
The paper addresses a contradiction, at least a tension, regarding views about the relevance of “tradition” in social life. To account for the role of tradition in society it is being argued that if “a practice or belief has persisted for an extended period” this would be a good enough reason to retain it. No society could do without a “bond” to its past. At the same time, it is being claimed that a tradition “which repeatedly brings disaster, or which repeatedly turns out to be obviously wrong” should not only not be clung to, but would in actual fact “not persist”: “No tradition could long be sustained if it brought about obvious and widespread misfortunes to those who practice it …”. Both clusters of statements, combining empirical and normative perspectives, are taken from Edward Shils’ 1981 book on tradition, the only sociological monograph on the topic of “tradition” we have so far. I take it that this is not just the personal view of Edward Shils, but a view that reflects widely shared attitudes among social actors and Social Science as well as Humanities scholars, across societies and across cultural contexts. What seems to be conveyed is that all that survives longer term must be beneficial for society and its members, or at least represents something on which societies and individuals can and should build. But what, if not all that is being carried on “out of tradition” is actually morally good, and advantageous for the people concerned and affected (or “works” as Shils calls it), but instead might actually bring great “misfortunes” to those under the hold of a tradition? What if traditions are being reproduced (and thus “work”) even when, or even because, they violate the position and dignity of those who are under their sway? What if people are forcibly included under a tradition that at the same time denies them equal participation?