The complexity of “Tradition”

Tradition is a key concept in ethnology. Anthropologists and folklorists have studied this complex but central concept in numerous publications (cf Ben-Amos, 1971, 1984; Glassie, 1995; Hampaté-Bâ, 1981; Handler and Linnekin, 1984, Noyes, 2009). But “tradition” is used not only an analytical concept. In the study of online productions for Sámi cultural and linguistic revitalization, I have come across the use of “tradition” and “traditional” in different contexts and with different connotations. Therefore, a focal point of my research is to address questions related to the uses and purposes of this concept in each specific context. 

The recurrence of “tradition” motivates the choice of the title for my project (and for this research blog), i.e. Challenging Traditions. The challenges I associate to the concept of tradition act on several levels.

Tradition does not only refer to the past; it refers to contemporary dynamics. How to capture these dynamics is yet another challenge. The concept seems to be – more than ever – of great importance in a context of revitalization, when a need for articulation of identity is evident.

A challenge implies a questioning of a situation, but also implies looking for openings and possibilities. This is definitely the case when approaching the contemporary Sámi situation in the context of revitalization. Sámi culture, languages and identities, have been questioned in the past. The challenge that lies in our hands today concerns the way to reassert a culture that used to be devalued and languages that are endangered.

But challenge also means to stimulate the contemporary reassessment of traditions. For example, it evokes calling into question new premises about defining Sámi traditions. It also influences existing Sámi traditions through their changing shape and forces of adaptation. All of which create new challenges for existing ideas, assumptions and the natural order of things.

Therefore, combining the concepts of “challenge” and  “traditions” focuses the dynamism of traditions on their ability to change, adapt and acquire new and different meanings.

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