Great and Little Tradition

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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 book, 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 Redfield’s protégé McKim Marriott (1955) who contrasted Indian village religion with the Sanskritic 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 ‘parochialization’. 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 (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...
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