Great and Little Tradition Essay

1881 Words May 6th, 2011 8 Pages

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
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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

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