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Informative, but somewhat misguided
on February 13, 2001
The basic thesis of all essays in "The Invention of Tradition" is that many of the mass, public traditions in various societies of the world (from Scottish kilts to the very concept of tribes in Africa) are well-crafted ("invented") constructs of the 18th/19th centuries, and are not as ancient or immemorial as they are generally believed to be. Parenthetically, the very expression "invention of tradition" is somewhat redundant, since all traditions, as products of human behavior and human imagination rather than the result of natural forces, are invented in one way or another. All of the essays in the book show how this is so, providing an excellent analysis of the origins of these traditions. As such they are very valuable contributions to contemporary social/political history. However, although the tone of the book is that such "invented traditions" were frequently almost imposed and/or used as instruments of political manipulation, it can't be denied that they also very often gave expression to very real feelings - as editor Hobsbawm concedes in his concluding essay. Thus, rather than demonstrating some sort of arbitrary "invention" and manipulation, Prys Morgan's chapter on the Welsh also shows how previous traditions in Wales were revived, reformulated and continuously adapted from the late seventeenth century on to meet various political, social and cultural challenges, thus making the process of invention seem quite "natural." On the other hand, Terence Ranger's essay on Africa is almost disturbing in that it seems to imply that almost every aspect of African politics and society today were bequethed by the continent's former European colonial masters. Hugh Trevor-Roper's chapter on Scotland is useful in that it pinpoints the exact origins of the "highland tradition" and all outer, visual identity markers used by the Scots, but the overall implication seems to be that now that the sham is revealed, the Scots should discard their kilts and bagpipes in shame. It would have been more useful if he had provided an explanation of why Scottish patriots, and others, so eagerly accepted these "invented traditions," and why they are so deeply entrenched and stronger than ever today. This goes for the entire book: it's main value may be in (unitentionally) showing how all traditions are in fact invented in one way or another, and that they become traditions because, at least at the time of their inception, they serve strongly felt political, social, cultural or even economic needs.