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Epic and Identity: National, Regional, Communal, Individual

Lauri Honko

As late as 1981 Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish
ethnologists and folklorists introduced a debate on the analytical value of the
concept of “tradition” at their triennial Nordic conference (Honko and
Laaksonen 1983:233-49). It was stated that this key term in cultural studies
had remained largely unexplored for far too long. One of the reasons for the
new interest in this concept was a perceptible change in the research climate:
people in the traditional communities to be studied had begun to employ the
term in relation to certain parts of their own cultural heritage. This
emancipation of previous “informants” into “co-researchers” brought about
the need to survey the meanings of “tradition” in scholarly contexts.
The ethnologists and folklorists present at the meeting agreed that the
term was used in three different ways, firstly, “tradition as something that is
handed down in a continuous process of transmission.” This meaning was
the least interesting of the three, because it reflected only the most common
everyday usage found in dictionaries. It seemed to lack analytic power; that
is, it was not problematic in a fruitful way. The second meaning, “tradition
as the stuff out of which cultures are made and which we have deposited in
our folklore archives,” was problematic because it raised the question of
how tradition and culture relate to each other. Tradition was seen as a
haphazard collection of material and immaterial items. The third meaning,
“tradition as something representative of a social group (based on selection
by members of the group or by outside agents),” proved to be the actual core
of the debate. As in the previous case, an additional term offered itself—
“group identity.” The third meaning clearly referred to those elements in the
traditions of a group that signify the group’s typicality, its character and
possibly uniqueness.

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