The Invention of Tradition

'Invented traditions' in history

In a now classic book containing a theoretical introduction by Eric Hobsbawm and a selection of case-studies, six historians and anthropologists argued that traditions which appear or claim to be ancient can be quite recent in origin and were sometimes literally invented in a single event or over a short time period (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). In his introduction, Eric Hobsbawm defined 'invented traditions' as follows (1983: 1f.):

"'Invented tradition' is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past.... However, insofar as there is such reference to a historic past, the peculiarity of 'invented' traditions is that the continuity with it is largely fictitious. In short, they are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition."

Hobsbawm stated that there is probably no time and place which has not seen the 'invention' of tradition, although he also argued that invented traditions occured more frequently at times of rapid social transformation when 'old' traditions were disappearing. He therefore expected an especially large number of 'new' traditions to be invented over the past two centuries, in both 'traditional' and 'modern' societies (Hobsbawm 1983: 4f.). One good example is the invention of ancient Welsh traditions, such as the Gorsedd Circles (see image right), during the first half of the 19th century, which is discussed in the same volume. But Hobsbawm made it clear that also much more small-scale and perhaps less dramatic novelties qualify as 'invented traditions'. He mentioned not only adaptations and new uses of old traditions for new purposes, but also the re-use of ancient elements in new contexts. 'Extinct' traditions too can become '(re-)invented traditions', when they are revived (1983: 5–8).

Hobsbawm distinguished between three types of invented traditions which each have a distinctive function: a) those establishing or symbolising social cohesion and collective identities, b) those establishing or legitimatising institutions and social hierarchies, and c) those socialising people into particular social contexts; the first type has been most commonly referred to and often taken to imply the two other functions as well (Hobsbawm 1983: 9).

Hobsbawm argued that all invented traditions use references to the past not only for the cementation of group cohesion but also for the legitimation of action, and that historians in the present should become much more aware of such political uses of their work in the public sphere (1983: 12f.). This point can easily be extended to include archaeologists whose studies of the distant past can prove especially crucial in modern political contexts such as the negotiations of national and ethnic identities.

'Making history' in anthropology and history

In recent years, anthropologists too have developed a strong interest in the construction of the past and the invention of traditions in non-Western cultures (e.g. Friedman 1992; Hughes and Trautmann 1995). In an article entitled "Making History", Peel argued (1984) that the Ijesha in Nigeria made up historical references in order to strengthen specific political interests. Similarly, Robert Borofsky showed in a famous book entitled Making history (1987: esp. chapter 5), how 'ancient traditions' of an island community in the Pacific were invented during the 1970s—between the visits of two anthropologists. Another case-study has been given by Arjun Appadurai (1981) who discussed how different pasts are constructed in a south Indian temple; he argued at the same time that the past is never infinitely susceptible to contemporary invention but constrained by a set of formal norms which govern the discourse about the past.

Thomas Hauschild showed in his study of a community and its St. Donatus cult in southern Italy (1992) that traditions are also being invented in contemporary Europe. Likewise, the Popular Memory Group (1982) investigated how the past is constructed in popular memory in Britain. Their approach, which was informed by the 'Oral History' movement within the discipline of History, is summed up in the following quote (p. 207, link added):

"We must include all the ways in which a sense of the past is constructed in our society. These do not necessarily take a written or literary form. Still less do they conform to academic standards or canons of truthfulness. Academic history has a particular place in a much larger process. We will call this 'the social production of memory'. In this collective production everyone participates, though unequally. Everyone, in this sense, is a historian."

In this view, history and memory become closely related aspects of one and the same phenomenon of making sense of the past in the present.

Invented traditions in later prehistory

In this thesis, I use the concept of 'invented traditions' in relation to later prehistoric societies. Phenomena such as secondary burials, a seeming continuity of grave architecture, and the imitation of burial mounds can be interpreted as indications for invented traditions and constructions of the past. As Richard Bradley and John Chapman (1997) have convincingly shown, such practices could establish collective identities and legitimate power and value systems among later communities in prehistoric Europe (see also Evans 1985: 85–89). In this sense, meaningful interpretations of the past—and the origins of history?—are considerably older than the beginnings of historiography in the eastern Mediterranean region.

In the 'Holy Land', early Christians, including the writers of the gospels, probably tried to fortify their collective memories of events in the life of Jesus by connecting them with locations that were already meaningful in the Jewish religious tradition of the Old Testament (Halbwachs 1992: 213–219). Ancient monuments in the landscape, e.g. megaliths, could similarly be drawn upon by later generations of people in order to construct a believable past of their own, e.g. in material culture narratives.


Appadurai, Arjun (1981) The past as a scarce resource. Man (N.S.) 16, 201-219.

Borofsky, Robert (1987) Making history. Pukapukan and anthropological construction of knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chapman, John (1997) Places as timemarks—the social construction of prehistoric landscapes in Eastern Hungary. In G.Nash (ed.) Semiotics of Landscape: Archaeology of Mind, pp. 31-45. British Archaeological Reports, International Series 661. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Evans, Christopher (1985) Tradition and the cultural landscape: an archaeology of place. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 4(1), 80-94.

Friedman, Jonathan (1992) The Past in the Future: History and the Politics of Identity. American Anthropologist 94(4) 837-859.

Halbwachs, Maurice (1992) The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land: Conclusion. In: M.Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, pp. 191-235. Edited, translated, and introduced by L. A. Coser. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Hauschild, Thomas (1992) Making history in southern Italy. In: K.Hastrup (ed.) Other Histories, pp. 29-44. London and New York: Routledge.

Hobsbawm, Eric (1983) Introduction: Inventing Tradition. In: Hobsbawm and Ranger, pp. 1-14.

Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger (eds) (1983) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hughes, Diane O. and Thomas R.Trautmann (eds) (1995) Time. Histories and Ethnologies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Peel, J.D.Y. (1984) Making history: the past in the Ijesha present. Man (N.S.) 19, 111-132.

Popular Memory Group (1982) Popular memory: theory, politics, method. In: R. Johnson, G. McLennan, B. Schwarz, and D. Sutton (eds) Making Histories. Studies in history-writing and politics, pp. 205-252. London etc.: Hutchinson.

© Cornelius Holtorf