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Invented tradition

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"Ancient" Scottish clan tartans are an example of an invented tradition created in the 19th century.

Invented traditions are cultural practices that are presented or perceived as traditional, arising from the people starting in the distant past, but which are relatively recent and often even consciously invented by identifiable historical actors. The concept was highlighted in the 1983 book The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger.[1] Hobsbawm's introduction argues that many "traditions" which "appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented."[2] This "invention" is distinguished from "starting" or "initiating" a tradition that does not then claim to be old. The phenomenon is particularly clear in the modern development of the nation and of nationalism, creating a national identity promoting national unity, and legitimising certain institutions or cultural practices.[3]

Application of the term and paradox[edit]

The concept has been applied to cultural phenomena such as neo-Druidism in Britain,[4] tartanry in Scotland,[5] the traditions of major religions,[6][7] some Korean martial arts such as Taekwondo,[8] and some Japanese martial arts, such as judo.[9] It has influenced related concepts such as Benedict Anderson's imagined communities and the pizza effect.[10]

Indeed, the sharp distinction between "tradition" and "modernity" is often itself invented. The concept is "highly relevant to that comparatively recent historical innovation, the 'nation', with its associated phenomena: nationalism, the nation-state, national symbols, histories, and the rest." Hobsbawm and Ranger remark on the "curious but understandable paradox: modern nations and all their impedimenta generally claim to be the opposite of novel, namely rooted in remotest antiquity, and the opposite of constructed, namely human communities so 'natural' as to require no definition other than self-assertion."[11] The concept of authenticity is also often questionable.


Pseudo-folklore or fakelore is inauthentic, manufactured folklore presented as if it were genuinely traditional. The term can refer to new stories or songs made up, or to folklore that is reworked and modified for modern tastes. The element of misrepresentation is central; artists who draw on traditional stories in their work are not producing fakelore unless they claim that their creations are real folklore.[12] Over the last decades the term has generally fallen out of favor in folklore studies because it places an emphasis on origin instead of practice to determine authenticity.

The term fakelore was coined in 1950 by American folklorist Richard M. Dorson[12] in his article "Folklore and Fake Lore" published in The American Mercury. Dorson's examples included the fictional cowboy Pecos Bill, who was presented as a folk hero of the American West but was actually invented by the writer Edward S. O'Reilly in 1923. Dorson also regarded Paul Bunyan as fakelore. Although Bunyan originated as a character in traditional tales told by loggers in the Great Lakes region of North America, William B. Laughead (1882–1958), an ad writer working for the Red River Lumber Company, invented many of the stories about him that are known today. According to Dorson, advertisers and popularizers turned Bunyan into a "pseudo folk hero of twentieth-century mass culture" who bore little resemblance to the original.[13]

Folklorismus also refers to the invention or adaptation of folklore. Unlike fakelore, however, folklorismus is not necessarily misleading; it includes any use of a tradition outside the cultural context in which it was created. The term was first used in the early 1960s by German scholars, who were primarily interested in the use of folklore by the tourism industry. However, professional art based on folklore, TV commercials with fairy tale characters, and even academic studies of folklore are all forms of folklorism.[14][15]

Connection to folklore[edit]

The term fakelore is often used by those who seek to expose or debunk modern reworkings of folklore, including Dorson himself, who spoke of a "battle against fakelore".[16] Dorson complained that popularizers had sentimentalized folklore, stereotyping the people who created it as quaint and whimsical[12] – whereas the real thing was often "repetitive, clumsy, meaningless and obscene".[17] He contrasted the genuine Paul Bunyan tales, which had been so full of technical logging terms that outsiders would find parts of them difficult to understand, with the commercialized versions, which sounded more like children's books. The original Paul Bunyan had been shrewd and sometimes ignoble; one story told how he cheated his men out of their pay. Mass culture provided a sanitized Bunyan with a "spirit of gargantuan whimsy [that] reflects no actual mood of lumberjacks".[13] Daniel G. Hoffman said that Bunyan, a folk hero, had been turned into a mouthpiece for capitalists: "This is an example of the way in which a traditional symbol has been used to manipulate the minds of people who had nothing to do with its creation."[18]

Others have argued that professionally created art and folklore are constantly influencing each other and that this mutual influence should be studied rather than condemned.[19] For example, Jon Olson, a professor of anthropology, reported that while growing up he heard Paul Bunyan stories that had originated as lumber company advertising.[20] Dorson had seen the effect of print sources on orally transmitted Paul Bunyan stories as a form of cross-contamination that "hopelessly muddied the lore".[13] For Olson, however, "the point is that I personally was exposed to Paul Bunyan in the genre of a living oral tradition, not of lumberjacks (of which there are precious few remaining), but of the present people of the area."[20] What was fakelore had become folklore again.

Responding to his opponents' argument that the writers have the same claim as the original folk storytellers, Dorson writes that the difference amounts to the difference between traditional culture and mass culture.[12]


One reviewer (Peter Burke) noted that the "'invention of tradition' is a splendidly subversive phrase", but it "hides serious ambiguities". Hobsbawm "contrasts invented traditions with what he calls 'the strength and adaptability of genuine traditions'. But where does his 'adaptability', or his colleague Ranger's 'flexibility' end, and invention begin? Given that all traditions change, is it possible or useful to attempt to discriminate the 'genuine' antiques from the fakes?"[21] Another also praised the high quality of the articles but had qualifications. "Such distinctions" (between invented and authentic traditions) "resolve themselves ultimately into one between the genuine and the spurious, a distinction that may be untenable because all traditions (like all symbolic phenomena) are humanly created ('spurious') rather than naturally given ('genuine')."[22] Pointing out that "invention entails assemblage, supplementation, and rearrangement of cultural practices so that in effect traditions can be preserved, invented, and reconstructed", Guy Beiner proposed that a more accurate term would be "reinvention of tradition", signifying "a creative process involving renewal, reinterpretation and revision".[23]

Examples of American fakelore[edit]

In addition to Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, Dorson identified the American folk hero Joe Magarac as fakelore.[13] Magarac, a fictional steelworker, first appeared in 1931 in a Scribner's Magazine story by the writer Owen Francis. He was a literal man of steel who made rails from molten metal with his bare hands; he refused an opportunity to marry to devote himself to working 24 hours a day, worked so hard that the mill had to shut down, and finally, in despair at enforced idleness, melted himself down in the mill's furnace to improve the quality of the steel. Francis said he heard this story from Croatian immigrant steelworkers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; he reported that they told him the word magarac was a compliment, then laughed and talked to each other in their own language, which he did not speak. The word actually means "donkey" in Croatian, and is an insult. Since no trace of the existence of Joe Magarac stories prior to 1931 has been discovered, Francis's informants may have made the character up as a joke on him. In 1998, Gilley and Burnett reported "only tentative signs that the Magarac story has truly made a substantive transformation from 'fake-' into 'folklore'", but noted his importance as a local cultural icon.[24]

Other American folk heroes that have been called fakelore include Old Stormalong, Febold Feboldson,[13] Big Mose, Tony Beaver, Bowleg Bill, Whiskey Jack, Annie Christmas, Cordwood Pete, Antonine Barada, and Kemp Morgan.[25] Marshall Fishwick describes these largely literary figures as imitations of Paul Bunyan.[26] Additionally, scholar Michael I. Niman describes the Legend of the Rainbow Warriors – a belief that a "new tribe" will inherit the ways of the Native Americans and save the planet – as an example of fakelore.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hobsbawm, Eric; Ranger, Terence, eds. (1983). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521246453.
  2. ^ Hobsbawm & Ranger (1983), p. 1.
  3. ^ The articles in the volume include Hugh Trevor-Roper's "The invention of tradition: the Highland tradition of Scotland," Prys Morgan's "From a death to a view: the hunt for the Welsh past in the romantic period," David Cannadine's "The context, performance, and meaning of ritual: the British monarchy and the 'invention of tradition', c. 1820-1977," Bernard S. Cohen's "Representing authority in Victorian India," Terence Ranger's "The invention of tradition in colonial Africa," and Eric Hobsbawm's "Mass-producing traditions: Europe, 1870-1914."
  4. ^ Hutton, Ronald (3 November 2008). "Modern Pagan Festivals: A Study in the Nature of Tradition". Folklore. 119 (3). Taylor Francis: 251–273. doi:10.1080/00155870802352178. S2CID 145003549.
  5. ^ Sievers, Marco (2007–2010). The Highland Myth as an Invented Tradition of 18th and 19th Century and Its Significance for the Image of Scotland. GRIN Verlag. ISBN 978-3-638-81651-9.
  6. ^ Masuzawa, Tomoko (2005). The Invention of World Religions. Chicago University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-50989-1.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  7. ^ Nur Masalha (2007). The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Post-Colonialism in Palestine-Israel. London; New York: Zed Books. LCCN 2006-31826. ISBN 978-1-84277-761-9.
  8. ^ Moenig, Udo; Kim, Minho (2016). "The Invention of Taekwondo Tradition, 1945–1972: When Mythology becomes 'History'". Acta Koreana. 19 (2): 131–164. doi:10.18399/acta.2016.19.2.006. ISSN 2733-5348. S2CID 193690675.
  9. ^ Inoue Shun, "The Invention of the Martial Arts: Kanō Jigorō and Kōdōkan Judo", pp. 163-173 in Stephen Vlastos (ed.). Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  10. ^ Anderson, Benedict. "The origins of national consciousness". Nationalism: Critical Concepts in Political Science 1 (2000): 316, p. 37.
  11. ^ Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger (1983), p. 13-14.
  12. ^ a b c d Dorson, Richard M. (1977). American Folklore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 4. ISBN 0-226-15859-4.
  13. ^ a b c d e Dorson (1977), 214–226.
  14. ^ Newall, Venetia J. (1987). "The Adaptation of Folklore and Tradition (Folklorismus)". Folklore. 98 (2): 131–151. doi:10.1080/0015587x.1987.9716408. JSTOR 1259975.
  15. ^ Kendirbaeva, Gulnar (1994). "Folklore and Folklorism in Kazakhstan". Asian Folklore Studies. 53 (1): 97–123. doi:10.2307/1178561. JSTOR 1178561.
  16. ^ Dorson, Richard M. (1973). "Is Folklore a Discipline?". Folklore. 84 (3): 177–205. doi:10.1080/0015587x.1973.9716514. JSTOR 1259723.
  17. ^ Dorson, Richard M. (1963). "Current Folklore Theories". Current Anthropology. 4 (1): 101. doi:10.1086/200339. JSTOR 2739820. S2CID 143464386.
  18. ^ Ball, John; George Herzog; Thelma James; Louis C. Jones; Melville J. Herskovits; Wm. Hugh Jansen; Richard M. Dorson; Alvin W. Wolfe; Daniel G. Hoffman (1959). "Discussion from the Floor". Journal of American Folklore. 72 (285): 233–241. doi:10.2307/538134. JSTOR 538134.
  19. ^ Olson, Jon (1976). "Film Reviews". Western Folklore. 35 (3): 233–237. doi:10.2307/1498351. JSTOR 1498351. According to Newall, 133, the German folklorist Hermann Bausinger expressed a similar view.
  20. ^ a b Olson, 235.
  21. ^ Burke, Peter (1986). "Review of The Invention of Tradition". The English Historical Review. 101 (398): 316–317. ISSN 0013-8266. JSTOR 571469.
  22. ^ Handler, Richard (1984). "Review of The Invention of Tradition". American Anthropologist. 86 (4): 1025–1026. doi:10.1525/aa.1984.86.4.02a00380. ISSN 0002-7294. JSTOR 679222.
  23. ^ Beiner, Guy (2007). Remembering the Year of the French Irish Folk History and Social Memory. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 272. ISBN 978-0-299-21824-9.
  24. ^ Gilley, Jennifer; Stephen Burnett (November 1998). "Deconstructing and Reconstructing Pittsburgh's Man of Steel: Reading Joe Magarac against the Context of the 20th-Century Steel Industry". The Journal of American Folklore. 111 (442): 392–408. doi:10.2307/541047. JSTOR 541047.
  25. ^ American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Harold Brunvand, Taylor & Francis, 1996, p. 1105
  26. ^ Fishwick, Marshall W. (1959). "Sons of Paul: Folklore or Fakelore?". Western Folklore. 18 (4): 277–286. doi:10.2307/1497745. JSTOR 1497745.
  27. ^ Niman, Michael I. 1997. People of the Rainbow: A Nomadic Utopia, pp. 131-148. University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 0-87049-988-2

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