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The Invention of Tradition by Eric Hobsbawm

The Invention of Tradition (1983)

by Eric Hobsbawm (Editor), Terence Ranger (Editor)

Other authors: David Cannadine (Contributor), Bernard S. Cohn (Contributor), Prys Morgan (Contributor), H. R. Trevor-Roper (Contributor)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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677722,716 (3.97)10
Many of the traditions which we think of as very ancient in their origins were not in fact sanctioned by long usage over the centuries, but were invented comparatively recently. This book explores examples of this process of invention - the creation of Welsh and Scottish 'national culture'; the elaboration of British royal rituals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; the origins of imperial rituals in British India and Africa; and the attempts by radical movements to develop counter-traditions of their own. It addresses the complex interaction of past and present, bringing together historians and anthropologists in a fascinating study of ritual and symbolism which poses new questions for the understanding of our history.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
This very influential collection of essays grew out of a conference organised by Past & Present, the academic journal Hobsbawm co-founded. The contributors look into some of the ways that nations and other social groups have created, or attempted to create, new "traditions" that look back to some more-or-less fictitious glorious past, and the purposes that these invented traditions serve.

The way this process works is perhaps seen at its bluntest and most absurd extreme in Hugh Trevor-Roper's opening essay on Scotland, where there was a clear need to define a distinct national identity after the political upheavals of the 17th and 18th centuries. Bizarrely, most of the cultural symbols adopted as "Scottish" were not drawn from mainstream Scots culture but from an exotic, fringe minority that was completely foreign to most Scots, the Catholic, Gaelic-speaking, harp-playing highlanders, who had up to that point drawn their cultural identity mostly from Ireland. Moreover, most of these adopted symbols turn out to have been either blatant forgeries like Macpherson's "Poems of Ossian" or new ideas introduced to the highlands by outsiders after the Stuart rebellions (kilts, tartans, bagpipes, etc.). Trevor-Roper very neatly exposes where all these things came from, and how they came to be reinforced as "Scottish traditions" through their adoption by Queen Victoria (and Sir Walter Scott, who should have known better, and regretted it afterwards...). It would perhaps have been nice to have a bit more explanation about how they still persist in the popular image of Scotland, even though "everyone knows" how bogus they are.

Prys Morgan does a similar kind of hatchet job on Wales, looking into the reinvention of the "druidic tradition" in the 18th and 19th century and its later extinction in the appropriation of notions of Welshness by Methodists and Socialists, and David Cannadine does what he does best by picking out the way the British royal family rediscovered the uses of royal ceremonial from the 1870s on (and the interesting way that the ceremonial became more important and more "traditional" in direct proportion to the decline of the political influence of the crown).

Another, perhaps less obvious, aspect of the uses of tradition is covered by Bernard S Cohn's essay on India after 1858 and Terence Ranger's piece on colonial Africa: Britain and other colonial powers arbitrarily reinvented the pre-colonial past of the territories they were ruling in order to create a "traditional" hook to define their right to political power, in the process often making fixed hierarchical structures out of relationships of authority that had previously been much more fluid and dynamic, and leaving a mess for their post-colonial successors to sort out. One interesting aspect of this that Ranger picks up is the way that invented colonial traditions provided structure and status for people like soldiers, teachers, bureaucrats and ministers of religion, but did nothing for productive workers (where there were strong working-class traditions, e.g. in South African mines, they were carefully kept exclusive to white skilled workers).

Hobsbawm concludes the book with an essay on Europe between 1870 and 1914, where he looks at the ways new polities like the German Empire and the French Second Republic selectively used "historical" symbols to define themselves, and at the rapid development of new class-based traditions, including of course his old favourite, the invention of the 1st of May as a workers' holiday, but also looking into the role of sport, where there were clearly separate developments for working-class (professional soccer, cycle racing) and middle-class (tennis, golf). Another way the (upper-)middle-class defined itself was through education, and Hobsbawm also charts the development of Greek-letter fraternities in the US, the student Korps in Germany, and the "old-school-tie" network in Britain, all of which saw a rapid acceleration during this period.

The essays are very interesting in themselves, and all the contributors are capable, lively writers. The concept of "invented tradition" has embedded itself into mainstream history long ago, so there's not much that you are likely to find radical and shocking any more 35 years on, but this is certainly a book that it's still worth reading. Even if you take the line that the question is rather academic because all traditions are human inventions at some point in their history, this stuff still matters, because people around the world are still justifying unpleasant acts and attitudes with the argument that "it's our tradition". If you have an understanding of where traditions come from, you are in a better position to challenge (or defend) such things. ( )
1 vote thorold | Jul 26, 2018 |
Os autores dos ensaios desse livro mostram como tradições que consideramos antigas foram na verdade inventadas em tempos relativamente recentes. E como isso foi utilizado para inventar uma coesão social, para legitimar instituições e para inculcar comportamentos e códigos de conduta. Os autores se concentram no Império Britânico - com trechos excelentes sobre as highlands escocesas e sobre os rituais que cercam a monarquia - mas a provocativa expressão tradição inventada tem sido usada para falar de outros temas, como as artes marciais no Japão e as grandes religiões. ( )
  JuliaBoechat | Mar 30, 2013 |
Not the worst of it's kind but there were parts that just dragged.

This is a selection of essays about the invention of tradition, largely in the 19th Century.

Starts with an introduction by Eric Hobsbawm which is pretty dry. The enthusiasm that Hugh Trevor-Roper has for his topic of Highland Tradition of Scotland made things quite readable. Prys Morgan's view of the Welsh is good but drier, David Cannadine's look at the crowning of the royals in England was quite timely for me, as I just visited London and they both complimented each other. The last three were quite dry and I almost didn't finish reading them, still there were interesting in their own ways.

Bernard S Cohn writes about the invention of tradition in colonial India to keep authority and Terence Ranger's piece on Africa are interesting studies in slightly contrasting and slightly differing methods of work. The last by Eric Hobsbawm touches on how the era produced so many traditions and how many of these have persisted to this day.

It's not a bad book but it isn't quite as populist as I really wanted from the topic. Still if it's something you're studying it's probably quite a good read. ( )
1 vote wyvernfriend | Jun 4, 2009 |
All traditions were new once upon a time. This book shows us that some of them are younger than we believe. It also shows us why we invent tradtions. Sometimes the reason is political, and sometimes we need these traditions to define our own identity as a member of a group.

Overall a good book, but some essays are more interesting than others. And some essays have very interesting topics but lack in detail or style. I liked the ones about Scottish tradition and the ceremonies of the English monarchy best. ( )
  Rodo | Apr 29, 2009 |
some of its chapters, especially those by Hobsbawm and Ranger, are gems. A necessary demystification of the tradition thing, now almost mainstream in progressive academia ( )
  experimentalis | Jan 3, 2008 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hobsbawm, EricEditorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ranger, TerenceEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Cannadine, DavidContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cohn, Bernard S.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Morgan, PrysContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Trevor-Roper, H. R.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cavalcante, Celina CardimTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vivier, ChristineTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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