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Explaining Traditions

Folk Behavior in Modern Culture

Simon J. Bronner

Publication Year: 2011

Why do humans hold onto traditions? Many pundits predicted that modernization and the rise of a mass culture would displace traditions, especially in America, but cultural practices still bear out the importance of rituals and customs in the development of identity, heritage, and community. In Explaining Traditions: Folk Behavior in Modern Culture, Simon J. Bronner discusses the underlying reasons for the continuing significance of traditions, delving into their social and psychological roles in everyday life, from old-time crafts to folk creativity on the Internet. Challenging prevailing notions of tradition as a relic of the past, Explaining Traditions provides deep insight into the nuances and purposes of living traditions in relation to modernity. Bronner’s work forces readers to examine their own traditions and imparts a better understanding of raging controversies over the sustainability of traditions in the modern world.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front cover

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List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

I have dedicated this work to Michael Owen Jones, professor emeritus of folkloristics and history at UCLA, to credit him as no endnote tucked into the back of a book can. It is not a single book I cite in honoring his contribution to what he calls a behavioristic approach to the study of tradition, although I admit to having an “ah-ha” moment in ...

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Prologue: Beginning with Tradition

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pp. 1-12

In this book I propose to make sense of tradition. My approach counters the hasty academic relegation of tradition to nonsense, or the supposed tyranny of the archaic, pastoral past that inexplicably has hung around to the present cosmopolitan day. Well into the modern age, banner-bearers for progress have declared the hindrance of tradition ...

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1. Defining Tradition: On the Making and Politics of a "Handy" Concept

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pp. 13-62

Pick up a paper. There you are likely to read columnists who express astonishment that traditions associated with “the way things were” persist, no less get nurtured by folks today. These reporters immersed in and, indeed, promoting events new and now take pen in hand to ac-count for a supposedly improbable situation of a traditional turn. Bas-...

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2. Explaining Tradition: On Folk and Folkoristic Logic

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pp. 63-92

Not long after antiquarian William Thoms coined the term folklore in 1846, to spur the collection of British “manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, etc., of the olden time,” fellow Englishman Edwin Sidney Hartland clarified—indeed, encouraged—the professional pursuit of folklore as first the “study of tradition” and then the ...

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3. Building Tradition: On Control and Authority in Vernacular Architecture

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pp. 93-137

Eminently visible, persistent, and complex, buildings are objects that enclose people rather than objects they grasp with their hands, but residents often claim to be handy not only by maintaining their structures but also by gaining a sense of ownership (see Goldstein 1998; Jones 1980b). People use bodily rhetoric to refer to their enclosures; their ...

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4. Making Tradition: On Craft in American Consciousness

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pp. 138-195

Americans’ complicated attitude toward tradition is wrapped up in the connotations of craft in the transition from a preindustrial to a postindustrial society. The Oxford English Dictionary asserts that the transference of craft from the Teutonic root for “strength” or “force” to “skill, art, skilled occupation” appears to be exclusively English. My argument ...

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5. Adapting Tradition: On Folklore in Human Development

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pp. 196-247

What are we to make of the startling variety and intensity of folklore among American children today? Was not this material supposed to be dead and gone, replaced by a swirling array of electronic devices to keep children isolated and glued to screens, partaking of entertainment dished out by corporate America? Rhymes, taunts, jokes, and games fa-...

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6. Fading Tradition: On a Dying Language and Lore

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pp. 248-281

Why would a group transplanted to a new place and concerned about preserving its traditions not pass down its lore to the next generation? That question troubled me because I had to account for a situation that broke with the prevalent presumption among professional observers of traditions, or ethnographers, that elders in a community seek to engage ...

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7. Personalizing Tradition: On Storytelling by an African American Father and Son

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pp. 282-318

Eugene Powell answered my knock on his rickety door with little emotion. He had not known I was coming just then, but he confidently said to me, “I’ve been expecting you. Come on in and sit.” The row of black faces assembled in his parlor looked suspiciously at us. Eugene felt their stares and offered, “He’s here to learn about me!” With that, the men ...

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8. Symbolizing Tradition: On the Scatology of an Ethnic Identity

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pp. 319-349

Mahlon Hellerich strode to the podium to talk about Pennsylvania German (or, in his folk usage, Dutch, from the dialect Deitsch) culture to a gathering of the Pennsylvania German Society in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The audience did not need lecturing about the history of the group, since it comprised many people who, like him, ...

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9. Sporting Tradition: On the Praxis of American Football

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pp. 350-397

Ironically, people refer to play as a chance to “let go,” meaning the suspension of the usual, even as the guidelines they apply to their fun and games derive from everyday life. In modern culture, characterized by corporate routine and the passive reception of entertainment, many traditions are cognitively perceived as special occasions for participa-...

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10. Virtual Tradition: On the Internet as a Folk System

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pp. 398-449

Many people believe that traditions are all about being natural. In this view, traditions are down home, out in the fields, or back in the woods, where socializing, ritualizing, and storytelling occur unencumbered by machines or corporations. They raise images of family gathered around the dinner table at holidays or the neighborhood gang play-...


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pp. 451-458


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pp. 459-508


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pp. 509-530

E-ISBN-13: 9780813134079
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813134062

Page Count: 544
Illustrations: 49 illustrations
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Communication in folklore -- United States.
  • Oral tradition -- United States.
  • Folklore -- United States.
  • United States -- Social life and customs.
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