In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Invention of Tradition

  • Introduction

African Studies Invention of Tradition
Thomas Spear
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0002


“Tradition” is one of the most vexed concepts in African historiography, often criticized for conveying the sense of backward societies mired in an unchanging past, but traditions change as older ideas and practices are reconceptualized in accord with current historical problems in an ongoing process of reinterpretation and reformulation. Since the early 1980s, it has become common to see traditions and related traditional institutions, such as tribes, chieftaincy, and customary law, as not traditional at all but as “invented” or “created” by European colonial authorities and missionaries colluding with African elders to establish colonial hegemony. Studies of “the creation of tribalism” have shown how territorially defined political units supplanted earlier, more fluid social groups and were given substance by standardized languages, ethnographies, and collections of folklore, the experiences of urban migrants, and the reorganization of local polities into ethnically based, colonial native authorities. Colonial chiefs were inventions in two senses: first, the men colonial authorities appointed often lacked traditional legitimacy, and second, the positions to which they were appointed were either created by the colonial administration or had been so corrupted by its demands that they no longer represented legitimate patterns of authority. Finally, analyses of the “making of customary law” have shown how colonial authorities, missionaries, and African elders cobbled together local customs, colonial law, Christian morality, and administrative regulations, codified them, and made them enforceable by authoritarian chiefs, contrary to negotiated precolonial political practices. What these concepts share is a common emphasis on the social construction and instrumentality of tradition, law, and ethnicity by colonial authorities, ostensibly to preserve tradition and social order, while in reality subordinating African societies to colonial rule. These constructions were rarely without local historical precedents, however, and they had to be perceived as legitimate to be effective. Local discourse played a vital role as people continually reinterpreted and reconstructed tradition in the context of broader socioeconomic changes. And colonial policies often stimulated rather than stilled conflict in the ongoing politics of neo-traditionalism. Far from being created by alien rulers, then, tradition was reinterpreted, reformed, and reconstructed by subjects and rulers alike.

The Problem of Tradition in African Studies

“Tradition” is a contentious concept in African studies. Long taken as denoting a fixed, unchanging past, it has come to be seen more recently as infinitely malleable, by colonial officials and Africans alike, to strengthen and legitimize their rule.

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