Milton Singer and Cultural Performance

Singer, M. (1972). When a Great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological Approach to Modern Civilization. New York, Washington, London: Praeger Publishers.

In this collection, Milton Singer proposed the theory of cultural performance and how it referred to a unit of analysis to circumscribe “plays, concerts, and lectures . . . but also prayers, ritual readings and recitations, rites and ceremonies, festivals, and all those things we usually classify under religion and ritual rather than with the cultural and artistic” (p. 71).

Throughout the book, Singer is writing against the Western ethnocentrism that had taken over analytical thought. Cultures, people, practices were all being compared with Western lens. Singer often repeats the advice to “look at another culture in its own terms” (3). India was his field site and quite a useful one for wrestling ethnocentrism. Singer historizes the different ways the Western gaze has thought about India and how that has informed policies and cultural reflections (20-25).

40-41: this shift to considering culture on its own terms is a way of circumventing ascribed terms and organization from the West.

Great traditions represent a formalized, complex set of values (e.g. orthodox, mainstream religions) with historical appeal. Little traditions are local, often peasant-based, oral, and informal. Great tradition Hinduism would constitute a primary civilization by contrast with other great traditions such as Spanish Catholicism in Latin America. A Little Tradition is one that grows within the primary civilization. It is the outcome of the largely unreflective mass of people and keeps going in the lives of people through oral transmission. “[A] Great Tradition implies that it is a learned and literate tradition, preserving and developing the dominant systems of thought and value of a civilization” (55).

71- “As I observed the range of cultural performances…it seemed to me that my Indian friends…thought of their culture as encapsulated in these discrete performances, which they could exhibit to visitors and to themselves. The performances became for me the elementary constituents of the culture and the ultimate units of observation.”

This shift in analysis helped Singer identify the cultural stage, cultural specialists, the social organization of culture, and cultural media (72-77). Revivals of cultural performances are reflections of changes in “cultural policy, cultural leadership, and organization” (144). These changes inform what is proper and improper behavior.

“In India, religion includes culture and culture includes religion” (148). Cultural performance then became a useful way for Singer to observe and study religion and culture at the same time. From 162-185, Singer dissects music, films, and dance performances within Indian culture. He concludes that “Little and Great Traditions are not neatly differentiated along a village-urban axis. Both kinds of tradition are found in villages and in the city in different forms.” (185). Cultural change then is really a shift in values (187).

Still, Singer battles the modern vs. traditional dichotomy that exists in academia at the time. Cultural change is associated with temporal measurements that get associated with being modern or traditional. To circumvent this, Singer suggests contextualizing the cultural performance. For example, “the processes of Sanskritization and de-Sanskritization involve, in other words, an essential reference to a particular set of cultural norms or values, which takes us beyond the temporal dimension, linear or cyclical.  Since these norms will vary for different groups and change over time for the same group, it is necessary in analyzing such processes to specify both the group and the time during which the norms in question prevail” (194).

The other big takeaway from Singer is how he debunks the idea that India can never be economically/industrially modern because of the country’s ties to religion and tradition. Singer finds this to be an incorrect assumption and argues that new inventions actually just go through a series of localized, cultural tests to find its place in society (399). Moreover, traditional cultural practices get modernize and refashioned to meet new needs of society (400).


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