Practice Question – Write short note with a sociological perspective – Interaction of ‘little tradition’ and ‘great tradition’. [UPSC 2012]

Approach – Introduction, Explain Little and Great Traditions, How do they interact?, Illustrate your point with examples, Critique and Conclusion.



The whole of Indian culture can be studied with the help of these two concepts ‘Little tradition’ and “Great tradition”. These two concepts are based on the idea that the civilization and social organisation have a tradition. For analyzing the relationship and the ceaseless interaction between rural and urban societies, the concepts of little and great traditions, which Redfield proposed on the basis of his study of Mexican communities, have been found to be quite useful. 



  • The tradition of the little community is known as ‘little tradition’. It may be defined as:
    · The tradition of the unlettered (i.e.. non-literate and illiterate) many people inhabiting a particular area,
    · Who are unreflective, i.e. they do not critically examine or comment upon it, and accept it as it is;
    · This tradition is cultivated at home; and
    · Is transmitted from one generation to the next as part of the process of socialization.



  • The tradition of the literati is known as the ‘great tradition’, which has the following characteristics:
    · It is the tradition of the lettered people who are few in number.
    · They are reflective, i.e. they think about the tradition, make it sophisticated and systematize it, thus making it universal.
    · This tradition is cultivated in separate and distinct institutions, such as temples, mosques, churches, synagogues, etc.
    · It is transmitted as a part of the specialized, rigorous, and long learning, in which the individual is expected to internalize the tradition correctly.

If the little tradition is of villagers and the unlettered people of cities, the elites and scholars, such as the Brahmins, Imams, priests, rabbis, etc., guard the great tradition. The tradition of these scholar-elites is universally held. At the same time it is to be realized that little and great are ideal types, while in reality the situation is complex.



Society can be looked upon as a process, a series of interaction between human being where each person responds to the stimuli of other person. No social life is possible except such interaction and this communication is the basic to all social life. The whole human society and each group in the society can be viewed as the manifestation of the social processes between the interacting members. These interactions ultimately form the social structure and the norms, values and customs related with these social relationships determines the cultural aspects of human being. In Indian context the term culture has been derived from the Sanskrit word Sanskriti. Both the terms have been composed from the term sanskar, means satisfaction of total rituals, which may be applied to the ways of life for living common at any one time to all mankind. The term civilization is regarded as a changed or developed stage of culture. This was marked by the organisation of complexities, heterogeneities and certainties.

Little tradition and Great tradition interacts with each other and also these two are interdependent in India. The concepts of universalization and parochialisation also describe the process of cultural change implied by Sanskritisation, specially universalisation comes very close to the concept. Some of the social scientists feel that Indian society or culture could not be described fully with the help of little tradition and Great tradition.



Redfield’s approach is popularly known as the ‘cultural approach’, because he looks at the interaction of the lifestyles of the two communities, the village and the city. This interaction is an outcome of the relative dependence (economic and political) of one on the other. Little traditions and great traditions interact constantly, as a result of which continuity is established between them. Cultural traits from the little tradition are carried forward to the great tradition where they are systematized. As great traditions have universal applicability, the cultural elements they systematize also become universal. Accordingly, the process whereby cultural features of the little traditions become parts of the great traditions is known as universalization, a term proposed by Redfield. The reverse process of the mobility of cultural traits from the great tradition to become parts of the little tradition is also possible. A little tradition has a narrow coverage and is confined to a local area. When it accepts elements from the great tradition, it might modify them so that they are compatible with the
characteristics of the society in general.



McKim Marriot says that in the structure of the village culture and its social organisation elements of both the little tradition and Great tradition are found. He has conducted his study at Kishan Garhi village in Northern India. He found that there is constant interaction between Little tradition and Great tradition. Little tradition consists of local customs, rites, rituals, dialects and Great tradition contains legitimate form of all these things. McKim Marriot found that when little tradition and Great tradition interact with each other two types of movements are observed—upward and downward. When the elements of little tradition move upward, Marriot calls it as ‘Universalization’ and when some elements of Great tradition move downward it is called as ‘Parochialisation’.

Milton Singer observed that  the Indian civilization has evolved out of the folk and regional cultures. The local stories and folklore have evolved into great epics such as Ramayana,
Mahabharata, and other religious scriptures after being refined and systematized over a long period of time. Cultural continuity is a major feature of the great traditions. It is based on the idea that people throughout the country share common cultural consciousness. Consensus exists in India about sacred books and sacred objects. It is one of the major bases of a common cultural consciousness that people in India share.

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