Tradition and Modernity

Tradition and modernity – two terms that one living and growing up in the Mediterranean cannot escape. One of these is mentioned every time a new project is announced by the government or when someone is describing their moral code. As a result they look at the one or  the other of the terms in disdain in conversation.

The aim of this essay is to discuss the complex relationship between tradition and modernity while also conveying that these terms have a different impact on different Mediterranean cases. In order to illustrate the discussion, Caroline Oliver’s(2002) ethnography Killing the Golden Goose? Debates About Tradition in an Andalucían Village and Matt Hodges’ (2002) ethnography Time and Modernity in the Mediterranean: A Case Study from Languedoc, will be used.

Tradition as a product of Modernity

Tradition is the product of modernity. This is because, as Argyrou (2002) conveys, the people of Mediterranean cultures did not view themselves as traditional until they realised that people from Northern Europe held their cultures to be second-rate.

As a reaction to this, Mediterranean societies reinforced the ‘traditional’ aspects of their culture in order to validate and endorse themselves as first-rate (Argyrou, 2002). Argyrou (2002) relates that tradition and modernity have been created and used by Northern Europeans as theoretical devices so as to project themselves as superior in battle.

He continues that this European idea of modernity could have been created with the cultures they considered to be simple in mind and that it spread throughout the world due to Europe’s success in colonising other nations (Argyrou, 2002).

Interestingly, Argyrou (2002) points out that due to the fact that tradition is the reaction to modernity, Mediterranean countries cannot take the full credit for their ‘tradition’ as it was partly constructed by Western influence.

He also states that something is not ‘traditional’ until it is singled out or adopted by a culture to signify it (Argyrou, 2002). In a way, this idea of tradition and/versus modernity also generated a divide of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.

That being said, it follows that the concepts of tradition and modernity depend on one another to have significance.

Tradition and Modernity in Andalucía

This is seen in Oliver’s (2002) ethnography set in a village in Andalucía, Spain.  Her fieldwork was set at a time where there was tension between the locals who welcomed new projects for modernization of the village and the migrants who were very opposed to them (Oliver, 2002).

tradition and modernity in Andalucía

The migrants, who most often hailed from Northern Europe, had relocated to this village for its ‘traditional’ aspects (Oliver, 2002). They claimed that it was a nice change of pace from living in an urban modernized area and that the renovations would destroy the reason they went to live there (Oliver, 2002).

Moreover, Oliver (2002) maintains that these migrants felt that they were standing up for the locals through their anti-modern protests. Therefore, in a sense, the notion or need for tradition was only as significant as the impact that modernity left on individuals (Oliver, 2002).

The reason the locals in Andalucía were open to modernity in their ‘traditional’ village was due to economic advantages (Oliver, 2002). In the past, the Spanish villagers had to carry out manual labour to make ends meet and their lives was characterised by poverty (Oliver, 2002).


As a result, these villagers did not reminisce about the past and they saw these modifications to their village as a means of economic influx and new job opportunities through which they will be able to construct their own path in life in which they will no longer have to suffer. However, not all Mediterranean modern advancements boded well for the financial situation of the locals as can be seen in Hodges (2002).

Tradition and Modernity in the South of France

Hodges’ (2002) ethnography was set in a village of about 500 locals in the South of France. The village had two (formerly) common occupations: fishing and viticulture (Hodges, 2002).

He claims that the village lacked the feeling of a local community since only 1/3 of the locals claimed to be indigenous of the area while the others were only second or third generation inhabitants or new immigrants (Hodges, 2002).

As a result, viticulture and fishing were no longer the most popular occupations as more people were working in the city which was only a short drive away (Hodges, 2002).

During the 1960s and 1970s, the state ordered for a lot of coastal renovations to accommodate for the new influx of tourists and in the 1980s and 1990s the locals began to see some economic revenue (Hodges, 2002). Therefore, the village and its community had gone through a lot of transitions in a short span of time (Hodges, 2002).

Tradition and Modernity viticulture

The activity of viticulture had been progressing from the 19th century, however, in the 1950s with the advent of mechanisation the people needed to work in the wine production reduced as new technologies were being implemented (Hodges, 2002).

Naturally this had a negative impact on the people who had been working there as they found themselves working alone on machines which they also needed to figure out how to use (Hodges, 2002). This is further exemplified by one of Hodges (2002) informants, a manager on a wine producing estate.

The estate, Hodges (2002) relates, was one of the two wine producers left in the village and it had not been in the position to acquire new technologies for viticulture due to financial limitations. This did not bother the manager at all, as he related that he had enjoyed making wine like his father did (Hodges, 2002).

However, this changed in 1997 when the estate could no longer stay afloat due to financial pressures (Hodges, 2002). The landlady of the estate decided to join a wine co-operative that made use of advanced technologies, rendering the manager’s old techniques obsolete.

As previously mentioned, fishing was also a means of income. In the 1960s a new technique was adopted in fishing which allowed fisherman to catch more fish and therefore sell more and make more money (Hodges, 2002). This was a shift from the previous mentality of production, as older fisherman were not after working to earn more than they need (Hodges, 2002).

Fishing provided a stable and lucrative income since fisherman also had the option of selling to other nearby villages (Hodges, 2002).  However, in time, due to overfishing, especially that of younger eels, there was a lack in the supply of fish and therefore they were now facing a different problem (Hodges, 2002). It is therefore evident that in the case of Languedoc the effects of modernity have not been as advantageous for the locals as in Spain.

Hodges (2002) also comments on the social reproduction of values. He states that many young people no longer sought instruction from their parents on how they should live their life as they did not deem the experiences of the older generation to be relevant to theirs (Hodges, 2002). As a result the youth did not put much emphasis on the reproduction of ‘tradition’ and had a different outlook to that of the older generation (Hodges, 2002).

A Comparison of the Ethnographies

In contrast to this, Oliver (2002) conveys how in the Andalusian village modernity simply altered ‘traditional’ ways but did not abolish them. She conveys how the last few decades saw economic growth in the village and the locals have been ambitious in placing themselves and their families in a better position (Oliver, 2002).

Similarly to Hodges (2002) article, she also conveys that the locals had adopted mass consumption, which she refers to as “a practice almost emblematic of modernity itself” (Oliver, 2002, pp. 181).

In Andalucía, locals invested in their families especially when it came to certain religious occasions like weddings and baptisms. Oliver (2002) relates, that some of these spectacles were due to the desire to keep up appearances which was of great importance in the village (echoing the idea the Mediterranean honour and shame paradigm).

This is where, for Oliver (2002), the fabricated divide between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ shows its complexity since some values are not left in the past but shifted to fit into the modern present.

The Impact of Tourism

The feature that benefits the Mediterranean most among all the debates that come with modernity and tradition, is tourism. More specifically heritage tourism which can be seen in both of the mentioned cases.

Hodges (2002) reflects on how images are printed to portray Languedoc as a place of nostalgia in order to attract tourists interested in history. In the villages they also catered to these tourists by showcasing artisanal work and other practices that characterised a ‘traditional’ village (Hodges, 2002).

Tradition and Modernity tourism

The search for heritage is not only for tourists however, Hodges (2002) relates. He conveyed that the indigenous community looked at it as a means through which they could connect while long-term inhabitants it was the desire to be part of a “shared history” (pp. 211) or simply a keen interest in history (Hodges, 2002).

Notably, he points out that this heritage for some  may also serve as reassurance against the uncertainties and anxieties of the future. In the Andalusian village, the authorities also went a step further and opened a public swimming pool and sports stadium among other facilities in order to further accommodate tourists (Oliver, 2002).

Conclusion on Tradition and Modernity

This shows how ‘tradition’ is not only a concept or reaction to modernity but also an economic driving force by attracting tourists. Oliver (2002) has this to say about the matter: “tradition becomes manifested within, entangled with, or even produced by modernity itself” (pp. 173).  

Interestingly, Oliver (2002) points out how ‘traditional’ parades and feasts have become even more elaborate and fun than they ever were in the past in order to gain tourists.

Both Hodges’ (2002) and Oliver’s (2002) ethnographies are cases in which the Mediterranean villages were experiencing the consequences of modernity. Contrary to what one might expect, whilst keeping in mind that these were only two of many cases, the locals of both villages were mostly concerned with the situation regarding economic growth rather than the destruction or the reinforcing of tradition.

This makes one ponder if the concept of ‘tradition’ has been highly romanticized. It is also interesting to note that while Northern European societies are the ones who implemented the idea of ‘modernity’, they are the ones that seek it the most as in Oliver (2002). This makes the idea of modernity even more dimensional.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the relationship between traditional and modernity is complex. Whist seemingly being antonyms and supposedly reflecting two different time periods, it seems that both were created with the advent of the other.

The Mediterranean is often characterised by the label ‘traditional’ which is why it is an ideal location from which this concept can be examined. Due to its intricacies and the fact that every society is different, it is clear that when it comes to the case of tradition and modernity each case needs to be analysed independently in order to truly grasp its effect on a society as in the cases of Hodges (2002) and Oliver (2002).


Argyrou, V., 2002. Tradition, Modernity and European Hegemony in the Mediterranean. Journal of Mediterranean Studies. Malta: Mediterranean Institute, University of Malta, 12 (1), pp. 23-42. URL accessed 07/06/2021: *Tradition, Modernity and European Hegemony in the Mediterranean (

Hodges, M., 2002. Time and Modernity in the Mediterranean: A Case Study from Languedoc. Journal of Mediterranean Studies. Malta: Mediterranean Institute, University of Malta, 12 (1), pp. 191-221. URL accessed 07/06/2021: *Time and Modernity in the Mediterranean: A Case Study from Languedoc (

Oliver, C., 2002. Killing the Golden Goose? Debates About Tradition in an Andalucían Village. Journal of Mediterranean Studies. Malta: Mediterranean Institute, University of Malta, 12 (1), pp. 169-189. URL accessed 07/06/2021: *Killing the Golden Goose? Debates About Tradition in an Andalucían Village (

Panopoulos, P., 1996. Revitalizing the Past, Contextualizing the Present: Cultural Responses to the Tradition of Improvised Singing in Aegean Greece. Journal of Mediterranean Studies. Malta: Mediterranean Institute, University of Malta, 6 (10), pp. 56 -69. URL accessed 08/06/2021: *Revitalizing the Past, Contextualizing the Present: Cultural Responses to the Tradition of Improvised Singing in Aegean Greece (

Welz, G., 2000. Multiple Modernities and Reflexive Traditionalisation: A Mediterranean Case Study. Ethnologia Europaea. Amsterdam: SIEF, 30, pp. 5-14. URL accessed 07/06/2021: *Multiple_Modernities_and_Reflexive_Traditionalisat.pdf

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