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survivals theory


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Edward Burnett Tylor (1832—1917) anthropologist

George Laurence Gomme (1853—1916) public servant and folklorist

James George Frazer (1854—1941) social anthropologist and classical scholar

Andrew Lang (1844—1912) anthropologist, classicist, and historian

 
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One of the big ideas, proposed by Tylor and others, which helped 19th-century folklorists aspire to scientific respectability, although it has long been widely discredited. Its ultimate origin lies in attempts to apply the principles and insights of evolution to human cultures and institutions, and is based on the assertion that cultures develop in a series of identifiable stages, from savage to civilized. As each culture evolves, it is argued, certain aspects live on relatively unchanged, gradually losing their original purpose and meaning, and thus become folklore in the care of the uneducated, conservative, and uncreative ‘common people’. Thus a serious religious belief may become a superstition, a ritual become a calendar custom, or a burial custom become a children's game. Given this knowledge, a folklorist can examine recent or modern folklore and use it to reconstruct the mind and practices of previous cultural stages, and thus elucidate both the past and the present. Indeed, for many of the early writers such as George Laurence Gomme and J. G. Frazer, this elucidation was the main work of the folklorist. The researcher's task was considerably simplified by the idea that the stages of cultural evolution were held to be relatively predictable the world over, although they are not synchronous. Thus, so-called primitive societies of the recent past such as Australian Aborigines or North American Indians can be used as evidence for the study of, say, Celtic Britons.

At its crudest, survival theory takes a particularly cavalier attitude to both history and geography. Argument proceeds by piling up supposedly relevant examples from various cultures and periods until the sheer weight of numbers overwhelms the critical faculties of the reader. Indeed, writers such as Andrew Lang make a virtue of this ‘comparative’ method:Our method, then, is to compare the seemingly meaningless customs or manners of civilised races with the similar customs and manners which exist among the uncivilised and still retain their meaning. It is not necessary for comparison of this sort that the uncivilised and the civilised race should be of the same stock, nor need we prove that they were ever in contact with each other. Similar conditions of mind produce similar practices, apart from identity of race or borrowing of ideas and manners. (Custom and Magic (new edn., 1904), 21–2)

Our method, then, is to compare the seemingly meaningless customs or manners of civilised races with the similar customs and manners which exist among the uncivilised and still retain their meaning. It is not necessary for comparison of this sort that the uncivilised and the civilised race should be of the same stock, nor need we prove that they were ever in contact with each other. Similar conditions of mind produce similar practices, apart from identity of race or borrowing of ideas and manners. (Custom and Magic (new edn., 1904), 21–2)

As the 20th century progressed, the theory was gradually rejected by anthropologists and other social scientists, although it held its ground for a considerable time in Folklore Studies, and in watered-down form became accepted by popular writers as the basis of almost all folklore commentary. It promotes the extremely widespread assumption that all our superstitions and customs are thousands of years old, and, as its basis is purely conjectural, it can be used to support any view which is fashionable at the time, whether sun or moon worship, fertility, phallic symbols, female deities, or Freudian or Jungian psychology.

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