Can Health Become a Tradition ?

By Lucas Pahlisch

There is a wide range of traditions that have a direct impact on health. There are traditions that are good for health such as circumcision as it reduces the risk of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. There are also those that are harmful to health such as indoor cooking with solid fuels which can lead to respiratory diseases. The scope of what is considered as a tradition can also be expanded to include tacit rules such as the age someone is eligible to wed, diet and what is considered to be food or gender role. Basically any knowledge or practice that is shared and transmitted within a group of people can be considered a tradition. There are some traditions that are considered to violate human rights and that are actively fought against, like female genital mutilation. There are practices like smoking tobacco, that are embedded in everyday life to such an extent, that people don’t consider them as tradition anymore. All these examples point out that traditions are deeply intertwined with health and could therefore be influenced in a way to improve health.

In everyday life, the term tradition is used to refer to a cultural practice or belief which is passed on from one generation to another and thus perpetuated over time. However, traditions are not as stable as one would think. Traditions change quickly, people react to new ideas and influences, and come to change the way they do certain things, adopt new practices or drop old ones. One of the most convincing examples of this occurs in the field of ethnomusicology where the transmission of knowledge occurs through speaking rather than writing. This led to an emergency stance where scientists tried to record “traditional music” before it was either lost or blended with other music. No one would argue that music practices do not evolve and change quickly and it should be the same for every tradition. Any given practice is in constant evolution as the people perpetuating it enter in contact with external influences. Embracing this conception of tradition means acknowledging the possibility and the legitimacy to try and influence peoples’ traditions.

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Now that we have conceptualized traditions as something dynamic, we can go a step further and try to see why some traditions are passed on, and why others are dropped. One example, could be why did smoking spread so widely and not jogging? Unfortunately, the answer does not lie solely on the advertising made by tobacco companies. According to the anthropologist Olivier Morin, smoking is a practice that appeals to humans and presents a compulsion to be imitated. Namely, if you have never heard of the practice of smoking and you encounter someone smoking you would find the exercise intriguing and you would like to find out how to do it. Even more, if we go back to when smoking was an unknown cultural practice rather than a trendy way to commit postponed suicide, you would likely be willing to show off the new acquired skill in front of your relatives and friends, inviting to the spread of the practice.

This is all well, but also very theoretical, so how can we apply this conceptualization of tradition for the promotion of health? There are many ways this could be done. For instance, you could find practices that are appealing to follow and that are healthy, and try to promote those. For example, if you want to increase the physical activity of a given population, you should promote activities that are appealing to this population. Practicing Kung-Fu or learning to dance could be good examples of appealing physical activities that people would like to share with their friends.

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Of course it is not simple, and it takes time and effort to change people’s traditions or try to make them adopt new ones. It can take many years, from the moment a population is confronted to a new idea until it is taken over as part of its tradition. However, there are also promising proofs that traditions can be changed. In the United States where the consumption of meat is high and spread, there are now whole communities following a vegetarian diet. If such a practice could spread to the majority of the population and other countries, it could mean a lot in terms of resource saving as meat production is a lot less effective than vegetable production.

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