The issue of great and little traditions did not arise for the first generation of anthropologists who, following the example of Malinowski, mainly studied remote, self-contained, small-scale societies. It was only after World War II, when anthropologists began to study communities integrated within larger states and participating in centuries-old religious traditions such as Buddhism or Christianity, that the problem arose. The terms ‘great’ and ‘little’ traditions were actually introduced and elaborated in the 1950s by the University of Chicago anthropologist Robert Redfield. In Redfield’s vision: ‘The studies of the anthropologist are contextual; they relate some element of the great tradition — sacred topic, story-element, teacher, ceremony, or supernatural being — to the life of the ordinary people, in the context of daily life as the anthropologist sees it happen’ (1956).
An important early contribution to the study of great and little traditions came from Red-field’s protege McKim Marriott (1955) who contrasted Indian village religion with the San-skritic textual tradition of Hinduism. Marriott observed that fifteen of the nineteen village festivals celebrated in the village were sanctioned by at least one Sanskrit text. To explain the interaction between little and great traditions he theorized a two-way influence: local practices had been historically promoted into the Sanskrit canon in a process he labelled ‘universalization’, and ideas and practices already contained in this canon were locally adapted in a process of ‘par-ochialization’. Of course some rites may have been parochialized and then re-universalized in a circular fashion.