Folkloristics

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Folkloristics is the term preferred by academic folklorists for the formal, academic discipline devoted to the study of folklore. The term itself derives from the nineteenth-century German designation folkloristik (i.e., folklore). Ultimately, the term folkloristics is used to distinguish between the materials studied, folklore, and the study of folklore, folkloristics. In scholarly usage, folkloristics represents an emphasis on the contemporary, social aspects of expressive culture, in contrast to the more literary or historical study of cultural texts.

Other terms that may be confused with folkloristics include the adjective “folkloristic,” to mean an academically oriented study, and the term “folkloric", to mean materials having the character of folklore or tradition. Besides, scholars specializing in folkloristics are known as folklorists.

Alan Dundes[edit]

Before the term folkloristics can be fully understood, it is necessary to understand that the terms folk and lore are defined in many different ways. While some use the word folk to mean only peasants or remote cultures, the folklorist Alan Dundes (1934–2005) of the University of California at Berkeley calls this definition a “misguided and narrow concept of the folk as the illiterate in a literate society” (Devolutionary Premise, 13).

Dundes is often credited with the promotion of folkloristics as a term denoting a specific field of academic study and applies instead what he calls a “modern” flexible social definition for folk: two or more persons who have any trait in common and express their shared identity through traditions. Dundes explains this point best in his essay, The Devolutionary Premise in Folklore Theory (1969):

“A folk or peasant society is but one example of a ‘folk’ in the folkloristic sense. Any group of people sharing a common linking factor, e.g., an urban group such as a labor union, can and does have folklore. ‘Folk’ is a flexible concept which can refer to a nation as in American folklore or to a single family. The critical issue in defining ‘folk’ is: what groups in fact have traditions?” (emphasis in the original, see footnote 34, 13)

With this expanded social definition of folk, a wider view of the material considered to be folklore also emerged that includes, as William Wilson points out, “things people make with words (verbal lore), things they make with their hands (material lore), and things they make with their actions (customary lore)” (2006, 85).

Another implication of this broader defining of the term folk, according to Dundes, is that folkloristic work is interpretative and scientific rather than descriptive or devoted solely to folklore preservation. In the 1978 collection of his academic work, Essays in Folkloristics, Dundes declares in his preface, “Folkloristics is the scientific study of folklore just as linguistics is the scientific study of language. [. . .] It implies a rigorous intellectual discipline with some attempt to apply theory and method to the materials of folklore” (vii). In other words, Dundes advocates the use of folkloristics as the preferred term for the academic discipline devoted to the study of folklore.

According to Dundes, folkloristic work will probably continue to be important in the future. Dundes writes, “folklore is a universal: there has always been folklore and in all likelihood there will always be folklore. As long as humans interact and in the course of so doing employ traditional forms of communication, folklorists will continue to have golden opportunities to study folklore” (Devolutionary Premise, 19). According to folklorist William A. Wilson, “the study of folklore, therefore, is not just a pleasant pastime useful primarily for whiling away idle moments. Rather, it is centrally and crucially important in our attempts to understand our own behavior and that of our fellow human beings" (2006, 203).

Methods and areas of study[edit]

Ethnography[edit]

Folkloristists use ethnographic methods to research cultures and their lore. Ethnography can be divided into five steps:

  1. Collecting the Data (i.e. the lore)
  2. Preserving the Data (see Wilson, 96)
  3. Analyzing and Interpreting the Data
  4. Presenting the Research Results (i.e., of steps 1–3)
  5. Advocating for the Source of the Data (i.e., the folk group)

In his essay, “The Moral Lore of Folklore,” Henry Glassie explains that because folkloristics is “crucially important,” he will “prescribe action for the future" in what he calls "a friendly manifesto”:

“We [i.e., folklorists] must continue to argue over the nature of folklore and the definition of our discipline, avoiding the complacent attitudes that have enervated more established disciplines. Folklore is not simply what professional folklorists choose to study, nor is it enough to do one's private work efficiently. As we argue over what folklore is, we preserve the intrinsic value structure that has nurtured our discipline for a long time” (1983, 138).

Literary studies[edit]

On the other hand, some folklorists apply folkloristic perspectives to literary and textual analysis, so they can emphasize that folkloristics is not limited to ethnographic or sociological concerns. For example, Simon Bronner explains in his “Historical Methodology in Folkloristics: Introduction” that while he and other folklorists question the methods of their predecessors, their “aim is constructive—to expand the limits of previous scholarship” and to increase “the maturity” or folkloristics by “critically looking inward” and evaluate the methods of folkloristics as an academic discipline (1982, 29).

In the book, Literary Folkloristics and the Personal Narrative, Sandra Dolby Stahl explains that calling folklore “a special discipline [. . .] is a subjective statement,” but the purpose of her book is to show “what a trained folklorist finds so very appealing about the field of folklore study” (1989, vii), and she concludes that “hearing tradition in personal narratives is a professional response made possible through a literary folkloristic methodology” (1989, 120).

Usage[edit]

In spite of some continuing resistance to the term folkloristics, it is the preferred term of the field and has even been used by folklorists and academic institutions for more than one hundred years. In fact, international developments have drawn attention to the term folkloristics since the beginning of the twentieth century, including the establishment of a permanent professorial chair in folkloristics at the University of Helsinki in 1908 and the creation of one department of folkloristics at the University of Tartu in 1919 and another at the Estonian Literary Museum in 1990.

Some scholars still use the terms “folklore studies” or “folklife research” to describe folkloristics because of the interdisciplinary, humanistic and social-science approaches used to analyze folklore. However, folkloristics remains the preferred term in academic folklore circles.

Important people[edit]

Key terms[edit]

Folk groups[edit]

Associated theories[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]