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Folkloristics is the formal academic discipline devoted to the study of Folklore. This term,[note 1] along with its synonym Folklore Studies,[note 2] gained currency in the 1950s to distinguish the academic study of traditional culture from the folklore artifacts themselves. The American Folklife Preservation Act (P.L. 94-201), passed by the U.S. Congress in conjunction with the Bicentennial Celebration in 1976, included a definition of folklore, also called folklife:

"…[Folklife] means the traditional expressive culture shared within the various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, regional; expressive culture includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, literature, art, architecture, music, play, dance, drama, ritual, pageantry, handicraft; these expressions are mainly learned orally, by imitation, or in performance, and are generally maintained without benefit of formal instruction or institutional direction.”

This law was added to the panoply of other legislation designed to protect the natural and cultural heritage of the United States. It gives voice to a growing understanding that the cultural diversity of the United States is a national strength and a resource worthy of protection.[1]

To fully understand the term folkloristics, it is necessary to clarify its component parts: the terms folk and lore. Originally the word folk applied only to rural, frequently poor, frequently illiterate peasants. A more contemporary definition of folk is a social group which includes two or more persons with common traits, who express their shared identity through distinctive traditions. “Folk is a flexible concept which can refer to a nation as in American folklore or to a single family.[2] This expanded social definition of folk supports a wider view of the material considered to be folklore artifacts. These now include “things people make with words (verbal lore), things they make with their hands (material lore), and things they make with their actions (customary lore)”.[3] The folklorist studies the traditional artifacts of a group. He studies the groups, within which these customs, traditions and beliefs are transmitted.

Transmission of these artifacts is a vital part of the folklore process. Without communicating these beliefs and customs within the group over space and time, they would become cultural shards relegated to cultural archaeologists. But folklore is also a verb. These folk artifacts continue to be passed along informally within the group, as a rule anonymously and always in multiple variants. For the folk group is not individualistic, it is community-based and nurtures its lore in community. This is in direct contrast to high culture, where any single work of a named artist is protected by copyright law.

The folklorist strives to understand the significance of these beliefs, customs and objects for the group. These cultural units[4] would not be passed along unless they had some continued relevance within the group. That meaning can however shift and morph. So Halloween of the 21st century is not the All Hallows’ Eve of the Middle Ages, and even gives rise to its own set of urban legends independent of the historical celebration. The cleansing rituals of Orthodox Judaism were originally good public health in a land with little water; now these customs signify identification as an Orthodox Jew.[5] Compare this to brushing your teeth, also transmitted within a group, which remains a practical hygiene and health issue and does not rise to the level of a group-defining tradition. For tradition is initially remembered behavior. Once it loses its practical purpose, there is no reason for further transmission unless it is imbued with meaning beyond the initial practicality of the action. This meaning is at the core of folkloristics, the study of folklore.

With an increasingly theoretical sophistication of the social sciences, it has become evident that folklore is a naturally occurring and necessary component of any social group, it is indeed all around us.[6] It does not have to be old or antiquated. It continues to be created, transmitted and in any group can be used to differentiate between “us” and “them”.

As an academic discipline, folkloristics straddles the space between the Social Sciences and the Humanities.[7] This was not always the case. The study of folklore originated in Europe in the first half of the 19th century with a focus on the oral folklore of the rural peasant populations. The “Kinder- und Hausmärchen“ of the Brothers Grimm (first published 1812) is the best known but by no means only collection of verbal folklore of the European peasantry. This interest in stories, sayings and songs, i.e. verbal lore, continued throughout the 19th century and aligned the fledgling discipline of folkloristics with Literature and Mythology. By the turn into the 20th century, the number and sophistication of folklore studies and folklorists had grown both in Europe and North America. Whereas European folklorists remained focused on the oral folklore of the homogenous peasant populations in their regions, the American folklorists, led by Franz Boas, chose to consider Native American cultures in their research, and included the totality of their customs and beliefs as folklore. This distinction aligned American folkloristics with Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, using the same techniques of data collection in their field research. This divided alliance of folkloristics between the Humanities and the Social Sciences offers a wealth of theoretical vantage points and research tools to the field of folkloristics as a whole, even as it continues to be a point of discussion within the field itself.[8]

Public folklore is a relatively new offshoot of folkloristics; it started after the Second World War and modeled itself on the seminal work of Alan Lomax and Ben Botkin in the 1930s which emphasized applied folklore. Public sector folklorists work to document, preserve and present the beliefs and customs of diverse cultural groups in their region. These positions are often affiliated with museums, libraries, arts organizations, public schools, historical societies, etc. The most renowned of these is the American Folklife Center at the Smithsonian, together with its Smithsonian Folklife Festival held every summer in Washington, DC. Public folklore differentiates itself from the academic folklore supported by universities, in which collection, research and analysis are primary goals.[9]


The terms folkloristics and folklore belong to a large and confusing word family. We have already used the synonym pairs Folkloristics / Folklife Studies and folklore / folklife, all of them in current usage within the field. Folklore was the original term used in this discipline. Its synonym, folklife, came into circulation in the second half of the 20th century, at a time when some researchers felt that the term folklore was too closely tied exclusively to oral lore. The new term folklife is meant to categorically include all aspects of a folk culture, not just the oral traditions. All professionals within this field, regardless of the other words they use, consider themselves to be folklorists.

Other terms which might be confused with folklore are popular culture and Vernacular culture, both of which vary from folklore in distinctive ways. Pop culture tends to be in demand for a limited time; it is generally mass produced and communicated using mass media. Individually, these tend to be labeled fads, and disappear as quickly as they appear. The term vernacular culture differs from folklore in its overriding emphasis on a specific locality or region. For example, vernacular architecture denotes the standard building form of a region, using the materials available and designed to address functional needs of the local economy. Folk architecture is a subset of this, in which the construction is not done by a professional architect or builder, but by an individual putting up a needed structure in the local style. In a broader sense, all folklore is vernacular, i.e. tied to a region, whereas not everything vernacular is necessarily folklore.[10]

There are also further cognates used in connection with folkloristics. Folklorism refers to “material or stylistic elements of folklore [presented] in a context which is foreign to the original tradition.” This definition, offered by the folklorist Hermann Bausinger, does not discount the validity of meaning expressed in these “second hand” traditions.[11] Many Walt Disney films and products belong in this category of folklorism; the fairy tales, originally told around a winter fire, have become animated film characters, stuffed animals and bed linens. Their meaning, however far removed from the original story telling tradition, does not detract from the importance and meaning they have for their young audience. Fakelore refers to artifacts which might be termed pseudo-folklore; these are manufactured items claiming to be traditional. The folklorist Richard Dorson coined this word, clarifying it in his book “Folklore and Fakelore”.[12] Current thinking within the discipline is that this term places undue emphasis on the origination of the artifact as a sign of authenticity of the tradition. The adjective folkloric is used to designate materials having the character of folklore or tradition, at the same time making no claim to authenticity.

Methods and areas of study[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”:[13]

“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” of folkloristics by “critically looking inward” and evaluate the methods of folkloristics as an academic discipline (1982, 29).[14]

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).

History of Folklore Studies[edit]

From Antiquities to Lore[edit]

It is well-documented that the term “folklore” was coined in 1846 by the Englishman William Thoms. He fabricated it for use in an article published in the August 22, 1846 issue of the The Athenaeum.[15] Thoms consciously replaced the contemporary terminology of “popular antiquities” or “popular literature” with this new word. Folklore was to emphasize the study of a specific subset of the population: the rural, mostly illiterate peasantry.[16] In his published call for help in documenting antiquities, Thoms was echoing scholars from across the European continent to collect artifacts of older, mostly oral cultural traditions still flourishing among the rural populace. In Germany the Brothers Grimm had first published their “Kinder- und Hausmärchen“ in 1812. They continued throughout their lives to collect German folk tales to include in their collection. In Scandinavia, intellectuals were also searching for their authentic Teutonic roots and had labeled their studies Folkeminde (Danish) or Folkermimne (Norwegian). Throughout Europe and America, other early collectors of folklore were at work. Thomas Crofton Croker published fairy tales from southern Ireland and, together with his wife, documented keening and other Irish funereal customs. Elias Lönnrot is best known for his collection of epic Finnish poems published under the title Kalevala. John Fanning Watson in the United States published the “Annals of Philadelphia”.[17]

With increasing industrialization, urbanization, and the rise in literacy throughout Europe in the 19th century, folklorists were concerned that the oral knowledge and beliefs, the lore of the rural folk would be lost. It was posited that the stories, beliefs and customs were surviving fragments of a cultural mythology of the region, pre-dating Christianity and rooted in pagan peoples and beliefs.[18] This thinking goes in lockstep with the rise of nationalism across Europe.[19]

As the need to collect these vestiges of rural traditions became more compelling, the need to formalize this new field of cultural studies became apparent. The British Folklore Society was established in 1878 and the American Folklore Society was established a decade later. These were just two of a plethora of academic societies founded in the latter half of the 19th century by educated members of the emerging middle class.[20] For literate, urban intellectuals and students of folklore the folk was someone else and the past was recognized as being something truly different.[21] Folklore became a measure of the progress of society, how far we had moved forward into the industrial present and indeed removed ourselves from a past marked by poverty, illiteracy and superstition. The task of both the professional folklorist and the amateur at the turn of the 20th century was to collect and classify cultural artifacts from the pre-industrial rural areas, parallel to the drive in the life sciences to do the same for the natural world.[note 3] “Folk was a clear label to set materials apart from modern life…material specimens, which were meant to be classified in the natural history of civilization. Tales, originally dynamic and fluid, were given stability and concreteness by means of the printed page.” [22]

Viewed as fragments from a pre-literate culture, these stories and objects were collected without context to be displayed and studied in museums and anthologies, just as bones and potsherds were gathered for the life sciences. Kaarle Krohn and Antti Aarne were active collectors of folk poetry in Finland. The Scotsman Andrew Lang is known for his 25 volumes of Andrew Lang's Fairy Books from around the world. Francis James Child was an American academic who collected English and Scottish popular ballads and their American variants, published as the Child Ballads. In the United States, both Mark Twain and Washington Irving drew on folklore to write their stories.[23][24] One Samuel Clemens was also a charter member of the American Folklore Society.[25]

Aarne-Thompson and the Historic-Geographic Method[edit]

By the beginning of the 20th century these collections had grown to include artifacts from around the world and across several centuries. A system to organize and categorize them became necessary.[26] Antti Aarne published a first classification system for folktales in 1910.It was later expanded into the Aarne–Thompson classification system by Stith Thompson and remains the standard classification system for European folktales and other types of oral literature. As the number of classified artifacts grew, similarities were noted in items which had been collected from very different geographic regions, ethnic groups and epochs.

In an effort to understand and explain the similarities found in tales from different locations, the Finnish folklorists Julius and Kaarle Krohne developed the Historical-Geographical method, also called the Finnish method.[27] Using multiple variants of a tale, this investigative method attempted to work backwards in time and location to compile the original version from what they considered the incomplete fragments still in existence. This was the search for the “Urform”,[28] which by definition was more complete and more “authentic” then the newer, more scattered versions. The historic-geographic method has been succinctly described as a “quantitative mining of the resulting archive, and extraction of distribution patterns in time and space”. It is based on the assumption that every text artifact is a variant of the original text. As one of the major proponents of this method, Walter Anderson proposed additionally a Law of Self-Correction, i.e. a feedback mechanism which would keep the variants closer to the original form.[29] [note 4]

It was during the first decades of the 20th century that Folklore Studies in Europe and America began to diverge. The Europeans continued with their emphasis on oral traditions of the pre-literate peasant, and remained connected to literary scholarship within the universities. By this definition, folklore was completely based in the European cultural sphere; any social group that did not originate in Europe was to be studied by ethnologists and cultural anthropologists. In contrast to this, American folklorists, under the influence of the German-American Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, sought to incorporate other cultural groups living in their region into the study of folklore. This included not only customs brought over by northern European immigrants, but also African Americans, Acadians of eastern Canada, Cajuns of Louisiana, Hispanics of the American southwest, and Native Americans.[30] Not only were these distinct cultural groups all living in the same regions, but their proximity to each other caused their traditions and customs to intermingle. The lore of these distinct social groups, all of them Americans, was considered bailiwick for American folklorists, and aligned American folkloristics more with ethnology than with literary studies.

Great Depression and the Federal Writers’ Project[edit]

Then came the 1930s and the worldwide Great Depression. In the United States the Federal Writers' Project was established as part of the WPA. Its goal was to offer paid employment to thousands of unemployed writers by engaging them in various cultural projects around the country. These white collar workers were sent out as field workers to collect the oral folklore of their regions, including stories, songs, idioms and dialects. The most famous of these collections is the Slave Narrative Collection. The folklore collected under the auspices of the Federal Writers Project during these years continues to offer a goldmine of primary source materials for folklorists and other cultural historians.[31]

As chairman of the Federal Writers’ Project between 1938 and 1942, Benjamin A. Botkin supervised the work of these folklore field workers. Both Botkin and John Lomax were particularly influential during this time in expanding folklore collection techniques to include more detailing of the interview context.[32] This was a significant move away from viewing the collected artifacts as isolated fragments, broken remnants of an incomplete pre-historic whole. Using these new interviewing techniques, the collected lore became embedded in and imbued with meaning within the framework of its contemporary practice. The emphasis moved from the lore to the folk, i.e. the groups and the people who gave this lore meaning within contemporary daily living.

Post World War II[edit]

Following World War II, the discussion continued about whether to align folkloristics with literature or ethnology. Within this discussion, many voices were actively trying to identify the optimal approach to take in the analysis of folklore artifacts. One major change had already been initiated by Franz Boas. Culture was no longer viewed in evolutionary terms; each culture has its own integrity and completeness, and was not progressing either toward wholeness or toward fragmentation. Individual artifacts must have meaning within the culture and for individuals themselves in order to assume cultural relevance and assure continued transmission. Because the European folklore movement had been primarily oriented toward oral traditions, a new term, folklife, was introduced to represent the full range of traditional culture. This included music, dance, storytelling, crafts, costume, foodways and more.

Folklore became more than just stuff, it became a verb. Folklore was the event of doing within a given context, for a specific audience, using artifacts as necessary props in the communication of traditions between individuals and within groups.[33] Beginning in the 1970s, these new areas of folkloristics became articulated in performance studies, where traditional behaviors are evaluated and understood within the context of their performance. It is the meaning within the social group that becomes the focus for these folklorists, foremost among them Richard Baumann[34] and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.[35] Enclosing any performance is a framework which signals that the following is something outside of ordinary communication. For example, “So, have you heard the one…” automatically flags the following as a joke. A performance can take place either within a cultural group, re-iterating and re-enforcing the customs and beliefs of the group. Or it can be performance for an outside group, in which the first goal is to set the performers apart from the audience.[36]

This analysis then goes beyond the artifact itself, be it dance, music or story-telling. It goes beyond the performers and their message. As part of performance studies, the audience becomes part of the performance. If any folklore performance strays too far from audience expectations, it will likely be brought back by means of a negative feedback loop at the next iteration.[37] Both performer and audience are acting within the “Twin Laws” of folklore transmission, in which novelty and innovation is balanced by the conservative forces of the familiar.[38] Even further, the presence of a folklore observer at a performance of any kind will influence the performance itself in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Because folklore is firstly an act of communication between parties, it is incomplete without inclusion of the reception in its analysis. The understanding of folklore performance as communication leads directly into modern linguistic theory and communication studies. Words both reflect and shape our worldview. Oral traditions, particularly in their stability over generations and even centuries, provide significant insight into the ways in which insiders of a culture see, understand, and express their responses to the world around them.[39] [note 5]

Three major approaches to folklore interpretation were developed during the second half of the 20th century. Structuralism in folkloristics attempts to define the structures underlying oral and customary folklore.[note 6] Once classified, it was easy for structural folklorists to lose sight of the overarching issue: what are the characteristics which keep a form constant and relevant over multiple generations? Functionalism in folkloristics also came to the fore following World War II; as spokesman, William Bascom formulated the 4 functions of folklore. This approach takes a more top-down approach to understand how a specific form fits into and expresses meaning within the culture as a whole.[note 7] A third method of folklore analysis, popular in the late 20th century, is the Psychoanalytic Interpretation,[40] championed by Alan Dundes. His monographs, including a study of homoerotic subtext in American football[41] and anal-erotic elements in German folklore,[42] were not always appreciated and involved Dundes in several major folkloristic controversies during his career. True to each of these approaches, and any others one might want to employ (political, women’s issues, material culture, urban contexts, non-verbal text, ad infinitum), whichever perspective is chosen will spotlight some features and leave other characteristics in the shadows.

With the passage in 1976 of the American Folklife Preservation Act, Folkloristics in the United States came of age. This legislation follows in the footsteps of other legislation designed to safeguard more tangible aspects of our national heritage worthy of protection. This law also marks a shift in our national awareness; it gives voice to the national understanding that diversity within the country is a unifying feature, not something that separates us. “We no longer view cultural difference as a problem to be solved, but as a tremendous opportunity. In the diversity of American folklife we find a marketplace teeming with the exchange of traditional forms and cultural ideas, a rich resource for Americans”.[43] This diversity is celebrated annually at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and many other folklife fests around the country.

Scholarly organizations and journals[edit]

Notable Folklorists[edit]

For a list of notable folklorists, go to the category list.

Associated theories and methods[edit]


  1. ^ According to Alan Dundes, this term was first introduced in an address by Charles Leland in 1889. He spoke in German to the Hungarian Folklore Society and referenced “Die Folkloristik”. See Dundes (2005), pg. 386.
  2. ^ The word Folkloristics is favored by Alan Dundes, see Dundes (1978). The term Folklore Studies is defined and used by Simon Bronner, see Bronner (1986), pg. xi.
  3. ^ Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species in 1859.
  4. ^ Anderson is best known for his monograph Kaiser und Abt (Folklore Fellows' Communications 42, Helsinki 1923) on folktales of type AT 922.
  5. ^ In his chapter “Folklore and Cultural Worldview”, Toelken provides an illuminating comparison of the worldview of European Americans with Navajos. In the use of language, the two cultural groups express widely differing understandings of their spatial and temporal place in the universe.
  6. ^ For example, a joke uses words within a specific and well-defined narrative structure to make people laugh. A fable uses anthropomorphized animals and natural features to illustrate a moral lesson, frequently concluding with a moral. These are just a few of the many formulaic structures used in oral traditions.
  7. ^ An example of this are the joke cycles that spontaneously appear in response to a national or world tragedy or disaster.


  1. ^ (Hufford 1991)
  2. ^ (Dundes 1969, p. 13)
  3. ^ (Wilson 2006, p. 85)
  4. ^ (Dundes 1972)
  5. ^ (Georges 1995, p. 1)
  6. ^ (Sims 2005, p. 7)
  7. ^ (Hufford 1991)
  8. ^ (Zumwalt 1988)
  9. ^ (Hufford 1991)
  10. ^ (Sims 2005, p. 7)
  11. ^ (Smidchens 1999, p. 52)
  12. ^ (Dorson 1976)
  13. ^ The Moral Lore of Folklore
  14. ^ Historical Methodology in Folkloristics: Introduction
  15. ^ (Georges 1995, p. 35)
  16. ^ (Sims 2005, p. 23)
  17. ^
  18. ^ (Sims 2005, pp. 23–24)
  19. ^ (Georges 1995, p. 40)
  20. ^ (Bronner 1986, p. 17)
  21. ^ (Georges 1995, p. 32)
  22. ^ (Bronner 1986, p. 11)
  23. ^ (Bronner 1986, p. 5)
  24. ^ (Bronner 1986, pp. 21–22)
  25. ^ (Dundes 2005, p. 402)
  26. ^ (Georges 1995, p. 54)
  27. ^ (Wolf-Knuts 1999)
  28. ^ (Sims 2005, p. 23)
  29. ^ (Dorst 2016, p. 131)
  30. ^ (Zumwalt 1988, pp. 16–20)
  31. ^ (Sims 2005, pp. 10, 25)
  32. ^ (Sims 2005, p. 25)
  33. ^ (Bauman 1972, p. xv)
  34. ^ (Baumann 1975)
  35. ^ (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1999)
  36. ^ (Baumann 1971, p. 45)
  37. ^ (Dorst 2016, p. 139)
  38. ^ (Toelken 1996, pp. 39–40)
  39. ^ (Toelken 1996, p. 226)
  40. ^ (Sims 2005, p. 187ff.)
  41. ^ (Dundes 1978)
  42. ^ (Dundes 1984)
  43. ^ (Hufford 1991)


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