William Bascom

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William Bascom
Born 23 May 1912
Princeton, Illinois
Died 11 September 1981
Nationality United States
Fields folklore, cultural anthropology
Institutions Lowie Museum of Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley
Alma mater Northwestern University
Doctoral advisor Melville J. Herskovits
Known for studies of Yoruba culture and religion; "four functions of folklore"

William R. Bascom (1912–1981) was an American folklorist, anthropologist, and museum director.


Bascom completed his B.A. at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and earned his Ph.D. in anthropology at Northwestern University under Melville J. Herskovits in 1939. He taught at Northwestern, Cambridge University, and the University of California at Berkeley, where he was also Director of the Lowie Museum of Anthropology. During World War II, he joined the O.S.S. and together with Ralph Bunche co-authored an unsigned volume, A Pocket Guide to West Africa in 1943.

Bascom was a specialist in the art and culture of West Africa and the African Diaspora, especially the Yoruba of Nigeria. Several of his articles on folkloristics serve as texts in graduate courses in folklore.

Four functions of folklore[edit]

In a major article published in 1954, Bascom argued that folklore can serve four primary functions in a culture:

  • Folklore lets people escape from repressions imposed upon them by society ex: tall tales
  • Folklore validates culture, justifying its rituals and institutions to those who perform and observe them.
  • Folklore is a pedagogic device which reinforces morals and values and builds wit. ex: scary stores/moral lessons
  • Folklore is a means of applying social pressure and exercising social control. ex: the boy who cried wolf

Major works[edit]

  • "The Relationship of Yoruba Folklore to Divining," Journal of American Folklore (1943)
  • The Sociological Role of the Yoruba Cult-Group (1944)
  • Ponape: A Pacific Economy in Transition (1947)
  • "Four Functions of Folklore," Journal of American Folklore (1954)
  • "Urbanization Among the Yoruba," American Journal of Sociology (1955)
  • "Verbal Art," Journal of American Folklore (1955)
  • co-editor, with Melville J. Herskovits, Continuity and Change in African Culture (1959)
  • "Folklore Research in Africa," Journal of American Folklore (1964)
  • "The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives," Journal of American Folklore (1965)
  • The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria (1969)
  • Ifa Divination: Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa (1969, recipient Pitrè International Folklore Prize)
  • African Art in Cultural Perspective: An Introduction (1973)
  • "Folklore, Verbal Art, and Culture," Journal of American Folklore (1973)
  • editor, African Dilemma Tales (1975)
  • editor, Frontiers of Folklore (1977)
  • Sixteen Cowries: Yoruba Divination from Africa to the New World (1980)