History of Folklore by Mary Magoulick  

The study of folklore has changed over time. Previously scholars believed that the subjects (texts or culture) were decaying or disappearing but now we consider folklore and culture as efficacious and meaningful processes within our present reality.

Fieldwork connects folklorists to the community and provides contextual knowledge for textual analysis.

Fieldwork is at the root of major conceptual changes in folklore

Ø    Scholars used to use folklore or Native American texts to prove their own theories (not understanding them on their own terms)

Ø      Many folklorists used to focus mostly on documenting, collecting, classifying, and cataloguing information (not synthesizing)

TODAY we try to focus upon the present realities of cultural forms and processes, using fieldwork to attempt a perspective based on "insider" discourse and practice (understanding it as much as possible from the perspective of members of the culture)

 PERFORMANCE (the major theory used within folklore studies today).
Goals of Performance Theory:

Ø      Provide a more complete context by which to understand the people and their cultural productions equally

Ø      Attend to artfulness of given performance event (and how that art is represented as text)

Ø      Allow for the blending of social and aesthetic impulses of culture and represents an affirmative understanding of culture.

Folklore studies have always focused on interrelationships between language, literature, philosophy, and history (Johann Gottfreid von Herder and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are founders of folklore, which they called philology).

Past folklorists focused on salvaging texts (mostly songs and folktales) in order to understand the past and sometimes to shape the present. Nevertheless, Richard Dorson points out that "folklorists, in this country at any rate, are not especially history minded, and prefer to examine folk materials by category, such as folktale and folksong, proverb and riddle, rather than by historical period" (1961, 12-13). Aside from the occasional nationalistic impulses to use folklore to buoy a certain historical ideal, folklorists were scholars of categorization.

Dorson is referring to literary folklorists like Archer Taylor, Francis James Child, George Lyman Kittredge, Stith Thompson, and so on, who collected and categorized numerous amounts of stories, songs, and "lore." Thompson and his cohort and students produced indices by which to trace a tale’s diffusion and possible origin, and by which to identify tales in literary works. Stith Thompson said of his life’s work that "he had spent his time working on indexes and classifications in order to facilitate the process of archiving material" (Zumwalt 1988, 59). Scholars in folklore and anthropology have long had a wealth of empirical data (such as the amazing and voluminous Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology), but they did not generally synthesize or attempt to see the bigger picture, until the 1960's.

Even the anthropological folklorists of the early 20th century, namely Franz Boas and his students at Columbia University, focused on collection. Boas was a founding member and important force in the American Folklore Society as well as an anthropologist. Boas and his many famous students such as Benedict, Sapir, Kroeber, Jacobs, Radin, Mead, to name only a

few, all considered themselves folklorists, contributing to and editing the Journal of American Folklore and serving as members and officers of the American Folklore Society. Zumwalt quotes Kroeber’s student George Foster as claiming, "In those days, we all did folklore" (1988, 68).

These heirs of Boas provided tremendous amounts of empirical data that they saw as reflective of culture. Their great contribution was as fieldworkers trying to present accurate, objective collections of the cultures they observed and lived among. Such experiences allowed them to overcome much of the racism of their predecessors in social theory: "Franz Boas was the first anthropologist to sweep evolutionary reconstructions aside and to assert at least partial custody of the sacred in behalf of all indigenous people. According to Boas, cultures were neither moral examples nor living fossils but simply different and equally valued" (Simmons 1988, 3). Such understanding comes from close contact with real people through the experience of fieldwork.

The Boasians used data they collected to understand given Native American cultures, although in the case of Tshimshian Mythology Boas considered the mythology to be meaningful and reflective of that culture but as it was in the past, so he largely ignored the contemporary culture he saw. This was partly due to his unwillingness to see cultural expressions as distorted or requiring psychoanalytical interpretation. Such understanding was foregrounded by his student Ruth Benedict (and others). But his attitude also encompassed a feeling of urgency because the culture would change from its pristine state: "Anthropologists also felt a powerful incentive to learn what they could about such cultures . . . pristine microcosms . . . before they succumbed to debilitating change" (Simmons 1988, 3).

When William Thoms coined the term "folk lore" in 1846 in England, "the folk," were considered the illiterate peasantry of a given region: "the term folk in its initial meaning referred to European peasants and to them alone" (Dundes 1980, 4). We now recognize as folk any collectivity (a group or a culture): "Who are the folk? Among others, we are!" (Dundes 1980, 19). This shift reflects a reorientation in thinking that recognizes the universality of the human condition and the vital importance of folklore to all cultures. "Lore" was originally seen as texts of stories and songs, and now encompasses any willed, individual, creative expression. Since the 1960's folklore has been defined as "artistic communication in small groups" (Ben-Amos 1972), meaning folklorists focus upon the relationship of individual creativity to the collective order. Folklorists are equally concerned with aesthetic and expressive aspects of culture and the people and societies that make and respond to creative acts.

From early on folklorists sought to classify the material they collected. In fact, the major shift in folkloristics (in the 1960's) was a move from collection and categorization (predominant among both the literary and anthropological folklorists working early in the century), to a new focus on synthesis. The new generation of folklorists recognize the interactions between how an individual tells a story and how the audiences react and interact, and interrelationships between art, architecture and other expressive elements of culture. Folklorists today look at the dynamic relations between the socially given, the traditional, and the creative individual. The field has re-calibrated itself from a focus on the traditional and ready-made, to a focus on the balance of traditional and emergent, socially given and creative. Such synthetic work seeks to better understand the world by recognizing the circular system of individual, group, and expression. Folklorists today have and use theories, but they also strive to maintain an empirical richness in their study, letting the fieldwork, the data, and the people involved direct the big picture as much as possible.

Today we appreciate collections and methods of previous generations, but the new insights of performance theory have further opened the field. Performance theory remains a valid and useful perspective but it must be attended to more frequently and fully. The more studies we have from a perspective of performance theory the better because culture is various and dynamic and can be almost infinitely described, analyzed, and appreciated (just as a text in literature can be read and understood from various perspectives).

Today, many folklorists use the word "consultant" rather than "informant" to refer to those with whom we work in the field. The word consultant represents a conceptual shift – giving the folk credit and space as performers and partners in understanding and analyzing material. They are not just a source to use. We work these days not to salvage something about to disappear, but to describe and analyze the present in cooperation with the people with whom we work. Those folklorists attendant to performance theory offer relatively full contextual pictures of the community in which they work. Those contexts aid our understanding of particular narratives or other expressive forms. Remember that folklore embodies a synthesis of the "folk" and the "lore." Ultimately, all of culture and humanity share these foci of folklore – creativity and society.


 From various contemporary folklore scholars:

1)  "Folklore is very much an organic phenomenon. . . . It is possible to distinguish three basic conceptions of the subject underlying many definitions; accordingly, folklore is one of these three:  a body of knowledge, a mode of thought, or a kind of art. . . . Folklore is not thought of as existing without or apart from a structured group. . .its existence depends on its social context. . . . As an artistic process, folklore may be found in any communicative medium; musical, visual, kinetic, or dramatic. . . . In sum, folklore is artistic communication in small groups."    (Dan Ben-Amos, 1972)

2)  "[I see] folklore as action.  My argument here is that this kind of focus on the doing of folklore, that is, on folklore performance, is the key to the real integration between people and lore on the empirical level.  This is to conceptualize the social base of folklore in terms of the actual place of the lore in social relationships and its use in communicative interaction." (Richard Bauman, 1972)

3)   "American folklorists think of their discipline chiefly as the study of 'special groups'--age groups, occupational groups, groups living in certain regions of the country [and groups identified] by national or ethnic origin."  (Americo Paredes, 1968)

4)  It is possible. . .to define both folk and lore in such a way that even the beginner can understand what folklore is.  The term "folk" can refer to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor.  It does not matter what the linking factor is--it could be a common occupation, language or religion--but what is important is that a group formed for whatever reason will have some traditions which it calls its own. (Alan Dundes, 1965)

6)       "[The center of folklore is a] merger of individual creativity and social order philosophically, politically, my discipline upholds the human right to the construction of a meaningful universe through artistic action; it stresses the interdependence of the personal, the social; the aesthetic, the ethical, the cosmological; the beautiful, the good, the true.  Practically, folklore is the study of human creativity in its own context. . . ." (Henry Glassie, 1993)

From The Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Legends (older ideas)

"Folklore is that art form, comprising various types of stories, proverbs, sayings, spells, songs, incantations, and other formulas, which employs spoken language as its medium."   (Richard Waterman)

"The common idea present in all folklore is that of tradition, something handed down from one person to another and preserved either by memory or practice rather than written record." (Stith Thompson)

"The entire body of ancient popular beliefs, customs, and traditions which have survived among the less educated elements of civilized societies until today [italicized portion no longer believed and considered offensive].  It thus includes fairy tales, myths, and legends, superstitions, festival rites, traditional games, folk songs, popular sayings, arts, crafts, folk dances, and the like." (John L. Mish)


Anthropologists and folklorists of previous generations sometimes lamented that an age of high technology and global capitalism would result in the demise of "traditional" cultures. Today, we more often consider culture and tradition as fluid and dynamic resources which interact with (shaping as much as being shaped by) the modern world, rather than being overrun or determined by it.


As a dynamic process, tradition flows from and shapes individual lives, while shaping and resonating with larger patterns of worldview and culture. People’s creations draw upon unique combinations of community life and personal inspiration. Tradition flows into and from this process of convergence: "History, culture, and the human actor meet in tradition," which is "volitional, temporal action" (Glassie 1995, 409). When humans commit to willful acts of creation intended to express cultural or social connection, they are participating authentically in traditional culture (Glassie 1995, 400-401). Throughout time and space cultures change and adapt rather than die. 

Dell Hymes understands tradition in equally fluid and emergent terms: "The traditional begins with the personal. Its distribution in history, in a community, is important, but secondary, not defining. Something partakes of the nature of the traditional already when the effort to traditionalize has brought it into being. . . . Intact tradition is not so much a matter of preservation, as it is a matter of re-creation, by successive persons and generations, and in individual performances" (1975, 354, 355). Folklore and tradition both rest on notions of situation, creativity, and performance. 

One of the Native American consultants with whom I worked also understands culture as a dynamic process: "I don’t think it’s that at all [i.e., culture is not being poor, uneducated, and unemployed on the reservation]. I think it’s the – well, we talk about culture as the essence of life, and how, the way we do things, the way we do, the way we look at things. It is Nishnaabe to me, being Native." To John Cappa, "being Native" is a matter of worldview and actions – how we look at the world and how we act in it. When he hears "culture" he thinks the speaker usually intends it to mean how a group of people lived during a particular period – e.g. his ancestors or community being poor. But it is more essential than that, more like life itself: "the essence of life," based on actions, "the way we do things," and worldview, "the way we look at things." He thus intuits from his experience the same message that scholars offer about the fluid nature of culture. Culture, like identity, is a matter of lives and imagination. 

DeMallie further develops his definition of culture with consideration of the dynamic and fluid nature of culture. He notes that both symbols and their associated meanings change over time and according to various outside and inside influences, "providing the dynamic that keeps human groups in constant flux" (1988, 2). Such fluidity of culture is universal and natural. 

Given this fluid and dynamic definition of culture, "authentic" need only refer to moments of creativity or interpretation, "when individual commitment brings social association" (Glassie 1995, 401). So long as one acts freely, with desire to connect to the "traditional" within a society (i.e., the work and ideas of other society members which are also willful, creative, and  consciously connected to values or ideals of a social group), resultant creations, expressions, or interpretations are authentic.



1.  Henry Glassie in Turkish Traditional Art Today (Bloomington:  IU Press, 1993, p. 9). It is a rich word, lacking an exact synonym, naming the process by which individuals simultaneously connect to the past and the present while building the future.  So tradition can label the collective resource, essential to all creativity, and in adjective form it can qualify the products of people who keep faith with their dead teachers and their live companions while shaping their actions responsibly.  Traditions detractors associate it with stasis and contrast it with a change, but it is rooted in volition and it flowers in variation and innovation.

2.  Mary Ellen Brown, Burns and Tradition (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1984, p. xii) Tradition is a constant process across time and in time, linking past with present, thus ensuring continuity.  It is also dynamic and ever-changing as culture and societal needs alter.  On of the elusive but preserving cultural bases which bind people to one another, it unites individuals and refutes the isolation and insularity man as a social being fears.

3.  Richard Bauman, "Differential Identity and the Social Base of Folklore," in Toward New Perspectives in Folklore (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972, p. 33) Bauman sees this as the former view of tradition: Folklore is the product through creation or recreation of the whole group and its forebearers, and an expression of their common character.  It is spoken of in terms of traditions, with tradition conceived of as a superorganic temporal continuum; the folk "tradition bearers," that is, they carry the folklore traditions on through time and space like so much baggage.

4.  Alan Dundes (quoted by Ben-Amos in "The Seven Strands of Tradition") Tradition in folklore, like culture in anthropology, has become a defining and identifying aspect social life.  There is a direct and mutual relation between a group and its tradition.  Through experience, interaction, language, and history, a society builds up a tradition which, in turn, functions as its complex identity mark. 

5.  Barre Toelken, The Dynamics of Folklore, p. 10. All folklore participates in a distinctive, dynamic process.  Constant change, variation within tradition, whether intentional or inadvertent, is viewed here simply as a central fact of life for folklore, and rather than presenting it in opposed terms of conscious artistic manipulation or forgetfulness [Toelken has] sought to accept it as a defining feature that grows out of context, performance, attitude, cultural tastes and the like.

Tradition is here understood to mean not some static, immutable force from the past, but those pre-existing culture-specific materials and options that bear upon the personal tastes and talents. . . .In the use of tradition. . .such matters as content and style have been for the most part passed on but not invented by the performer.

6.  Richard Handler & Jocelyn Linnekin, "Tradition, Genuine or Spurious" (Journal of American Folklore, 1984) Tradition cannot be defined in terms of boundedness, givenness, or essence.  Rather, tradition refers to an interpretive process that embodies both continuity and discontinuity.  (p. 120)

Thus we can no longer speak of tradition in terms of the approximate identity of some objective thing that changes while remaining the same.  Instead, we must understand tradition as a symbolic process that both presupposes past symbolisms and creatively reinterprets them.  In other words, tradition is not a bounded entity made up of bounded constituent parts, but a process of interpretation, attributing meaning in the present through making reference to the past.

This understanding of tradition implies that society, commonly perceived as the largest unit of social reality, is, like tradition, a meaningful process rather a bounded object.  Social identity is always formulated in interaction with others, and depends upon evolving distinctions between categories that are symbolically constituted. . . . Tradition is always defined in the present. . .[and] never exist apart from our interpretations of them.


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