General Folklore Fieldwork
Guidelines from Mary Magoulick
CHOOSING A TOPIC
Decide what genre and folk group
you want to focus on. Consider focusing on verbal, material or customary lore.
Determine how you can collect,
observe, or document the folklore that interests you. (Do you know someone who
practices this? Are you yourself a member of the folk group? Do you have enough
time to learn about a different culture? etc.)
You may need to interview more than
one person to make your project convincing and effective.
Can you record this as a
participant observer (in its natural context)? Or must you arrange a separate
“performance” to conduct the interview?
Plan your interviewing, collection,
documentation sessions. Leave yourself at least a few weeks from the time you
conduct the interview until the time you write about it.
When approaching people to
interview, be very honest and clear.
Introduce yourself, explain your
project and ask for permission first before interviewing (or
Explain that you are working on a
collection project for your class, that you chose this person to interview
because of your genuine esteem for what he/she does
Be clear from the outset that will
need to tape record the interview (whether you use video or audio tape is your
Audio tape is typically less
intimidating (especially for older people)
Video tape can make it easier to
explain and demonstrate some of the context
Be sure you are in control of your
equipment (practice, test your batteries, have plenty of tape, film, etc.)
Ask your consultant to be totally
honest, to say what he/she really thinks and not what he/she thinks you want to
Think of the person you are
interviewing as a CONSULTANT rather than an informant (it give more credit to
Do NOT judge what he/she says in
any way during the interview (don=t
contradict or laugh at the person).
LISTEN CAREFULLY during the
interview. Be polite and show interest in his/her opinions/ideas.
Everyone likes to be listened to
(if the listener is sincerely listening).
You will probably think you are
talking too much when you listen to the tape later.
Take notes during the interview if
you can do so without distracting your consultant.
You may have a list of questions to
start, but try to let the conversation flow more naturally. The more specific
the better. (Rather than, “tell me your stories,” try eliciting a specific
story you have heard this person tell before, “Could you tell me that story
your told the other night about the cat that ate the salmon?”)
If the consultant has already
anticipated and answered a question, do not ask that question again.
If the consultant brings up an
aspect of the topic you had not anticipated, be prepared to pursue that line of
inquiry (by thinking up new questions as you do the interview)
You should plan for each interview
to last about an hour. But don’t be surprised if it takes longer. Be flexible
and allow plenty of time. Often the interview doesn’t really get interesting
until the consultant relaxes, which may take 20-45 minutes. Don’t cut it off
just as it’s getting good.
Remember to thank the person
Listen to your tape(s) once a few
days after the interview.
Transcribe the tape(s), or at least
the significant portions of it/them.
Be aware that it often takes up to
10 hours to transcribe 1 hour of tape.
Try to transcribe with an eye to
ethnopoetics (arranging spoken words on the page according to performance
aspects of the speech event). Not everything should be transcribed as poetry,
but perhaps some parts of your interview should be.
Try to also record significant
contextual events that might have also occurred during the interview (such as
Take time to write notes and your
reflections on the interview(s) as soon as possible afterwards. Use your notes
(or tape) to remember what was said. If there were things that you thought
significant but couldn’t write down during the interview (because you were
concentrating on listening), be sure to write those down afterwards before you
Consider how the folklore you
collected, recorded, observed connects to ideas and examples discussed in class.
Your essay should present an
argument you want to make about the material (you need a thesis).
Instead of working with literature
or research sources, the “text” you will analyze should be the transcribed
text of the interview you conducted (hopefully including stories). You might
also analyze examples of material culture or customary folklore.
Just as you would with a work of
literature, use quotes and/or features of the object or event along with your
analysis of them, as “proof” of your argument.
about answering the following questions before you embark on a fieldwork
What genre will you collect or document?
Whom will you interview? Or Where / How will you document folklore
(taking photographs and measurements at a cemetery for example or recording an
interview via audio or video tape)?
When will you carry out the interview (or documentation)? Where? For how
What specific questions or topics do you anticipate discussing/exploring?
What do you anticipate you will learn/argue from your findings?
Why does this topic interest you?
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