A Brief History of Folklife Theory

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### Overview

The term “folklife” implies an ethnographic understanding folk culture with reference to the way people actually make use of traditions at specific moments. This conception reflects a rather radical shift in the theory underlying contemporary folklore studies that occurred in the late 1960s.

Those who study the history of science and ideas have shown that a discipline’s implicit assumptions about a subject affect the way it is studied, and can limit advances in understanding until a “paradigmatic shift” occurs. In folklore studies, several basic ideas about the nature of folklore — ideas rooted in the early 19th-century beginnings of the field — had limited folklore fieldwork to the mere collection of texts; and while these notions of “Folklore as Survival” and “Folklore-as-Text” were essential for the evolution of folklore scholarship, ultimately, it began to inhibit fuller — and more engaging — interpretations of traditional culture.

The paradigmatic shift in folklore studies towards Context, Performance, and Event (inspired in part by emerging paradigms in anthropology, linguistics, sociology, and philosophy), was also influenced by the fieldwork experience of observant young folklorists. The resulting change in theory, in turn, has moved folklife fieldwork toward ethnography, and to a role of central importance in the contemporary interpretation of folklife.

A brief overview of the history of ideas in the discipline of folklore studies will illustrate the relationship of theory and fieldwork, and show concretely why it’s no longer adequate to merely collect and classify texts.

### Romantic Nationalism

The Term Folklore was coined in 1846 by an Englishman interested in “popular antiquities,” but looking for a good Saxon word for it. He and others of that era, regarded folklore as a survival from an earlier time — a vestige of an earlier stage of development in human society and culture, with no function or relevance today, and no contemporary meaning.

19th-century interest in folklore spurred by reaction to 1) industrialization and social change; and 2) political and cultural domination of one nation by another: of Germany by France; Ireland by Britain; Finland by Russia. One German intellectual in particular, J.G. Herder, urged German poets and composers to turn to the traditions of the Peasants, whose traditional tales and songs preserved the authentic national spirit, identity, values of the German people. These were the proper basis, the raw materials, for elite literature and music.

The Brothers Grimm were among those whom Herder inspired. But the Grimms were not interested in the tellers, or the role tale-telling played among the peasants who perpetuated the tradition. They looked upon the tales they collected as declined myth, and were interested only in the texts and what they thought it told them about earlier, purer, forms of German culture. Others began collecting folklore in other countries for similar reasons.

The Grimms, and most of those they inspired, virtually ignored the actual “life” of the lore. Fieldwork standards at that time were very loose — merely collecting, not ethnography; there was no idea of adhering to the spoken language of tale-tellers, of valuing the stories as actually told, of trying to observe actual storytelling events. Rather, the standard practice was to rewrite texts — to “improve” them for a literate readership.

### Historic-Geographic (or Comparative) Method

A few decades later (1870s), scholars interested in “magic tales” (“Märchen” was the German term) began to notice similarities among materials all over Europe, and sought an explanation for this. One school of thought suggested that similar tales all descended from a single original source (monogenesis). Scholars began assembling and comparing all known variants of the recognizable tale types — both form literary sources and from field collections — plotting their distribution across space and time, in order to identify place of origin, and especially to reconstruct the original forms — done by a statistical enumeration of persistent “traits.” All this research was essentially an abstract manipulation of what folklorist Richard Bauman has described as “disembodied” texts,.

This approach came to be known as the Historic-Geographic method, or the Comparative method. Influential into mid 20th century. Gave rise to standard reference works, massive compilations of variants: Aarne-Thompson Tale-Type index and the Motif Index of Folk Literature. JF Child in this scholarly tradition.

### Cultural Evolutionism

An opposing school of thought held that the widespread dispersion of similar materials was due not to single-source, but to the fact that, as human civilization evolved, men passed through similar stages of culture. Linear hierarchy: Barbarism – Savagery – Civilization (i.e., British). Societies in similar stages of culture, they held, had same sort of conceptions, beliefs — spirits, animism, magic, shape-shifting: all folklore, then, was belief/tales from stage of Savagery into stage of civilization — survivals, vestiges of earlier phases.

Cultural Evolutionism posited that similar tales and beliefs originated independently among dispersed populations that were passing through the same stage of cultural evolution. According to this theory, then, superficially similar items of folklore in different cultures had exact same significance. To understand peasant beliefs (survival), one need only to compare them with similar beliefs of primitive tribes, where original meanings were still understood.

The point is this: Because of their theoretical presumptions, both the Historic-Geographic and the Cultural Evolutionist approaches were item-centered — concerned with “texts” only. Both took items of lore out of their social and cultural context. Their thinking admitted no possibility that a tale, song, or custom might actually have functions or significance among people (peasants) among whom they collected it (though in fact, many 19th-century folklorists collected their items indirectly — from people of their own class who had encountered folk traditions, often from their servants).

One approach was literary, the other anthropological, in objectives; both treated lore as “disembodied stuff, floating around the map almost by itself” (Richard Bauman).

BOTH schools of thought:

* Ignored life of the lore in social groups, and were therefore SURVIVAL-oriented.

* Ignored the tellers and singers who kept the arts alive through performance.

* Ignored use, function, actual performances/events, aesthetics, creativity.

* Ignored indigenous language, diction, style of performance (paraphrased abstracts or completely rewritten texts were not merely sufficient, they were regarded as “improved”).

So, the item-centered, text-oriented approach, which sets out to collect, arrange, classify, and analyze survivals, is rooted in 19th-century theories about what folklore is and how it is to be understood, and also in a conception of FOLK as peasants (illiterate, rural, pre-industrial, backward).

Now these approaches to folklore persisted well into the 20th century. The American Folklore Society was established in 1888; most of its founding members were coming from either literary, Historic-Geographic, or Cultural Evolutionist perspectives. James F. Child was the 1st president of the AFS; William Wells Newell set the Society’s agenda: to “collect the fast-vanishing remains” of Indian, Negro, French Creole, Old English peoples. Ultimately, the members of this influential first generation of American folklorists were all text- (or artifact-) centered, and concerned with classifying types and tracing diffusion.

American collectors of tales and folksongs were typically drawn to folklore out of a kind of Romantic Nationalism, believing folklore preserved the spirit of the true Anglo-Saxon stock — in VA, Richard Chase, Annabelle Morris Buchanan, John Powell all came out of this ideology, using folklore as a basis for elite art. They were not interested in role of lore in context, or skill of different narrators; their collected texts were not faithful to tale-tellers style and language; standard editorial practice, as for the Grimms, was to “improve” collected tales for publication.

### Cultural Relativism

The seed of a newer perspective, however, was also present among the first AFS membership, in the work of Franz Boas, a young anthropologist newly-arrived from Germany. Boas had an early scientific interest in cultural differences in perception, and was disposed to first-hand, empirical investigation of culture in living societies. He turned his attention to cultural artifacts (masks, tales), and viewed them in relation to their specific cultural context: local systems of symbol and meaning. = beginnings of fieldwork and ethnography.

Boas revealed the flaw in Evolutionary premise: superficial similarities misleading; similar items in different cultures may have very distinctly divergent meanings. Culture as an integrated whole; items reflect culture. Meaning not in reference to abstract scheme of stages of cultural evolution; but in relation to specific, systemic whole. CULTURAL RELATIVISM.

Boas’ thinking was revolutionary. As a teacher of anthropology at Columbia, Boas influenced an entire generation of young anthropologists, encouraged documentation of folklore, urged in-depth fieldwork.

### Contextualism I

As anthropologists began doing more firsthand fieldwork — less abstract theorizing — began to perceive how folklore was indeed an integral, functional part of its living cultural context; not a survival, but having contemporary significance among the people who used it.

Result: fieldwork began informing interpretive anthropological theories that emerged in the 20th century influenced folklorists and those in other professions introduced in folklife, still inform folkloric studies today.

### Functionalism

Culture an integrated whole; all parts contribute to the well-being of the whole. William Bascom and Archer Taylor proposed four functions of folklore:

didactic; validation; social control; amusement.

### Contextualism II

Bronislaw Malinowski, particularly interested in belief and custom — intensive fieldwork: Participant/Observation. Understanding requires systematic fieldwork, immersion in society. Psychological function of, e.g., magic among high-risk island fishermen: allays anxiety. Wrote about importance of cultural context, situational context — both more generalized than in current usage among folklorists. Still thought of culture as an objectified “thing,” determined behavior of individuals by rules and norms.

Along this same time, first academic programs in folklore being created. Ralph Boggs at UNC; Stith Thompson at IU. Most folklorists in English departments; concerned with ballads, still collecting and classifying texts. But just beginning to use tape recorders, making verbatim transcripts; still looking at lore as oral literature, but doing more and more fieldwork and beginning to pay attention to things like the skills of narrators, singers — the role of individuals in maintaining tradition. Herbert Halpert; Vance Randolph.

Richard Dorson — historian/folklorist. Saw American Folklore as product of historical experience (“survivals” from recent past; not remote). Beginning to see that folklore continued to be created, even in modern times.

But in the early 60s, some significant shift occurred in folklore studies. Growing awareness of the importance of CONTEXT to an informed understanding.

### Oral Formulaic Theory

Perhaps most significant shift prompted by a study of Yugoslavian epic poetry by two Harvard scholars interested in the formulaic phrases in Homeric literature. Their theory was that Homer, blind Greek poet of the 2nd century B.C., was practicing an oral tradition, and relied on formula in composing epic poems. Studied living Yugoslavian singers, who sang long epic poems. Discovered system of improvised performance, whereby song created anew each time its sung; never the same twice, responded to context — interest of audience.

### Folklore as Communication and Performance

This vision of oral folk literature, being created improvisationally by using traditional stock of phrases, images, motifs, inspired young folklorists (especially at University of Pennsylvania) to look more closely at the performance of folklore in context — to think of folklore, not just as a text to be collected, classified, and annotated, but as communication that takes place in specific social situations. Even more, as a performance that emerges in a kind of negotiative feedback between performer and audience. Oral Formulaic theory, for example, applied to blues and improvised sermons.

Lots of other influences: linguistics, anthropology, communications theory, even theory of literary criticism.

This perspective was a virtual revolution in the discipline of folklore.

* Brought about new levels of precision to documentation of folklore in context, paying close attention to details, social relations, interaction.

* Changed perception of folklore-as-item to folklore-as-event.

* Highlighted the dynamic tension between dual forces of tradition and innovation; continuity and change, at the center of which is —

* the folk artist/performer, elevated to new level of importance — as purposeful, creative individual, not passive tradition-bearer; one who may employ folklore in strategic ways to achieve specific objectives (e.g., proverbs).

Also, about the same time, concept of folk group changing. Not just the rural, isolated, homogeneous. Also among ethnic groups, urban communities, occupational groups, age groups, gender groups — ultimately any group of people who interact in informal, face-to-face ways; this interaction becomes the basis for shared identity, shared expressive resources, culture-based communication. Not only is anyone a “folk”; any individual may move in different folk circles at different times, according to role, relations, and therefore bear different traditions.

For our purposes, most important points were that:

* The item-oriented approach to folklore as a collection of texts, removed from their social and cultural contexts, was incomplete, misleading
* Folklore came to be viewed as contemporary and meaningful, rather than as nonsensical survival from a bygone era (though still deeply situated in history)
* Folklore an intrinsic response to human experience; new forms of tradition can arise from contemporary experience of groups