Folklore is the expressive body of culture shared by a particular
group of people; it encompasses the traditions common to that culture,
subculture or group. These include oral traditions such as tales,
proverbs and jokes. They include material culture, ranging from
traditional building styles to handmade toys common to the group.
Folklore also includes customary lore, the forms and rituals of
celebrations such as
Christmas and weddings, folk dances and
initiation rites. Each one of these, either singly or in combination,
is considered a folklore artifact. Just as essential as the form,
folklore also encompasses the transmission of these artifacts from one
region to another or from one generation to the next. For folklore is
not taught in a formal school curriculum or studied in the fine arts.
Instead these traditions are passed along informally from one
individual to another either through verbal instruction or
demonstration. The academic study of folklore is called folkloristics.
The Dutch Proverbs
2 Origin and development of folklore studies
3 Definition of folk
4 Genres: the lore of folklore
4.1 Verbal tradition
4.2 Material culture
Childlore and games
5 In action: performance in context
5.2 Tradition-bearer and audience
5.3 Framing the performance
5.4 In the subjunctive voice
5.5 Anderson's law of auto-correction
5.6 Context of material lore
5.7 Toelken's conservative-dynamic continuum
5.8 In the electronic age
6 See also
To fully understand folklore, it is helpful to clarify its component
parts: the terms folk and lore. It is well-documented that the term
was coined in 1846 by the Englishman William Thoms. He fabricated it
to replace the contemporary terminology of "popular antiquities" or
"popular literature". The second half of the compound word, lore,
proves easier to define as its meaning has stayed relatively stable
over the last two centuries. Coming from Old English lār
'instruction,' and with German and Dutch cognates, it is the knowledge
and traditions of a particular group, frequently passed along by word
The concept of folk proves somewhat more elusive. When Thoms first
created this term, folk applied only to rural, frequently poor and
illiterate peasants. A more modern 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." This expanded social definition of folk
supports a broader view of the material, i.e. the lore, considered to
be folklore artifacts. These now include all "things people make with
words (verbal lore), things they make with their hands (material
lore), and things they make with their actions (customary lore)".
Folklore is no longer circumscribed as being chronologically old or
obsolete. The folklorist studies the traditional artifacts of a social
group and how they are transmitted.
Transmission 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. For folklore is also a verb. These folk artifacts
continue to be passed along informally, as a rule anonymously and
always in multiple variants. The folk group is not individualistic, it
is community-based and nurtures its lore in community. "As new groups
emerge, new folklore is created… surfers, motorcyclists, computer
programmers". In direct contrast to high culture, where any single
work of a named artist is protected by copyright law, folklore is a
function of shared identity within the social group.
Having identified folk artifacts, the professional folklorist strives
to understand the significance of these beliefs, customs and objects
for the group. For these cultural units 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. 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 has been 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. It does not have to be old or antiquated. It continues to be
created, transmitted and in any group is used to differentiate between
"us" and "them".
Origin and development of folklore studies
Folkloristics § History_of_Folklore_Studies
Folklore began to distinguish itself as an autonomous discipline
during the period of romantic nationalism in Europe. A particular
figure in this development was Johann Gottfried von Herder, whose
writings in the 1770s presented oral traditions as organic processes
grounded in locale. After the German states were invaded by Napoleonic
France, Herder's approach was adopted by many of his fellow Germans
who systematized the recorded folk traditions and used them in their
process of nation building. This process was enthusiastically embraced
by smaller nations like Finland, Estonia, and Hungary, which were
seeking political independence from their dominant neighbours.
Folklore as a field of study further developed among 19th century
European scholars who were contrasting tradition with the newly
developing modernity. Its focus was the oral folklore of the rural
peasant populations, which were considered as residue and survivals of
the past that continued to exist within the lower strata of
society. 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 of that time.
This interest in stories, sayings and songs 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 and Ruth Benedict, 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 in Europe and the social sciences
in America 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.
The term Folkloristics, along with its synonym
1] gained currency in the 1950s to distinguish the academic study of
traditional culture from the folklore artifacts themselves. With the
passage in 1976 of the American Folklife Preservation Act, (P.L.
94-201), passed by the U.S. Congress in conjunction with the
Bicentennial Celebration in 1976, folkloristics in the United States
came of age.
"…[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
Added to the panoply of other legislation designed to protect the
natural and cultural heritage of the United States, this law also
marks a shift in national awareness. It gives voice to a growing
understanding that cultural diversity is a national strength and a
resource worthy of protection. Paradoxically, it is a unifying
feature, not something that separates the citizens of a country. "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". This diversity is
celebrated annually at the
Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Smithsonian Folklife Festival and many
other folklife fests around the country.
Definition of folk
The folk of the 19th century, the social group identified in the
original term "folklore", was characterized by being rural,
non-literate and poor. They were the peasants living in the
countryside, in contrast to the urban populace of the cities. Only
toward the end of the century did the urban proletariat (on the
coattails of Marxist theory) become included with the rural poor as
folk. The common feature in this expanded definition of folk was their
identification as the underclass of society.
Moving forward into the 20th century, in tandem with new thinking in
the social sciences, folklorists also revised and expanded their
concept of the folk group. By the 1960s it was understood that social
groups, i.e. folk groups, were all around us; each individual is
enmeshed in a multitude of differing identities and their concomitant
social groups. The first group that each of us is born into is the
family, and each family has its own unique folklore. As a child grows
into an individual, its identities also increase to include age,
language, ethnicity, occupation, etc. Each of these cohorts has its
own folklore, and as one folklorist points out, this is "not idle
speculation… Decades of fieldwork have demonstrated conclusively
that these groups do have their own folklore." In this modern
understanding, folklore is a function of shared identity within any
This folklore can include jokes, sayings and expected behavior in
multiple variants, always transmitted in an informal manner. For the
most part it will be learned by observation, imitation, repetition or
correction by other group members. This informal knowledge is used to
confirm and re-inforce the identity of the group. It can be used both
internally within the group to express their common identity, for
example in an initiation ceremony for new members. Or it can be used
externally to differentiate the group from outsiders, like a folkdance
demonstration at a community festival. Significant to folklorists here
is that there are two opposing but equally valid ways to use this in
the study of a group: you can start with an identified group in order
to explore its folklore, or you can identify folklore items and use
them to identify the social group.
Beginning in the 1960s, a further expansion of the concept of folk
began to unfold in folkloristics. Individual researchers identified
folk groups which had previously been overlooked and ignored. One
major example of this is found in an issue of "The Journal of American
Folklore", published 1975. This edition is dedicated exclusively to
articles on women's folklore, with approaches that were not coming
from a man's perspective.[note 2] Other groups that were highlighted
as part of this broadened understanding of the folk group were
non-traditional families, occupational groups, and families that
pursued production of folk items through multiple generations.
Genres: the lore of folklore
Individual folklore artifacts are commonly classified as one of three
types: material, verbal or customary lore. For the most part
self-explanatory, these categories include physical objects (material
folklore), common sayings, expressions, stories and songs (verbal
folklore), and beliefs and ways of doing things (customary folklore).
There is also a fourth major subgenre defined for children's folklore
and games (childlore), as the collection and interpretation of this
fertile topic is peculiar to school yards and neighborhood
streets. Each of these genres and their subtypes is intended to
organize and categorize the folklore artifacts; they provide common
vocabulary and consistent labeling for folklorists to communicate with
That said, each artifact is unique; in fact one of the characteristics
of all folklore artifacts is their variation within genres and
types. This is in direct contrast to manufactured goods, where the
goal in production is to create products which are identical, and
variations are considered mistakes. It is however just this required
variation that makes identification and classification of the defining
features a challenge. And while this classification is essential for
the subject area of folkloristics, it remains just labeling, and adds
little to an understanding of the traditional development and meaning
of the artifacts themselves.
Necessary as they are, genre classifications are misleading in their
oversimplification of the subject area.
Folklore artifacts are never
self-contained, they do not stand in isolation but are particulars in
the self-representation of a community. Different genres are
frequently combined with each other to mark an event. So a
birthday celebration might include a song or formulaic way of greeting
the birthday child (verbal), presentation of a cake and wrapped
presents (material), as well as customs to honor the individual, such
as sitting at the head of the table, and blowing out the candles with
a wish. There might also be special games played at birthday parties
which are not generally played at other times. Adding to the
complexity of the interpretation, the birthday party for a
seven-year-old will not be identical to the birthday party for that
same child as a six-year-old, even though they follow the same model.
For each artifact embodies a single variant of a performance in a
given time and space. The task of the folklorist becomes to identify
within this surfeit of variables the constants and the expressed
meaning that shimmer through all variations: honoring of the
individual within the circle of family and friends, gifting to express
their value and worth to the group, and of course, the festival food
and drink as signifiers of the event.
Hansel and Gretel, Arthur Rackham, 1909
The formal definition of verbal lore is words, both written and oral,
which are "spoken, sung, voiced forms of traditional utterance that
show repetitive patterns." Crucial here are the repetitive
patterns. Verbal lore is not just any conversation, but words and
phrases conforming to a traditional configuration recognized by both
the speaker and the audience. For narrative types by definition have
consistent structure, and follow an existing model in their narrative
form.[note 3] As just one simple example, in English the phrase "An
elephant walks into a bar…" instantaneously flags the following text
as a joke. It might be one you've already heard, but it might be one
that the speaker has just thought up within the current context. This
is folklore in action. Another example is the child's song Old
MacDonald Had a Farm, where each performance is distinctive in the
animals named, their order and their sounds. Songs such as this are
used to express cultural values (farms are important, farmers are old
and weather-beaten) and teach children about different domesticated
animals. This is folklore in action.
Verbal folklore was the original folklore, the artifacts defined by
William Thoms as older, oral cultural traditions of the rural
populace. In his 1846 published call for help in documenting
antiquities, Thoms was echoing scholars from across the European
continent to collect artifacts of verbal lore. 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. Antti Aarne published a
first classification system for folktales in 1910. This 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 oral artifacts grew, similarities were noted in items which
had been collected from very different geographic regions, ethnic
groups and epochs, giving rise to the Historic-Geographic Method, a
methodology which dominated folkloristics in the first half of the
William Thoms first published his appeal to document the verbal
lore of the rural populations, it was believed these folk artifacts
would die out as the population became literate. Over the past two
centuries this belief has proven to be wrong; folklorists continue to
collect verbal lore in both written and spoken form from all social
groups. Some variants might have been captured in published
collections, but much of it is still transmitted orally and indeed
continues to be generated in new forms and variants at an alarming
The story of
Anarkali is popular folklore in the former
territories of the Mughal Empire.
Below is listed a small sampling of types and examples of verbal lore.
Bremen Town Musicians
Prayers at bedtime
Prayers at table
Horse and sulky weathervane, Smithsonian American Art Museum
The genre of material culture includes all artifacts that you can
touch, hold, live in or eat. They are tangible objects, with a
physical presence intended for use either permanently or just at next
meal. Most of these folklore artifacts are single objects which have
been created by hand for a specific purpose. However folk artifacts
can also be mass-produced, such as dreidels or
These items continue to be considered folklore due to their long
(pre-industrial) history and their customary use. All of these
material objects "existed prior to and continue alongside mechanized
industry. … [They are] transmitted across the generations and
subject to the same forces of conservative tradition and individual
variation" that are found in all folk artifacts. Of interest to
folklorists are their physical form, their method of manufacture or
construction, their pattern of use as well as the procurement of the
raw materials. The meaning to those who both make and use these
objects is important. Of primary significance in these studies is the
complex balance of continuity over change in both their design and
Traditional highlanders' pins hand-made by a goldsmith in Podhale,
In Europe before the
Industrial Revolution everything was made by
hand. While some folklorists of the 19th century wanted to secure the
oral traditions of the rural folk before the populace became literate,
other folklorists sought to identify hand-crafted objects before their
production processes were lost to industrial manufacturing. Just as
verbal lore continues to be actively created and transmitted in
today's culture, so these handicrafts, possibly with a shift in
purpose and meaning, can still be found all around us. For there are
many reasons to continue to hand make objects for use. It could mean
these skills are needed to repair manufactured items. Or perhaps a
unique design is wanted which is not (or cannot be) found in the
stores. Many crafts are considered to be simple home maintenance, such
as cooking, sewing and carpentry.
Handicrafts have also become for
many an enjoyable and satisfying hobby. Last but not least, handmade
objects have taken on the sheen of prestige, where extra time and
thought is spent in their creation and their uniqueness is valued.
For the folklorist, these hand-crafted objects embody multifaceted
relationships in the lives of the craftsmen and the users, which is
completely lacking in mass-produced items without connection to an
individual craftsman. Regardless of the motivation for the
handicraft, this is folklore in action.
Many traditional crafts have been elevated to the fine or applied arts
and taught in art schools, such as ironworking and glass-making.
Or they are repurposed as folk art, characterized as objects in which
the decorative form supersedes its utilitarian needs.
Folk art is
found in hex signs on Pennsylvania Dutch barns, tin man sculptures
made by metalworkers, front yard
Christmas displays, decorated school
lockers, carved gun stocks, and tattoos. "Words such as naive,
self-taught, and individualistic are used to describe these objects,
and the exceptional rather than the representative creation is
featured." This is in contrast to our understanding of folklore
artifacts which are nurtured and passed along in community.[note 4]
Many objects of material folklore, big and small, are challenging to
classify, difficult to archive and unwieldy to store. How do we
preserve these bulky artifacts of material culture, and how do we use
them? That is the assigned task of museums. Toward this goal the
concept of the Living history or open-air museum has been developed,
beginning in Scandinavia at the end of the 19th century. These museums
are here to teach, not just display. Actors show how items were used,
reenacting everyday living by people from all segments of society. In
order to achieve this, these museums rely heavily on the material
artifacts of a pre-industrial society. Many locations even duplicate
the processing of the objects, thus creating new objects of an earlier
historic time period. These Living history museums are now found
throughout the United States and the world as part of a thriving
heritage industry. This is folklore in action.
This list represents just a small sampling of objects and skills which
are included in studies of material culture.
Food recipes and presentation
Customary culture is remembered enactment, i.e. re-enactment. It is
the patterns of expected behavior within a group, the "traditional and
expected way of doing things" A custom can be a single
gesture, such as thumbs down or a handshake. It can also be a complex
interaction of multiple folk customs and artifacts as seen in a
child's birthday party, including verbal lore (Happy
material lore (presents and a birthday cake), special games (Musical
chairs) and individual customs (making a wish as you blow out the
candles). Each of these is a folklore artifact in its own right,
potentially worthy of investigation and cultural analysis. Together
they combine to build the custom of a birthday party celebration, a
scripted combination of multiple artifacts which have meaning within
their social group.
Santa Claus giving gifts to children, a common folk practice
Christmas in Western nations
Folklorists divide customs into several different categories. A
custom can be a seasonal celebration, such as
Thanksgiving or New
Year's. It can be a life cycle celebration for an individual, such as
baptism, birthday or wedding. A custom can also mark a community
festival or event; examples of this are Carnival in Cologne or Mardi
Gras in New Orleans. This category also includes the Smithsonian
Folklife Festival celebrated each summer on the Mall in Washington,
DC. A fourth category includes customs related to folk beliefs.
Walking under a ladder is just one of many symbols considered unlucky.
Occupational groups tend to have a rich history of customs related to
their life and work, so the traditions of sailors or lumberjacks.[note
5] The area of ecclesiastical folklore, which includes modes of
worship not sanctioned by the established church tends to be so
large and complex that it is usually treated as a specialized area of
folk customs; it requires considerable expertise in standard church
ritual in order to adequately interpret folk customs and beliefs that
originated in official church practice.
Customary folklore is by definition folklore in action; it is always a
performance, be it a single gesture or a complex of scripted customs.
Participating in the custom, either as performer or audience,
signifies acknowledgment of that social group. Some customary behavior
is intended to be performed and understood only within the group
itself, so the handkerchief code sometimes used in the gay community
or the initiation rituals of the Freemasons. Other customs are
designed specifically to represent a social group to outsiders, those
who do not belong to this group. The St. Patrick's Day Parade in New
York and in other communities across the continent is a single example
of an ethnic group parading their separateness (differential
behavior), and encouraging Americans of all stripes to show
alliance to this colorful ethnic group. Another multicolored social
Gay Pride Movement, also parades in communities across the
country to show the strength of their culture and demonstrate for
recognition of their group within the contemporary legal and social
Practitioners of hoodening, a folk custom found in Kent, southeastern
England, in 1909
These festivals and parades, with a target audience of people who do
not belong to the social group, intersect with the interests and
mission of public folklorists, who are engaged in the documentation,
preservation, and presentation of traditional forms of folklife. With
a swell in popular interest in folk traditions, these community
celebrations are becoming more numerous throughout the western world.
While ostensibly parading the diversity of their community, economic
groups have discovered that these folk parades and festivals are good
for business. All shades of people are out on the streets, eating,
drinking and spending. This attracts support not only from the
business community, but also from federal and state organizations for
these local street parties. Paradoxically, in parading diversity
within the community, these events have come to authenticate true
community, where business interests ally with the varied (folk) social
groups to promote the interests of the community as a whole.
This is just a small sampling of types and examples of customary lore.
Giving the finger
Louisiana Creole people
St John's Eve
Trick or Treating
Childlore and games
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1560) shows five boys
playing buck buck in the bottom right hand corner of the painting.
Childlore is a distinct branch of folklore that deals with activities
passed on by children to other children, away from the influence or
supervision of an adult. Children's folklore contains artifacts
from all the standard folklore genres of verbal, material and
customary lore; it is however the child-to-child conduit that
distinguishes these artifacts. For childhood is a social group where
children teach, learn and share their own traditions, flourishing in a
street culture outside the purview of adults. This is also ideally
where it needs to be collected; as
Iona and Peter Opie demonstrated in
their pioneering book Children's
Games in Street and Playground.
Here the social group of children is studied on its own terms, not as
an derivative of adult social groups. It is shown that the culture of
children is quite distinctive; it is generally unnoticed by the
sophisticated world of adults, and quite as little affected by it.
Of particular interest to folklorists here is the mode of transmission
of these artifacts; this lore circulates exclusively within an
informal pre-literate children's network or folkgroup. It does not
include artifacts taught to children by adults. However children can
take the taught and teach it further to other children, turning it
into childlore. Or they can take the artifacts and turn them into
something else; so Old McDonald's farm is transformed from animal
noises to the scatological version of animal poop. This childlore is
characterized by "its lack of dependence on literary and fixed form.
Children…operate among themselves in a world of informal and oral
communication, unimpeded by the necessity of maintaining and
transmitting information by written means. This is as close as
folklorists can come to observing the transmission and social function
of this folk knowledge before the spread of literacy during the 19th
As we have seen with the other genres, the original collections of
children's lore and games in the 19th century was driven by a fear
that the culture of childhood would die out. Early folklorists,
Alice Gomme in Britain and
William Wells Newell in the
United States, felt a need to capture the unstructured and
unsupervised street life and activities of children before it was
lost. This fear proved to be unfounded. In a comparison of any modern
school playground during recess and the painting of "Children's Games"
Pieter Breugel the Elder
Pieter Breugel the Elder we can see that the activity level is
similar, and many of the games from the 1560 painting are recognizable
and comparable to modern variations still played today.
These same artifacts of childlore, in innumerable variations, also
continue to serve the same function of learning and practicing skills
needed for growth. So bouncing and swinging rhythms and rhymes
encourage development of balance and coordination in infants and
children. Verbal rhymes like
Peter Piper picked… serve to increase
both the oral and aural acuity of children. Songs and chants,
accessing a different part of the brain, are used to memorize series
(Alphabet song). They also provide the necessary beat to complex
physical rhythms and movements, be it hand-clapping, jump roping, or
ball bouncing. Furthermore, many physical games are used to develop
strength, coordination and endurance of the players. For some team
games, negotiations about the rules can run on longer than the game
itself as social skills are rehearsed. Even as we are just now
uncovering the neuroscience that undergirds the developmental function
of this childlore, the artifacts themselves have been in play for
Below is listed just a small sampling of types and examples of
childlore and games.
Finger and toe rhymes
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
London Bridge Is Falling Down
Ring a Ring o Roses
In action: performance in context
Lacking context, the folklore artifacts in the Smithsonian Folklife
Archive contain as much life as the stuffed elephant down the street
in the Natural History Museum. It is only in performance that they
come alive as an active and meaningful component of a social group;
this is where the intergroup communication lives, where transmission
of these cultural elements takes place. "
Folklore is folklore only
when performed". Without transmission, these items are not
folklore, they are just individual quirky tales and objects.
This understanding in folkloristics only occurred in the second half
of the 20th century, when the two terms "folklore performance" and
"text and context" dominated discussions among folklorists. These
terms are not contradictory or even mutually exclusive. As borrowings
from other fields of study, one or the other linguistic formulation is
more appropriate to any given discussion. Performance is frequently
tied to verbal and customary lore, whereas context is used in
discussions of material lore. Both formulations offer different
perspectives on the same folkloric understanding, specifically that
folklore artifacts need to remain embedded in their cultural
environment if we are to gain insight into their meaning for the
The concept of cultural (folklore) performance is shared with
ethnography and anthropology among other social sciences. The cultural
Victor Turner identified four universal characteristics
of cultural performance. These are playfulness, framing, using
symbolic language and employing the subjunctive mood. In
performance the audience leaves the daily reality to move into a mode
of make-believe, "what if". That this fits well with all types of
verbal lore, where reality finds no footing among the symbols,
fantasies, and nonsense of traditional tales, proverbs, and jokes is
self-evident. Customs and the lore of children and games also fit
easily into the language of a folklore performance.
Material culture requires some kneading to turn it into a performance.
Should we consider the performance of the production, as in a quilting
party, or the performance of the recipients who use the quilt to cover
their marriage bed? Here the language of context works better to
describe the quilting of patterns copied from the grandmother,
quilting as a social event during the winter months, or the gifting of
a quilt to signify the importance of the event. Each of these, the
traditional pattern chosen, the social event and the gifting occur
within the broader context of the community. That said, even in a
discussion of context the structure and characteristics of performance
can be recognized, including an audience, a framing event, and the use
of decorative figures and symbols which go beyond the utility of the
Before the Second World War, folk artifacts had been understood and
collected as cultural shards of an earlier time. They were considered
individual vestigial artifacts, with little or no function in the
contemporary culture. Given this understanding, the goal of the
folklorist was to capture and document them before they disappeared.
They were collected with no supporting data, bound in books, archived
and classified more or less successfully. The Historic-Geographic
Method worked to isolate and track these collected artifacts, mostly
verbal lore, across space and time.
Following the Second World War, folklorists began to articulate a more
holistic approach toward their subject matter. In tandem with the
growing sophistication in the social sciences, attention was no longer
limited to the isolated artifact, but extended to include the artifact
embedded in an active cultural environment. One early proponent was
Alan Dundes with his essay "Texture, Text and Context", first
published 1964. A public presentation in 1967 by
Dan Ben-Amos at
Folklore Society brought the behavioral approach into
open debate among folklorists. In 1972
Richard Dorson called out the
"young Turks" for their movement toward a behavioral approach to
folklore. This approach "shifted the conceptualization of folklore as
an extractable item or 'text' to an emphasis on folklore as a kind of
human behavior and communication. Conceptualizing folklore as behavior
redefined the job of folklorists..."[note 6]
Folklore became a verb, an action, something that people do, not just
something that they have. It is in the performance and the active
context that folklore artifacts get transmitted in informal, direct
communication, either verbally or in demonstration. Performance became
the umbrella term for all the different modes and manners in which
this transmission occurs.
Tradition-bearer and audience
Presentation of traditional Wallachian pipes at the Wallachian Open
Air Museum, Rožnov pod Radhoštěm, Czech Republic, 2017
Transmission is a communicative process requiring a binary: one
individual or group who actively transmits information in some form to
another individual or group. Each of these is a defined role in the
folklore process. The tradition-bearer is the individual who
actively passes along the knowledge of an artifact; this can be either
a mother singing a lullaby to her baby, or an Irish dance troupe
performing at a local festival. They are named individuals, usually
well known in the community as knowledgeable in their traditional
lore. They are not the anonymous "folk", the nameless mass without of
history or individuality.
The audience of this performance is the other half in the transmission
process; they listen, watch, and remember. Few of them will become
active tradition-bearers; many more will be passive tradition-bearers
who maintain a memory of this specific traditional artifact, in both
its presentation and its content.
There is active communication between the audience and the performer.
The performer is presenting to the audience; the audience in turn,
through its actions and reactions, is actively communicating with the
performer. The purpose of this performance is not to create
something new but to re-create something that already exists; the
performance is words and actions which are known, recognized and
valued by both the performer and the audience. For folklore is first
and foremost remembered behavior. As members of the same cultural
reference group, they identify and value this performance as a piece
of shared cultural knowledge.
Dancing Hungarians, 1816.
Some elements of folk culture might be in the center of local culture
and an import part of self-identity. For instance folk dance is highly
Estonia and it has evolved into a sort of a national
sport.[note 7] XIX Estonian Dance Celebration in 2015 that was held
together with Estonian Song Festival.
Framing the performance
To initiate the performance, there must be a frame of some sort to
indicate that what is to follow is indeed performance. The frame
brackets it as outside of normal discourse. In customary lore such as
life cycle celebrations (ex. birthday) or dance performances, the
framing occurs as part of the event, frequently marked by location.
The audience goes to the event location to participate.
defined primarily by rules, it is with the initiation of the rules
that the game is framed. The folklorist Barre Toelken describes an
evening spent in a Navaho family playing string figure games, with
each of the members shifting from performer to audience as they create
and display different figures to each other.
In verbal lore, the performer will start and end with recognized
linguistic formulas. An easy example is seen in the common
introduction to a joke: "Have you heard the one...", "
Joke of the
day...", or "An elephant walks into a bar". Each of these signals to
the listeners that the following is a joke, not to be taken literally.
The joke is completed with the punch line of the joke. Another
traditional narrative marker in English is the framing of a fairy tale
between the phrases "Once upon a time" and "They all lived happily
ever after." Many languages have similar phrases which are used to
frame a traditional tale. Each of these linguistic formulas removes
the bracketed text from ordinary discourse, and marks it as a
recognized form of stylized, formulaic communication for both the
performer and the audience.
In the subjunctive voice
Framing as a narrative device serves to signal to both the story
teller and the audience that the narrative which follows is indeed a
fiction (verbal lore), and not to be understood as historical fact or
reality. It moves the framed narration into the subjunctive mood, and
marks a space in which "fiction, history, story, tradition, art,
teaching, all exist within the narrated or performed expressive
'event' outside the normal realms and constraints of reality or
time." This shift from the realis to the irrealis mood is
understood by all participants within the reference group. It enables
these fictional events to contain meaning for the group, and can lead
to very real consequences.
Anderson's law of auto-correction
The theory of self-correction in folklore transmission was first
articulated by the folklorist Walter Anderson in the 1920s; this
posits a feedback mechanism which would keep folklore variants closer
to the original form.[note 8] This theory addresses the question
about how, with multiple performers and multiple audiences, the
artifact maintains its identity across time and geography. Anderson
credited the audience with censoring narrators who deviated too far
from the known (traditional) text.
Any performance is a two-way communication process. The performer
addresses the audience with words and actions; the audience in turn
actively responds to the performer. If this performance deviates too
far from audience expectations of the familiar folk artifact, they
will respond with negative feedback. Wanting to avoid more negative
reaction, the performer will adjust his performance to conform to
audience expectations. "Social reward by an audience [is] a major
factor in motivating narrators..." It is this dynamic feedback
loop between performer and audience which gives stability to the text
of the performance.
In reality, this model is not so simplistic; there is multiple
redundancy in the active folklore process. The performer has heard the
tale multiple times, he has heard it from different story tellers in
multiple versions. In turn, he tells the tale multiple times to the
same or a different audience, and they expect to hear the version they
know. This expanded model of redundancy in a non-linear narrative
process makes it difficult to innovate during any single performance;
corrective feedback from the audience will be immediate. "At the
heart of both autopoetic self-maintenance and the 'virality' of meme
transmission... it is enough to assume that some sort of recursive
action maintains a degree of integrity [of the artifact] in certain
features ... sufficient to allow us to recognize it as an instance of
Context of material lore
For material folk artifacts, it becomes more fruitful to return to the
terminology of Alan Dundes: text and context. Here the text designates
the physical artifact itself, the single item made by an individual
for a specific purpose. The context is then unmasked by observation
and questions concerning both its production and its usage. Why was it
made, how was it made, who will use it, how will they use it, where
did the raw materials come from, who designed it, etc. These questions
are limited only by the skill of the interviewer.
In his study of southeastern Kentucky chair makers, Michael Owen Jones
describes production of a chair within the context of the life of the
Henry Glassie in his study of Folk Housing in
Middle Virginia the investigation concerns the historical pattern
he finds repeated in the dwellings of this region: the house is
planted in the landscape just as the landscape completes itself with
the house. The artisan in his roadside stand or shop in the nearby
town wants to make and display products which appeal to customers.
There is "a craftsperson's eagerness to produce 'satisfactory items'
due to a close personal contact with the customer and expectations to
serve the customer again." Here the role of consumer "... is the basic
force responsible for the continuity and discontinuity of
In material culture the context becomes the cultural environment in
which the object is made (chair), used (house), and sold (wares). None
of these artisans is "anonymous" folk; they are individuals making a
living with the tools and skills learned within and valued in the
context of their community.
Toelken's conservative-dynamic continuum
No two performances are identical. The performer attempts to keep the
performance within expectations, but this happens despite a multitude
of changing variables. He has given this performance one time more or
less, the audience is different, the social and political environment
has changed. In the context of material culture, no two hand-crafted
items are identical. Sometimes these deviations in the performance and
the production are unintentional, just part of the process. But
sometimes these deviations are intentional; the performer or artisan
want to play with the boundaries of expectation and add their own
creative touch. They perform within the tension of conserving the
recognized form and adding innovation.
The folklorist Barre Toelken identifies this tension as "... a
combination of both changing ("dynamic") and static ("conservative")
elements that evolve and change through sharing, communication and
performance." Over time, the cultural context shifts and morphs:
new leaders, new technologies, new values, new awareness. As the
context changes, so must the artifact, for without modifications to
map existing artifacts into the evolving cultural landscape, they lose
their meaning. Joking as an active form of verbal lore makes this
tension visible as joke cycles come and go to reflect new issues of
concern. Once an artifact is no longer applicable to the context,
transmission becomes a nonstarter; it loses relevancy for a
contemporary audience. If it is not transmitted, then it is no longer
folklore and becomes instead an historic relic.
In the electronic age
It is too soon to identify how the advent of electronic communications
will modify and change the performance and transmission of folklore
artifacts. Just by looking at the development of one type of verbal
lore, electronic joking, it is clear that the internet is modifying
folkloric process, not killing it.
Jokes and joking are as plentiful
as ever both in traditional face-to-face interactions and through
electronic transmission. New communication modes are also transforming
traditional stories into many different configurations. The fairy tale
Snow White is now offered in multiple media forms for both children
and adults, including a television show, a video game, and a
A more generalized analysis of folklore in the electronic age will
have to wait for further studies to be published in the field.
For a list of folklores of countries, see Category:
For a list of folklores of European countries, see European folklore.
For a list of folklores by region, see Category:
Folklore by region.
For a list of folklores by ethnicity, see Category:
Intangible cultural heritage
^ The word
Folkloristics is favored by Alan Dundes, and used in the
title of his publication (Dundes 1978). The term
Folklore Studies is
defined and used by Simon Bronner, see (Bronner 1986, p. xi).
^ Contributors of this issue were, among others, Claire Farrer, Joan
N. Radner, Susan Lanser, Elaine Lawless, and Jeannie B. Thomas.
Vladimir Propp first defined a uniform structure in Russian fairy
tales in his groundbreaking monograph Morphology of the Folktale,
published in Russian in 1928. See (Propp 1928)
^ Henry Glassie, a distinguished folklorist studying technology in
cultural context, notes that in Turkish one word, sanat, refers to all
objects, not distinguishing between art and craft. The latter
distinction, Glassie emphasizes, is not based on medium but on social
class. This raises the question as to the difference between arts and
crafts; is the difference found merely in the labeling?
^ The folklorist
Archie Green specialized in workers' traditions and
the lore of labor groups.
^ A more extensive discussion of this can be found in "The
'Text/Context' Controversy and the Emergence of Behavioral Approaches
in Folklore", (Gabbert 1999)
Folk dance Estonica
^ Anderson is best known for his monograph Kaiser und Abt (Folklore
Fellows' Communications 42, Helsinki 1923) on folktales of type AT
^ "lore - Definition of lore in English by Oxford Dictionaries".
Oxford Dictionaries - English. Retrieved 8 October 2017.
^ (Dundes 1969, p. 13, footnote 34)
^ (Wilson 2006, p. 85)
^ a b (Dundes 1980, p. 7)
^ a b (Bauman 1971)
^ (Dundes 1971)
^ (Dundes 1965, p. 1)
^ (Sims & Stephens 2005, pp. 7–8)
^ (Noyes 2012, p. 20)
^ (Noyes 2012, pp. 15–16)
^ (Zumwalt & Dundes 1988)
^ "Public Law 94-201 (The Creation of the American Folklife Center,
Library of Congress)". Loc.gov. Retrieved 8 October 2017.
^ (Hufford 1991)
^ (Dundes 1980, p. 8)
^ (Bauman 1971, p. 41)
^ a b (Opie & Opie 1969)
^ (Georges & Jones 1995, pp. 10–12)
^ (Toelken 1996, p. 184)
^ (Sims & Stephens 2005, p. 17)
^ a b (Dorson 1972, p. 2)
^ (Sims & Stephens 2005, p. 13)
^ (Georges & Jones 1995, pp. 112–113)
^ (Vlach 1997)
^ (Roberts 1972, p. 236 ff)
^ Schiffer, Michael B. (1 October 2000). "Material Culture (review)".
Technology and Culture. 41 (4): 791–793. doi:10.1353/tech.2000.0178.
Retrieved 8 October 2017 – via Project MUSE.
^ (Roberts 1972, p. 236 ff, 250)
^ "Material Culture: American Folklife Center: An Illustrated Guide
(Library of Congress)". Loc.gov. Retrieved 8 October 2017.
^ a b (Sweterlitsch 1997, p. 168)
^ (Sims & Stephens 2005, p. 16)
^ (Dorson 1972, p. 4)
^ (Bauman 1971, p. 45)
^ (Sweterlitsch 1997, p. 170)
^ (Grider 1997, p. 123)
^ (Grider 1997, p. 125)
^ (Grider 1997)
^ (Grider 1997, p. 127)
^ (Georges & Jones 1995, p. 243–254)
^ (Abrahams 1972, p. 35)
^ (Ben-Amos 1997a, pp. 633–634)
^ (Dundes 1980)
^ (Gabbert 1999, p. 119)
^ (Bauman & Paredes 1972, p. xv)
^ (Ben-Amos 1997b)
^ (Sims & Stephens 2005, p. 127)
^ (Beresin 1997, p. 393)
^ (Toelken 1996, pp. 118 ff)
^ (Sims & Stephens, p. 141)
^ (Ben-Amos 1997a)
^ (Dorst 2016, p. 131)
^ (El-Shamy 1997)
^ a b c (El-Shamy 1997, p. 71)
^ (Sims & Stephens 2005, p. 127)
^ (Dorst 2016, pp. 131–132)
^ (Dorst 2016, p. 138)
^ (Jones 1975)
^ (Glassie 1975)
^ (Glassie 1983, p. 125)
^ (Sims & Stephens 2005, p. 10)
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Folklore genres, types, and subtypes
Rhyme (Nursery rhyme)
Religion and folk belief
Old wives' tale
Aarne–Thompson classification systems
Deus ex machina
In medias res
Figure of speech
Suspension of disbelief
Types of fiction with multiple endings
List of writing genres
Stream of consciousness
Stream of unconsciousness
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