Ethnology and Folklore

views updated

Ethnology and Folklore


Ethnology and folklore emerged as the science of tradition during the nineteenth century and during the twentieth as a discipline concerned with expressive culture and cultural identities, particularly within modernizing societies. Professionals in these fields may call themselves folklorists or ethnologists. Whereas anthropologists frequently sought out homogeneous societies separated from the modern world, folklorists and ethnologists theorized about the persistence, adaptation, and function of tradition within complex societies.

Folklore and ethnology are related, sometimes linked, concepts for the way that individuals and groups use tradition to express values, beliefs, and ideas in a number of forms, including art, architecture, story, song, speech, and custom. Both terms refer to the process of tradition that results from informal learning: word of mouth, imitation and demonstration, and custom. The concept of folklore, however, has roots in the literary appreciation of oral and customary tradition (especially in Great Britain and America), whereas ethnology has a legacy of anthropological attention to the social and material basis of tradition, particularly in rural and peasant societies (especially in Scandinavia and Germany where holistic terms folkiv and Volkskunde, respectively, circulated).

As the fields developed, however, they came together into a broad inquiry of tradition, usually spanning categories of oral, social, and material culture. Into the twenty-first century, the term ethnology is still generally used in continental Europe, broadened to include urban and emergent traditions, and folklore in Great Britain and America. Ethnology, when used in the Americas, frequently refers to the social study of native tribal groups rather than to the cultural traditions of ethnic, occupational, and other groups, as in Europe. One learned society bridging the transatlantic tendencies is the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore, based in the Netherlands.

Related terms vying for wider usage include folklife and folk culture, representing concerns for the social and material life of tradition-centered groups. In addition to The Folklore Society, Great Britain has a Society for Folklife Studies, whose journal is Folklife: Journal of Ethnological Studies. Likewise the Archive of Folk Culture in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress in the United States has been a national repository for field-collected materials since 1928, and national centers for folk culture were established in the twentieth century in India, Lithuania, Estonia, Flanders, and the Netherlands, among others. Also vying for wider usage is the term folkloristics (folkloristik in German), often implying, like its cognate of linguistics, a distinction between the material under studylanguage and folkloreand the scientific branch of study. Use of folkloristics often implies an analytical emphasis on structure, communication, and performance of traditional behavior.

The scholarly inquiry into tradition, often traced to the field research of German intellectuals Jacob Grimm (17851863) and his brother Wilhelm Grimm (17861859), who published a collection of folktales with comparative notes as Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Childrens and Household Tales) in 1812, signaled significant international intellectual movements that influenced the social sciences (e.g., romantic nationalism, comparative anthropology, etic narrative analysis). The Grimms celebrated the verbal artistry of German peasantry, or Volk, as the soul of the culture. This usage inspired British antiquarian W. J. Thoms (18031885) in 1846 to suggest the name folk-lore as a replacement for popular literature and antiquities. The implication was that folk was a noun for a level or class of culture that retained superstition and storytelling while the surrounding society modernized. The Victorian folklorists produced comparative studies on a global scale, applying Darwinistic ideas of evolution to culture to explain the survival of beliefs and customs in modern society. A Finnish School was promoted in the United States by Stith Thompson, who revised the Finnish typologies of Annti Aarne and methodology of Kaarle Krohn. This Finnish School developed historic-geographic approaches to explain the universality (codified as tale types) and localization (called oikotypes) of narratives by identifying global distributions of tales and reconstructing their origins and diffusion. A lasting result of this approach was the creation of standard reference works of tale-type and motif indices.

In the twentieth century, the influential American anthropologist Franz Boas (18581942), as editor of the Journal of American Folklore from 1908 to 1925, emphasized folklore as essential cultural evidence of an individual society. This approach signaled a shift away from global Darwinian models to a cultural relativism and historical particularism driven by a field-based ethnography of cultural distinctions and settings. Several of Boass students took over the editorship of Journal of American Folklore through the mid-twentieth century. The work of Boas and students such as Ruth Benedict, A. L. Kroeber, Melville Herskovits, and Martha Beckwith (who has the historical distinction of holding the first chair in folklore at Vassar College in the 1920s) in recording and interpreting texts among diverse groups including Native Americans, African Americans, and college women emphasized the idea of folklore as a reflection, or symbolic autobiography, of a culture, and the analysis of folklores functions within a particular society and setting.

As folklore and ethnological studies developed with a social focus, more attention was given to folk as an adjective for traditional learning that everyone participates in. Alan Dundes (19342005) in The Study of Folklore presented an influential definition of folk group that applied to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor (1965, pp. 12). In this modern perspective, folklore, the logical, functional outcome of such a common grouping, becomes a popular, necessary expression instead of a rare find or survival. It need not even be old. As a special kind of knowledge (e.g., jokes, gestures, dress, nicknames, slang) serving the purposes of the group (expanded beyond ethnic and occupational categories to include, for example, family, deaf, gay, childrens, organizational, corporate, and Internet communities), folklore is ever changing and, indeed, can be created anew. The expressions can be analyzed functionally not only to bond the group, but also to provide psychological outlets to deal with disturbing issues and adaptive strategies to conflicts and human development. Generations of professionals with doctorates in folklore developed its study as a separate discipline with distinctive approaches. American folklorists such as Michael Owen Jones, Roger Abrahams, Dan Ben-Amos, Richard Bauman, David Hufford, and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett were instrumental in developing behavioral or performance-centered theories of folklore as artistic communication in small groups, while others such as Alan Dundes, Jay Mechling, Gary Alan Fine, Simon Bronner, Elliott Oring, and Henry Glassie explored the social structural and cognitive dimensions of human expressiveness.

In the twenty-first century, folklore is viewed as a dynamic process of cultural communication by which individuals discover or establish their identities. Individuals in contemporary society are understood as having multiple, often overlapping, identities that are recognized by different folkloric repertoires. Social-scientific research in folklore emphasizes field work and ethnographythe observation of cultural scenes in which symbolic communication and behavior occur. No longer content to collect folkloric texts like natural history specimens, folklorists and ethnologists interpret for the social sciences the relation of folklore to cultural contexts. To be sure, historical perspectives are still evident in the analysis of precedents and variations of tradition, and there is often a social-psychological consideration of the function and enactment of cultural expression in the formation of identity, both group and individual. Folklore and ethnology contribute to the social sciences by theorizing the roles of expressions in binding and differentiating groups and their identities, sustaining values and beliefs from one generation to another, and understanding the artistic components of everyday life. The folkloristic purview of groups and genres has greatly expanded since the nineteenth century, but the inquiry into traditions role in mind, society, and behavior remains.

SEE ALSO Boas, Franz 18581942


Abrahams, Roger D. 2005. Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Briggs, Charles, and Amy Shuman, eds. 1993. Theorizing Folklore: Toward New Perspectives on the Politics of Culture. Los Angeles: California Folklore Society.

Bronner, Simon J. 1998. Following Tradition: Folklore in the Discourse of American Culture. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Dundes, Alan, ed. 1965. The Study of Folklore. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Dundes, Alan. 1980. Interpreting Folklore. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dundes, Alan, ed. 1999. International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Feintuch, Burt, ed. 2003. Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Georges, Robert A., and Michael Owen Jones. 1995. Folkloristics: An Introduction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Oring, Elliott, ed. 1986. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Toelken, Barre. 1996. The Dynamics of Folklore. Rev. ed. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Simon J. Bronner