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Folklore and Folklife Studies: The Discipline of Analyzing Traditions (May 2013): Theory and Philosophy

By Simon J. Bronner

Theory and Philosophy

Folklore and folklife studies covers an array of material that, broadly speaking, relates to cultural tradition.  Often, there is a popular misconception that folk culture resides among lower strata of society or isolated areas and is restricted to oral transmission, but folklorists identify traditions among all walks of life, and, indeed, a considerable portion of the folkloristic bookshelf is devoted to folklore in the modern day that is passed through various forms of technology.  Some tracts distinguish folklore and folklife by the former’s emphasis on a literary and performative interest in oral traditions, and the latter’s social orientation toward groups and their everyday life and material culture.  Most U.S. university programs and public centers devoted to the subject connect the two approaches in a shared concern for vernacular practices, and in North America, often use a singular label of folklore, folklife, folk culture, folk studies, cultural heritage, or folkloristics.  In Europe, the commonly used rubrics of ethnology and ethnography typically include studies of folklore and folklife.

Frequently used textbooks of folklore and folklife studies in the United States are The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction by Jan Harold Brunvand (now in its fourth edition), The Dynamics of Folklore by Barre Toelken, Folkloristics: An Introduction by Robert A. Georges and Michael Owen Jones, Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions by Martha Sims and Martine Stephens, and Folk Groups and Folklore Genres, edited by Elliott Oring.  All of these works underscore the essential role of folklore in everyday life and outline documentary methods, but Brunvand and Oring give more attention than others to issues of genre and group life.  Major reference works that give overviews of theory, method, and scope are Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art, edited by Charlie T. McCormick and Kim Kennedy White; American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, edited by Jan Harold Brunvand; Encyclopedia of American Folklife, edited by Simon J. Bronner; The Greenwood Encyclopedia of World Folklore and Folklife, edited by William Clements; and A Companion to Folklore, edited by Regina Bendix and Galit Hasan-Rokem.