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Folklore and Folklife Studies: The Discipline of Analyzing Traditions (May 2013): History and Scope

By Simon J. Bronner

History and Scope

Historians of folklore and folklife studies as a discipline often trace its professional pursuit back to the work of the renowned German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early nineteenth century because of their encouragement of the comparative study of folktales, myths, legends, folksongs, and folk speech to form an international community of scholars.  In England in 1846, influential antiquarian and editor W. J. Thoms picked up on the Grimms’ lead and suggested an English term of “folk-lore” to describe this type of study.  He publicized the term in his role as editor of Notes and Queries, and The Folklore Society was organized in London in 1878 to promote the global comparative study of folklore.  The American Folklore Society, established in 1888, elaborated on the model of the English society with special attention to the distinctive ethnic and regional groups in North America.  Since the nineteenth century in Scandinavian countries, the use of folkliv or folklife inspired a comprehensive approach to culture that included oral, social, and material traditions.  Major retrospectives on the formative period of folklore scholarship in the United States include Regina Bendix’s In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies and Simon Bronner’s Following Tradition: Folklore in the Discourse of American Culture.