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The strengths and weaknesses of folklore, mythology, cultural studies and sociology of culture

Bob Trubshaw

folklore studies

Folklorists are good at looking at the way specific aspects of folklore (such as 'contemporary legends', 'fairy tales' or popular customs) are transmitted among members of a 'folk group'. 'Folk groups' can be groups who work or socialise together, or more geographically-separated 'communities' who share common interests and lore. Indeed the retelling of 'lore' – such as how people got their nicknames, or rather risqué 'in jokes' – is often what bonds a folk group together. The process of transmission of lore and customs allows for steady adaptation and mutation. Folk lore and custom should not be thought of as cast in concrete, no matter how much people will tell you how 'traditional' something may be.

Folklorists have developed insights and techniques that enable them to recognise the way lore and custom adapt and mutate. They can also recognise when 'contemporary legends' and friend-of-a-friend tales start to take on the characteristic of medieval and early modern witch hunts, as happened in recent years with the invention by Christian fundamentalists of scare stories about 'Satanic abuse' of children.

Folklore is generally rather thin on theory (thinnest in Britain but less so in the USA) but has well-developed notions of 'form, function, transmission' and of context, whether 'cultural' or 'specific'. Folklore is well-equipped to focus on 'folk groups' rather than mass culture/media.

See an overview of folklore theory and problems with popular perceptions of folklore.


Mythologists tend to be dominated by an interest in religious myths, even though political myths are at least as prevalent as religious ones. Mythology can mean the study of specific mythic motifs (such as hero-figures, or the creation of the universe) and their distribution in the cultures of different times and places. But mythology is especially useful for looking at the way a culture's myths create a specific 'world view' (or 'cosmology'). In this respect the modern Western world view is every bit as mythological as, say, the medieval one. (See separate article.) One way of thinking about myths is to regard them as ideology fleshed out in 'seductive' story form.

The origins of the study of myths and folklore in the nineteenth century are deeply rooted in emergent nationalism. Indeed much current interest in folklore and myth is still fed by the same roots – a good example is the interest in so-called 'Celtic' culture. (See the English and the 'Other'.)

Sadly, as a result of the emphasis of mid-twentieth century mythologists, mythology has become associated – especially among non-academics – with religion and societies distant in time and/or place. But 'political myths' are every bit as prevalent and important. "Myth = ideology + narrative" is an interesting starting point for both political and religious myths.

See an overview of mythological theory.

cultural studies

By and large folklorists and mythologists, even the academic ones, have not been quick to take an interest in the theoretical basis of their disciplines. The same cannot be said for exponents of cultural studies. Cultural studies (or cult studs) is a child of the 1960s, although its parents can be traced in British literary criticism from the 1930s onwards and French intellectual ideas of the late 1950s onwards. Subsequently American academics developed their own version of cultural studies 'imported' directly from the French writers, and the Australians mixed and matched from the British, French and American approaches. Although this has resulted in a great variety of different approaches within cultural studies, they can be broadly described as being very 'theory aware', with a particular emphasis on all aspects of post-modernism and 'deconstruction'.

Cultural studies offer the possibility for providing some invigoratingly fresh insights into many aspects of popular culture, including those conventionally regarded as 'folklore', 'mythology', or even 'politics'. In practice the topics chosen tend to concentrate on aspects of 'mass culture' (i.e. cultural ideas predominately promoted and transmitted by mass media) and almost entirely ignore culture transmitted in other ways, such as among 'folk groups' (excepting cult studs interest the fan groups of cult TV series and the like). There are still some aspects of culture that are best thought of as 'folk lore' or 'folk custom', in that they are shared and transmitted largely without any involvement in mass media, but these rarely come under the gaze of cultural studies researchers and are only patchily looked at by a small number of folklorists.

Despite cult studs interest in 'mass culture' there are few links to the politics of mass media. Too much cult studs is nitty-gritty, obsessed with specific instances (usually female and blond – e.g. Kylie Minogue, Madonna and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) without getting out of the mass media 'mediated' mass culture and Internet fan groups into the perspective of the additional processes of 'transmission' among 'folk groups'. Unlike folklorists, there seems to be little interest in the 'transmission' – and inevitable mutation – of the ideas being focussed on. In complete contrast to folklorists, cult studs tends to over-theorise the synchronic and under-theorise the diachronic.

Few cult studs look at the way marketing of consumer goods has created 'life styles' of pseudo-individualism; fewer broaden their interests to the way the political agendas of mass media and consumer-driven capitalism create modern culture. (See separate article.)

Compared to mythologists, cult studs takes a fairly superficial view of culture. Cosmological myths (not to be confused with cosmogonies) underlie all cultures and subcultures. Cosmological myths are the foundation layers of all cultures but are rarely acknowledged by cult studs, still less critiqued.

The relevant academics have long tried to promote themselves as 'trendy', 'hip' or 'cool' in both what they write about and the way they write. Sometimes it works. Rather too often it leads to overly-reflexive and jargon-ridden writing that is obtuse to the point of opacity. Not surprisingly, those outside the world of cultural studies find such writing easy to parody and difficult to take seriously.

See an overview of cultural studies.

sociology of culture

Cultural studies is born of those parts of the academic system that label themselves as 'humanities'. In contrast, the sociology of culture is regarded as a 'social science'. Even though the two disciplines are potentially looking at similar aspects of society, cultural studies people rarely take any interest in the sociology of culture people (and still less the other way about). Social sciences aim to replace 'subjective' impressions with quantifiable 'objective' data. But, cultural studies people would argue, there is little real objectivity as the outcome of any social science research is largely determined by what questions are asked, and how and by whom.

As Avery Gordon puts it: 'the real itself and its ethnographical or sociological representations are... fictions, albeit powerful ones that we do not experience as fictions but as true.' (Gordon 1997: 11)

Sociology of culture takes a more quantified approach than the other approaches discussed here. This should offer considerable beneficial but, from the perspective of humanities that have long grappled with the relativism of post-modernism, far too many social scientists seems to live in a pre-1970s time warp of modernism. Bridges between the vastly different worlds of cult studs and sociology of culture are only just being established (see Janet Wolff's article).


Similar questions have long since been debated by historiographers (that is, those who study how history is studied). 'The past is largely a construct of the questions asked by the historian' has long been recognised by historiographers. Equally, the way we think about present day societies is largely a construct of, say, the questions asked by social scientists – although sociologists mostly work in a time warp where such ideas have yet to reach.

By the very nature of its subject matter, historiography has heavily theorised diachronic developments (without ignoring the theory of synchronic ones). However this does not mean that all historians (as opposed to historiographers) are necessarily theory-aware.

See more about historiography.

politics of mass media

Much of the culture studied by both cult studs and sociologists can be termed 'mass culture' (the term 'popular culture' is regarded as rather problematical). Such mass culture is greatly influenced by the mass media such as television, 'pop music', lifestyle magazines, and the like. Mass media is undoubtedly intimately linked with multi-national conglomerates and the current political processes that are best described as a hegemony. Studying 'mass culture' means being aware of the way in which mass media operates, including the politics.

See politics of culture article.

the mix

Hopefully this brief overview begins to show how apparently different disciplines and approaches overlap. These overlaps are what foamy custard aims to explore. American and British academics generally feel uncomfortable about 'dabbling in politics' – as if politics is something that should be left to politicians. In reality of course, we are all part of a massive political hegemony. Some, indeed many, will always chose to tacitly support that status quo. Others, like myself, want to understand how our world views are constructed by people and systems that we apparently have little or no control over.

So, while we may not be able to stop America waging war on Iraq, we can at least see that such madness is the result of military might being used to maintain modernist mythologies that fail to confront the entirely different world view of the Moslem or of the most powerful proponents of post-modernism, terrorists.

Bibliographical reference:

GORDON, Avery, 1997, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination, U Minnesota P.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003


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