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Explore Folklore

Explore Mythology
The Myths of Reality

an overview of folklore theory

Bob Trubshaw

Part of a chapter in Explore Folklore

Those accustomed to thinking of the various aspects of folklore as things that float off the ground in their own little spaces, rather like children's soap bubbles, may find this chapter alien to their assumptions. Far from floating off the ground, folklore has deep roots. Rather than independent 'bubbles' there are inter-connected branches. The 'branches', and indeed 'twigs', have taken shape as a result of very specific efforts of propagation – and pruning. Whether the various individuals who have cultivated folklore have created the most vigorous or attractive of species is another matter again.

This chapter addresses three inter-related issues:

  • why do we need to think about the 'underlying theories' of folklore studies?
  • what is wrong with these underlying theories?
  • could the underlying theories of other fields of study be of benefit to folklore studies?
The words 'folklore' and 'theory' do not often occur together. Indeed most people interested in folklore have no concern about underlying theories. This lack of concern about underlying theories characterises British folklore studies between about 1920 and the 1980s. As a result, folklore students have been left with a muddled and confused legacy. In contrast, American folklorists have endeavoured to address issues of theory, although they have not addressed some issues of key importance to British folklore studies.

As I will argue in the course of this chapter, folklore cannot be studied effectively without giving due consideration to the underlying theories, whether they are unwittingly 'assumed' or consciously adopted. As Bruce Lincoln notes, scholars:

    ... exist within a time, a place, and a social situation, and their speech, thought and interests originate in, reflect, and engage these givens of their own experience in some measure, although this is not all that they do. Still, the books and articles which scholars write and the lectures they give are not just descriptive accounts of something that unproblematically 'is'. Rather, these are synthetic constructions which partake in varying degrees of the people who are speaking, that of whom they speak, and those to whom their speech is addressed. Such processes can be extremely accurate, revealing, and enlightening; but they can never be perfectly neutral and disinterested, no matter how much those who are involved as speakers or hearers may sincerely take them to be so.
    (Lincoln 1991: xvii)

Cultural evolution

    ... there is no practice without theory, however much that theory is suppressed, unformulated or perceived as 'obvious'.
    (Belsey 1980: 4)
British folklore studies have had a fairly consistent underlying theory, as Gillian Bennett has described:
    Almost since the inception of the Folklore Society (FLS) in 1878, folkloristic concepts and methods have been dominated by a single theory of culture – 'cultural evolution' (alternatively called 'social evolution' or 'sociocultural evolution')
    (Bennett 1994: 25)
'Cultural evolution' took its inspiration directly from pioneer geologists, especially the palaeontologists who fuelled much of the debate about Darwinian evolution.
    It was obvious how folklore fitted into this scheme. European folklore was to the history of human civilisation what the fossil record was to earth history. ... Folklorists were not slow to see the significance this gave to their researches. Above all, cultural evolution gave them the opportunity to transform their 'trivial pursuit' into (a least a part of) the most exciting endeavour of the age and join the scientific community on the coat-tails of anthropology.
    (Bennett 1994: 29)

Bennett notes that the perceived triviality of their materials 'had always been a sore trial to antiquarians and collectors of folklore.' These Victorian folklorists can hardly be blamed for wanting folklore to become an integral aspect of what, at the time, was 'cutting edge theory'.

Nevertheless, other theories were available almost from the onset, and trenchant criticism of the 'cultural evolution' approach came from Joseph Jacobs in the 1890s, and was increasingly voiced from the 1920s onwards. (Bennett 1994: 25) But the 'cultural evolution' model had overwhelming advantages in offering folklore the opportunity to develop into an academic discipline.

But, sadly, the accolade of academic discipline went to anthropology. British folklore never became an '-ology' (ethnology cannot be regarded as an exact synonym) and became the realm of the amateur rather than the academic. With hindsight a number of reasons can be discerned. George Stocking Jr has devoted a book to the 'interactions' between folklorists and anthropologists between 1888 and 1951 (Stocking 1996; see also Bennett 1997). E.P. Thompson adopts a wider political perspective and suggested:

    In the early years of this century, the collection of folk-song, dance, and custom in England had been a cause which enlisted the sympathies of the intellectual Left, but by the 1930s this sympathy had dispersed. The rise of Fascism led to an identification of folk studies with deeply reactionary or racist ideology. And even on less sensitive historical ground, an interest in customary behaviour tended to be the prerogative of the more conservative historians. The custom is, by its nature, conservative. Historians of the Left tended to be interested in innovative, rationalising movements, whether Puritans sects or early trade unions, leaving it to Sir Arthur Bryant and his friends to celebrate 'Merrie England' with its may poles, its church-ales, and its relations of paternalism and deference.
    (Thompson 1979: 6)
Elswhere Thompson has written of the patronising distance and subordination expressed by the pioneer late eighteenth century folklorist John Brand, ideas which were still being clearly echoed by one of his 'sucessors' of the late nineteenth century, G.L. Gomme (Thompson 1993: 2, 6).

Theory follow fashions

Bennett (1994: 34) considers that, had folklore developed into a discipline, it would have had to have met the 'challenge' of the pioneer anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942), or of leading early twentieth century anthropological theorists, Franz Boas in America and Julius Krohn in Germany (e.g. Krohn 1926). As the path of folklore studies did not 'meet these challenges' it is largely beyond the scope of this summary to explore the intense debates within anthropology over most of the last hundred years. Regna Darnell's Readings in the History of Anthropology (Darnell 1974) provides a useful introduction up to the 1970s. Marilyn Strathern (1987) looks specifically at how Malinowski influenced British anthropology and mythology, not least the extreme contrast between the approaches of Sir James Frazer and Malinowski.

Just as Malinowski revealed the weaknesses in Frazer's 'comparative mythology' so, in turn, Malinowski came to be regarded as too 'functionalist'. Bruce Lincoln (1999) discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Malinowski's contribution to the study of mythology from a current perspective. Mythology came to be strongly influenced by 'structuralism', inescapably associated with Claude Leví-Strauss. Structuralism found its supporters among some folklorists in Europe (and European émigrés working in America), specifically those taking a 'Lit Crit' approach to the more literary forms of folk tale such as 'fairy stories' and other 'wonder tales'. The most-cited of these works is Vladimir Propp's 1968 study The Morphology of the Folk Tale.

Propp made a number of distinctions and general schemas about folk tales. For instance, he considered that these tales tend to have characteristic plots. Firstly, the protagonist is confronted with an interdiction or probation that he or she violates in some way. Then the protagonist departs or is banished, and either given a task or assumes a task related to the interdiction or prohibition. He or she then gets into trouble by encountering either

  1. a villain;
  2. a mysterious individual or creature, who gives the protagonist gifts;
  3. three different animals or creatures who are helped by the protagonist and promise to repay him or her; or
  4. three different animals or creatures who offer gifts to help.
The gifts are often magical agents, which bring about miraculous change. The protagonist goes on to battle and conquer the villain or inimical forces. However, a sudden fall in the protagonist's fortunes creates a temporary setback that will be reversed by a wonder or miracle. The protagonist makes use of the gifts, magical agents or cunning to achieve his or her goal. The result is typically
  1. three battles with the villain;
  2. three impossible tasks that are nevertheless made possible;
  3. the breaking of a magic spell.
Thereupon the villain is punished or the inimical forces are vanquished and the protagonist usually
  1. marries;
  2. acquires money;
  3. acquires wisdom; or
  4. any combination of the first three.
(Zipes 1999: 3-4, based on Propp 1968)

This 'synopsis' fits well for most of the oral tales Propp was analysing but, seductive as it seems, sadly represents only a minority of such tales as they intermingled with the increasingly-predominant literary forms. 'And more to the point, what Propp dismisses as mere 'attributes' – names, descriptions, appearance, and other details that he finds marginal – are often, in these tales, blown up to enormous proportions and become, in fact, the repositories of the most significant cultural content.' (Canepa and Ansani 1997: 17)

A number of Propp's contemporaries in the 1970s had similar interests and approaches, among them Algirdas Greimas, Claude Brémond, Max Lüthi, Petr Bogatyrëv, Roman Jakobson and Mikhail Bakhtin. Between them they came up with a number of novel approaches to interpreting folk tales, noting that 'the repetitive and predictable features of the genre offer a highly condensed model of more elaborate narrative forms' (Seifert 1996: 1). One of the distinctive traits is the predilection for sharply-contrasted dualisms: protagonists are either kings or pauper, beautiful or ugly, good or evil (Canepa and Ansani 1997: 15).

Some of these 'structuralist' distinctions now seem to be period pieces, reflecting the obsessions of scholarship in the 1970s. But not all have been rejected by subsequent scholars. For instance, folk and fairy tales generally embody elements of 'revolt' against 'reality', although by the end this revolt has been accommodated and dissolved into conformity (Seifert 1996: 12-13). Roger Renwick also took a structuralist approach in his 1980 book on what he termed 'English folk poetry' (the lyrics of folk songs), which contains chapters such as 'the semiotics of sexual liaisons'.

The merits and otherwise of specific structuralist and 1970s 'Lit Crit' suggestions have been discussed by Richard Bauman (1982). The broader issues of structuralism and semiotics in the study of folk tales has been concisely assessed by Cristina Bacchilega (1997: 11ff) and Nancy Canepa and Antonella Ansani (1997).

British insularity

The debates that resounded among anthropologists, literary critics and mythologists through much of the twentieth century did not spill over into concurrent British folklore studies. Only with Bennett's articles in the 1990s do any of these issues begin to appear, very belatedly, in the pages of the Folklore Society's journal, Folklore.

Even if the debates in anthropology had benefited British folklore studies, things still would not have ended up all that cosy. Bernard McGrane pulled no punches when he wrote: 

    Anthropology has been an extremely subtle and spiritual kind of cognitive imperialism, a power-based monologue, a monologue about alien cultures rather than, and in active avoidance of, a dialogue with them... Anthropology is interested in the Other and at the same time remains altogether alien to the Other; in the best of cases anthropology speaks well of the Other, but with very few exceptions anthropology does not speak to the Other and it is as Todorov says only by speaking to the Other – not giving him orders but engaging in dialogue – that I can acknowledge him as subject, comparable to what I am myself. ... Anthropological 'scientific method' is the decay of dialogue, the sustained, cultivated, and epistemologically enforced atrophy of dialogue...

    Anthropology never listened to the voices of 'alien cultures', it never learned from them, rather it studied them; in fact studying them, making sense out of them, making a 'science' about them, has been the modern method of not listening, of avoiding listening, to them. The Other's empirical presence as the field and subject matter of anthropological discourse is grounded upon his theoretical absence as interlocutor, as dialogic colleague, as audience.
    (McGrane 1989: 127-8)

To recycle a statement that had already been applied to culture theory and to archaeology: 'It is impossible to study folklore without theory. It is quite possible to study folklore without thinking about the theory being used. The dangers in this process should be obvious.' The consequences of this have been summarised cogently by Gillian Bennett: 
    What perhaps bedevils folkloristics in Britain is the result of the founders' [of the Folklore Society (FLS)] successes and failures put together. Their success lay in establishing a theory of culture so comprehensive, elegant and satisfying that it became assimilated not only into the culture of the FLS, but into everyday popular conceptions of culture and society. Their failure lay in their inability to establish folkloristics as an academic discipline. ... The process of challenge-reformulation-rejection-replacement therefore never took place... (Bennett 1994: 34).
Sadly, British folklore studies (and it is important not to include European or American folklore studies in this criticism) were carried out without consideration of the theory being used for about 70 years, from the First World War until the 1980s. The legacy of this process is now obvious. But, to some extent these are problems that another autonomous anthropological discipline began to fully recognise in the 1980s. Did that discipline fare better?

Theory in archaeology

While recognising that the differences are greater than the similarities, there is some shared blood between folklore and archaeology. Both might be considered to be aspects of anthropology, although requiring a greater appreciation of 'the past' than is typical for 'main stream' anthropology. Unless studying contemporary lore, folklorists cannot observe the behaviour of the people they are studying. Neither do folklorists have direct access to the thoughts of the people as they are recorded in written texts, unlike historians. Again, these create an affinity between folklorists and archaeologists.

In 1989 Bruce Trigger evaluated the problematical 'theory' and dubious paradigms of folklore's not-so-distant sibling in the anthropology family, in his book A History of Archaeological Thought. Trigger noted that archaeological theory and practice is dominated by regionalism and regional schools, often with colonialist, nationalist or imperialist 'agendas' (although noting that a few were 'world-orientated'). Clearly the same remarks could be made about folklore research too, with the proviso that there are far fewer folklorists than archaeologists, so the divergences may be more reconcilable in folklore than they have proven to be in archaeology. (Trigger 1989: 5)

Archaeology persisted with a 'seemingly complacent culture-historical orthodoxy' until the 1950s (British folklore studies generally retained such complacency until the 1980s). However, in archaeology, 'ambitious theoretical innovations' since the 1960s 'far from producing an anticipated new consensus, have led to growing disagreement about the goals of the discipline and how these goals can be achieved.' (Trigger 1989: 1)

    As archaeologists become more aware of the complexity of what they have to explain, they have also become more interested in learning how and to what extent their experience of the present influences their interpretations of the past.... It is perhaps deceptively easy to show that throughout the world the interpretation of archaeological evidence is influenced by specific social, economic, and political conditions ... [some of these] interpretations reflect the political and economic concerns of the middle classes ... [and others are] influenced directly by gender prejudices, ethnic concerns, the political control of research and publishing... financing; generational conflicts; and idiosyncratic influences of charismatic archaeologists
    (Trigger 1989: 379–80)
If these are the 'benefits' of acceptance as an academic discipline, perhaps folklore studies have benefited from remaining marginal to academe.

However, one of Trigger's comments is most trenchant to folklore studies: 'social conditions influence both what data are regarded as important and how they are interpreted' (Trigger 1989: 13) And what social conditions does Trigger consider most pertinent? '... the development of archaeology has corresponded temporally with the rise to power of the middle classes in Western society.' (Trigger 1989: 14). Again, one can only concur that folklore studies have indeed gravitated from eighteenth and nineteenth century 'gentry' to their successors ostensibly lower down the social scale.

Only five years after Trigger's overview of archaeological thought, a British archaeologist who can be considered to have 'ambitious theoretical innovations', John C. Barrett, published Fragments from Antiquity which discusses at length the way archaeologists could, and should, investigate the less tangible aspects of prehistory such as 'ritual'. (Barrett 1994: 70–81). Given that, during the era of positivism in archaeology during the 1960s and 1970s, 'ritual' was once a 'dirty word', this is indeed a major change in emphasis.

Trigger and Barrett are only two among many who have made their name in the 1980s and 1990s from provocative rethinking of the assumptions underpinning British archaeology. However the point being made here does not require us to delve too deeply into the strata of theoretical thought deposited by such archaeologists as Ian Hodder, Michael Shanks, Julian Thomas and Chris Tilley among many others. The reaction to their writing was highly-charged and extensively debated. The outcome of the controversies instigated by these writers has, however, ultimately proved invigorating to archaeology. The past is now populated by people (albeit rather sketchily drawn) rather than mere 'artefacts' and 'features'. 'Ritual' has been reinstated as a primary concern of prehistorians.

Although archaeologists, understandably, have no use for the term 'folk custom' and prefer the term 'ritual', clearly these are all-but synonymous terms. If archaeologists consider it essential to question the theories underlying the investigation of prehistoric ritual, then folklorists should have no qualms about questioning the theoretical basis of researching folk customs.

However, folklorists are only beginning to overlap with archaeologists. In 1996 the annual Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference included a session on 'Folklore and archaeology'; sadly none of the speakers were folklorists. (Augmented versions of the papers were published as Archaeology and Folklore (Gazin-Schwartz and Holtorf 1999).) In 2002 the Folklore Society's annual conference addressed the same topic, this time with folklorists dominating the podium. Clearly it is too early to speculate what offspring this union may engender.

Theory in American folklore studies

Given the lack of theory in British folklore for much of the twentieth century, some might think it better if 'folklore studies' had disappeared and been replaced with 'ethnology', suitably encompassed within the discipline of anthropology and bolstered by the debates about methodology and theory that have, quite appropriately, been part-and-parcel of that discipline.

Indeed, to some extent this is exactly what American folklore did become, although not to the extent that folklore studies has completely disappeared from view as an 'entity' in its own right. This, in part, results from folklore studies having healthy roots in the English literature departments of universities in the USA. The academic study of folklore is far healthier in America than in Britain – by 1986 there were sixteen North American universities offering degrees in folklore and another eighty offering folklore as a component of degrees; a further five hundred colleges and universities offered other kinds of folklore course (Oring 1986: ix). Partly this is because a number of American academics have given folklore studies a 'cuckoo' status – even though their post is in another discipline, typically English literature, they have actively promoted the study of folklore and custom.

More importantly, American folklore studies have benefited greatly from two influential teachers and theorists. We have already met Richard Dorson (1916–81), who took a particular interest in the history of British folklore. His legacy in his home country was to inspire widespread interest in folklore through charismatic teaching. His best-known book, Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, came out in 1972 and became the workhorse of folklore textbooks in America.

Alan Dundes (born 1934) shares the honours with Dorson for being the leading American folklorist of the later twentieth century. While Dorson was inspiring students in Indiana, Dundes was charming their Californian contemporaries at Berkeley. Dundes came to prominence in 1965 when he edited a stirring collection of papers with the title The Study of Folklore. Some of the best of Dunde's own papers were compiled in 1980 as Interpreting Folklore.

The opening chapter of Interpreting Folklore discusses 'Who are the folk?'. After considering how the term emerged in the nineteenth century to imply 'illiterate, rural, backward peasants' (Dundes 1980: 6), he offers the following definition: 'The term 'folk' can refer to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor.' (Dundes 1980: 6)

This definition has become the basis of American folklore studies. Unlike British folklore studies there is no implied 'continuity' to a poorly-defined idealised past. This is not some sort of 'failing' on the part of American folklorists – there is, after all, real interest in the way folklore is 'passed on' – but rather reflects the failure of British folklorists to address the assumed 'continuity' with a past 'rural idyll'.

As a theorist, Dundes could be reduced to three words: 'form, function, transformation'. This is a deceptive over-simplification of his ideas, but does encapsulate the way that he suggested researchers identify clearly what it is they are studying (the 'form'), the function this has within its 'folk group', and then how the 'form' might be transformed as it is passed on or reappears in somewhat different contexts.

Clearly Dundes was inspired by Malinowski and other 'functionalist' anthropologists. From the works of Dundes that I have read it appears he was little concerned that functionalism in anthropology gave way to the structuralism of Leví-Strauss. Perhaps that was entirely valid, because structuralism was in turn to prove of limited value to anthropologists. Instead, Dundes – like so many of his generation – seems to have been seduced by Freud's speculations on human thought. Dundes' Interpreting Folklore, published in 1980, now seems to be overly-concerned with psychoanalytical interpretations. (This was not his intention. Rather, he was trying to demonstrate alternative ways of approaching folkloric material; indeed he is critical of those who restrict their interpretation to any one arbitrary analysis.)

American folklore studies have moved on significantly since Dorson and Dundes wrote their major works. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An introduction, edited by Elliott Oring appeared in 1986 and opened up new ground, at least for beginners' books, with chapters on ethnic folklore and religious folklore alongside more predictable introductions to occupational folklore, children's folklore and folk songs. But the brightest light in the next generation is Barre Toelken, whose book The Dynamics of Folklore was revised in 1996 and provides an excellent exposition of current folklore studies in the New World; the annotated suggestions for further reading are especially helpful. And American folklore studies acquired a modern text book in 1995 with Folkloristics: An introduction by Robert A. Georges and Michael Owen Jones, which combines a reasonable amount of context-setting 'theory' alongside plenty of examples and short 'case studies'.

However these three works are thoroughly American in their scope. Their authors are deeply rooted in the concerns of American folklore studies and, quite understandably, make little reference to British or European folklore or its study. The subject matter of American folklore studies often seems surprisingly far removed from the interests of most British folklorists. American folklore is something that is rooted in the present day, with plenty of active collectors, and little interest in the 'historical depth'. In contrast, British folklore seems far more concerned with analysing what has been collected in the past, and stripping away the 'distortions' of earlier interpretations (although all credit to the small number of 'collectors' who go against this generalisation). The differences between American and British interests also manifest in the content of this book, which differs significantly from the contents of any of these three American examples of 'explore folklore' books.

See also articles on:

Bibliographical references:

BACCHILEGA, Cristina, 1997, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and narrative strategies, University of Pennsylvania Press.
BARRETT, John C., 1994, Fragments from Antiquity: An archaeology of social life in Britain, 2900-1200 BC, Blackwell.
BAUMAN, Richard, 1982, 'Conceptions of folklore in the development of literary semiotics', Semiotica 39, 1-20; reprinted in Richard Flores (ed), 1996, Problems in Cultural Anthropology: The anthropology of performance.
BELSEY, Catherine, 1980, Critical Practice, Routledge.
BENNETT, Gillian, 1994, 'Geologists and folklorists: Cultural evolution and 'The science of folklore'', Folklore 105, 25-37.
CANEPA, Nancy L., and Antonella ANSANI, 1997, 'Introduction' in N.L. Canepa (ed) Out of the Woods: The origins of the literary fairy tale in Italy and France, Wayne State UP.
DARNELL, Regna, 1974, Readings in the History of Anthropology, Harper and Row.
DUNDES, Alan, 1980, Interpreting Folklore, Indiana UP.
GAZIN-SCHWARTZ, Amy and Cornelius HOLTORF (editors), 1999, Archaeology and Folklore, Routledge.
LINCOLN, Bruce, 1991, Death, War and Sacrifice: Studies in ideology and practice, University of Chicago Press.
McGRANE, Bernard, 1989, Beyond Anthropology: Society and the other, Columbia UP.
ORING, Elliott (ed), 1986, Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An introduction, Utah State UP.
SEIFERT, Lewis C., 1996, Fairy Tales, Sexuality and Gender in France 1690-1715: Nostalgic utopias, Cambridge UP.
STOCKING, George W., 1996, After Tylor: British social anthropology 1888-1951, Athlone Press.
STRATHERN, Marilyn, 1987, 'Out of context: The persuasive fictions of anthropology', Current Anthropology, 28, 3, 251-281.
THOMPSON, Edward P., 1979, Folklore, anthropology and social history, Noyce.
THOMPSON, Edward P., 1993, Custom and Culture, New Press.
TRIGGER, Bruce, 1989, A History of Archaeological Thought, Cambridge UP
ZIPES, Jack, 1999, When Dreams Came True: Classical fairy tales and their tradition, Routledge.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2002, 2003


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