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In the last ten years or so American folklorists have placed considerable emphasis on putting lore and customs into the context of their immediate surroundings. Context clearly includes the physical and social situation. 'Context' operates at two levels: 'culture' and 'situation'. For instance, folk lore revivals celebrate a context of 'otherness', that is the 'otherness' of a 'lost past' rather than the local reality. This 'lost past' contrasts with modern urban life, creating a romanticised rural past that marginalises rather than emancipates.

Context at the level of 'situation' includes those practices that 'frame' a performance and the shared concepts that regulate social life, produce identity and construct a social world situating people, events and places in space and time. This framing allows the narrated events to be sufficiently distanced from the present moment to allow for reflection. For instance, the incorporation of reported speech and anecdote into tales. Such framing may in some cases create a sense of boundaries and/or relate parts to wholes.

A key paper is Mary Hufford's, 'Context' (Journal of American Folklore, 1995, 108(430), 528-49). Issues of context of folk tales are also explored by Nancy L. Canepa and Antonella Ansani in their introduction to N.L. Canepa (ed) Out of the Woods: The origins of the literary fairy tale in Italy and France (Wayne State UP, 1997). Indeed, the wide range of studies of literary 'fairy tales' and 'wonder tales' published in recent years often deal, either as primary or secondary issues, with various aspects of 'context' and this seems likely to continue.

To some extent Alan Dundes' 'form, function, transformation' has now mutated to 'form, context, transformation'. However, 'function' and 'context' are not interchangeable, merely intimately intertwined. Although less succinct, American folklore studies can be thought of as concerning themselves with 'form, function/context, transformation'.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003


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