#FolkloreThursday: Text (1/3)

Defining folklore is a tough task even for us pros. This three-part series will explain a foundational tripartite concept put forth by Alan Dundes: text, texture, and context.

Dance costume as folklore text...what?! Read on to find out why. Photo by Paula Stapley from Bloomington Belly Dances 2016.

Dance costume as folklore text…what?! Read on to find out why. Photo by Paula Stapley from Bloomington Belly Dances 2016.

According to Dundes, each concept allows us to engage in a separate but interrelated level of analysis of folklore. Just using one wouldn’t get us as far as using all three in unison.

So let’s start with text. Dundes refers to text as “essentially a version or a single telling of a tale, a recitation of a proverb, a singing of a folksong” (23). In folklore studies we often use “text,” “item,” and “version” interchangeable, to refer to that single instance of a recognizable bit of folklore manifesting in the world. Text stands in contrast to genre, which is a grouping of like items. So for example, joke is a genre; that one knock-knock joke about interrupting cows is a text, while the one about a starfish would be another text. The Grimms’ “Cinderella” is a text, while fairy tale is the genre.

One thing that often confuses students is that due to secondary school English education, many of them associate “text” with the text of a poem, play, novel, or short story – in other words, a textual artifact that is linguistic, published, and unchanging. None of which necessarily apply to folklore. So there’s often a bit of resistance or confusion when I want to talk about the text of a material culture item (such as a dance costume, which is one of the material culture genres I study), or a superstition as a text. For instance, in the pic in this post, I’m wearing what in ATS we call a “hair garden” (folk speech text right there), I’m displaying a tattoo text (with Latin text) on my forearm, and the whole assemblage of my costume could be considered one coherent text worthy of documentation and study, since it reveals bunches about my individual and group identity. These uses of “text” are all legit in folklore studies, so I require my students to learn them.

See also: Why Folklorists (Should) Love American Tribal Style® Belly Dance

By the same token, if it’s too abstract for you to describe the text of an item of folklore, well, you might not be dealing with folklore at all, but rather some general realm of culture. Or you might be a passive bearer of that genre.

As we’ll see in the remainder of this series, verbal folklore texts are generally translatable (it’s easy to translate the plot of a story) while their texture and context may be more dependent on linguistic or cultural markers that don’t always translate easily. When it comes to material culture and customary folklore, texts also tend to translate: a basket is a basket in most other contexts, gestures are recognizable as meaningful even if their meaning isn’t apparent, and so on.

Documenting the text is always the first step in folklore analysis. No text = nothing to discuss. So start there, and we’ll pick up next week with the rest!



Dundes, Alan. “Texture, Text, and Context.” In Interpreting Folklore. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. 20-32.

About Jeana Jorgensen

Jeana Jorgensen studied folklore at Berkeley under Alan Dundes, going on to complete her MA and PhD in folklore at Indiana University. She specializes in narrative folklore (particularly fairy tales), dance, body art, feminism and queer theory, and folklore in literature. She splits her time between teaching college courses in anthropology, folklore, and gender studies, and working in the field of adult sex education as a scholar, teacher, and writer.