For today’s #FolkloreThursday post, I thought I’d define the culture reflector theory, which appeared in early anthropological and folkloristic writings in an attempt to make sense of culture.
Anyone who took folklore classes at UC Berkeley with Alan Dundes was exposed to this theory, both in accounting for the history of the discipline, and as a way to interpret the varied (and sometimes obscene) materials of folklore.
Simply put, the culture reflector theory states that expressive culture and folklore texts reflect back elements of culture, and are thus useful ways to understand a culture’s values, beliefs, and power dynamics. This idea first appeared in the writings of Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski, founders of modern cultural anthropology, and has been developed and modified in various ways since the early 1900s.
The concept has gotten a lot of play when it comes to the folk narrative genre of myth, or sacred narrative about the creation of the world and humankind. Dundes summaries the idea as it appears in the writings of Boas: “Boas regarded myths as ‘cultural reflectors,’ and he used myths as sources from which he extrapolated ethnographic details about kinship terms, house types, hunting techniques, etc.” (193). In other words, studying myth texts can be a direct path to better understanding the cultural context in which a given myth not only thrives but is intelligible.
As Malinowski explains:
Myth fulfills in primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man (in Dundes 199).
This account of myth ties it directly to culture. As a genre of folklore, myth isn’t imposed from above arbitrarily, or created in a void or vacuum. It springs from and meets the needs of a culture. Perhaps it doesn’t serve everyone equally well in the culture; some myths justify a power system that oppresses some while it benefits others. To me, that sounds like a lot of religions that dangle the promise of an afterlife over people’s heads in order to make them behave a certain way.
Of course, with myth we run into some special interpretive concerns. Another student of Alan Dundes, Perin Gurel, asserts: “While Dundes acknowledged the influence of Franz Boas’s culture reflector theory on this description, he also modified Boas’s methodology by noting that the rest of culture did not readily parallel the irrational or taboo contents of many folkloric texts” (5). In other words, myth – along with other folklore genres – contains supernatural and unreal elements. How to explain those?
That’s where psychological and symbolic approaches to folklore come in, which is a topic deserving of its own post. For now, I’ll wrap up with the idea that while you don’t tend to run into the culture reflector theory on a daily basis in the discipline anymore, it played an important role in getting scholars to think profoundly about the relationship between folklore and culture.
As Gurel writes:
In the words of Robert Georges, Dundes “believed deeply that folklore is a pervasive, integral, and significant aspect of social existence and that its documentation and study can provide important insights into the essence and dynamics of culture and human behavior.” Dundes wrote, “I believe the folklorist can, by analyzing folklore, discover general patterns of culture,” and argued that folklore, as a form of “ethnographic autobiography” provides “a mirror for the rest of the culture” and functions as “a kind of popular pulse” (5).
With our inquisitive fingers on this popular pulse, folklorists can analyze the deep connections between folklore and culture, aiming to understand the values beneath the stories. Folklore may not be an exact mirror of culture, but it certainly reflects culture on some level, and discerning the ripples and patterns of that reflection can lead to important insights on a societal scale.
Dundes, Alan, ed. Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Gurel, Perin. “Folklore Matters: The Folklore Scholarship of Alan Dundes and the New American Studies.” Academia.edu upload.