Essay on Folklore and Power

Essay on Folklore and Power June 27, 2012

In order to give y’all a glimpse into what it is that I do as a folklorist, I thought I’d share an essay that I wrote for a specific purpose (an application I’m very optimistic about) and have since revised a little. In it, I had to convey what we do in my field and some avenues of research I would like to pursue. Since it was for an application, it’s structured a little differently than my normal writing style, but as I was also trying to describe my scholarship to non-folklorists, I’m hoping it will be interesting and intelligible to my readers out there on the internet. Here goes.


The concept of folklore as traditional and expressive culture is fundamentally intertwined with the notion of power. Folklore has been defined as artistic communication in small groups and as creativity in everyday life. As an academic discipline, folkloristics shares boundaries with anthropology, sociology, linguistics, literature, ethnomusicology, religious studies, and gender studies, among other fields that share our orientation towards group behavior, artistry, language, belief systems, social life, and narrative. Power weaves in and out of each of these ideas, for social life is structured by hierarchies dictating who has access to which resources and roles. Narratives depict the process of gaining the power to control one’s life. Artists have historically thrived under the patronage of the powerful—but artists also subvert dominant paradigms by illustrating inequalities.

My scholarship seeks to illuminate the ways in which folklore and power interact in social life and art, utilizing concepts of identity, belief, creativity, and access (strategies of gaining power) to guide the research process. These connections have not been properly investigated, due in part to the perception of folkloristics as a discipline with primarily festive and joyful topics. This could not be farther from the truth: there is folklore mourning death and dying, just as there is folklore celebrating birth and life. Sick joke cycles and urban legends mock current events and thus provide insights into a society’s collective anxieties, while traumatized refugees and rape survivors work through their experiences narratively.

However, another reason that the intersections of folklore and politics have been underexplored is that folklore and politics do indeed sometimes mesh well, too well, creating discomfort in both scholars and laypeople. For instance, the Nazi regime sanitized folklore in order to indoctrinate their followers, and this has contributed to the cautiousness with which German folklorists must proceed today. Alternately, oppressed nations have used their folklore as a rallying cry, as proof of shared identity and political legitimacy. Examples include the importance of the epic Kalevala to Finnish national identity, and the significance of folksong, folk dance, and national dress to the Estonian nationalist movement (Valk 2010). On top of all of this, scholars are not “supposed” to be political; we are not supposed to be activists, but rather, detached observers and analysts. The reality is, however, that merely choosing to turn one’s attention upon a topic is a political choice.

Much of the scholarship on folklore and power is indebted to the feminist movement. Feminist theory began to trickle into folkloristic research in the 1960s and 1970s (Jorgensen 2010). Feminist folklorists affirmed that the generations of mainly male folklorists primarily documenting men’s folklore rather than women’s folklore resulted in a skewed picture of the discipline (Young and Turner 1993). The study of women’s folklore is thus a corrective endeavor, to address the imbalances of power on an academic level.

Feminist folklorists also recognize that the exercise of power shapes folklore on multiple levels. For instance, an entire scholarly volume was devoted to the practice of “coding,” whereby a non-dominant social group must hide and subvert their messages in order to escape detection and punishment. Examples of women’s coding in folklore range from domestic disrepair to subversive quilting (Radner and Lanser 1993). Coding occurs in other contexts, and is but one instance of the ways in which power and folklore inform one another.

Theoretical Background

Power was, indirectly, a concern of early folklorists such as the Grimm brothers, who collected German folktales in a cultural context where Germany was not yet a nation-state and where Napoleon threatened German identities and proto-nationalist agendas. However, as discussed above, folkloristic works that explicitly address power are a fairly recent phenomenon.

One of the seminal works addressing the relationship of identity and power in folklore is Richard Bauman’s “Differential Identity and the Social Base of Folklore.” Bauman’s examples, drawn from genres such as taunts and jokes that bridge the communicative spaces between social groups, demonstrate that folklore is a response to and is inextricably wrapped up in the relationships among groups of people with differing access to control over their circumstances (Bauman 1972). Bauman’s essay initiated a shift in folkloristics towards performance as an orienting model. Rather than focusing on the folklore text, scholars began studying the context in which the text was situated, some going so far as to claim that there is no originary text, but instead that folklore is emergent, created in performance (Bauman 1984).

The shift toward performance helped illuminate many of the ways in which power structures folklore events. Patricia Sawin is one of Bauman’s students and one of the few folklorists to apply the power-oriented gender and identity theories of Judith Butler to performance theories of folklore, arguing that comprehensive studies of folklore and power must begin “by looking for evidence of a power imbalance and ask how the esthetic event impinges on and plays out for the less powerful participants” (Sawin 2002, 55). In her work with traditional singer Bessie Eldreth, Sawin demonstrates that “esthetic performance is a central arena in which gender identities and differential social power based on gender are engaged” (48). In other words, folklore performances—which range from song-singing and story-telling sessions to kinesthetic events such as folk-dances and festivals to the creation and consumption of material culture like holiday foods or customary garments—are fraught with power. Power can be contested or reinforced within a performance, and the power at stake need not be gender relations, but could also be ethnic or national tensions.


  • Beliefs about power are an inherent structuring element of folklore because of the fact that folklore is circulated amongst groups of people whose lives are shaped on a daily experiential level by power. Thus any study of folklore must begin with a contextual accounting of the types of power—economic, gendered, racial, class-based, colonial, religious, and so on—that inform the groups from whence folklore springs and wherein it circulates.
  • Every genre of folklore, from nursery rhyme to festival, is structured by power relations and will thus display some aspect of those power relations in their content, context, form, and/or function. However, since folklore does not always show a direct relationship with reality (e.g., fairy tales alter the real world by adding magic), the nature of the relationship with the power sources of the society may be artistically distorted. Therefore, one aim of this project is to note the differing relationships between folklore genres in how they address the distribution of power in society.
  • Genres of folklore that explicitly address power relations will be particularly charged and creative in how they deal with the roles and rituals associated with power. For instance, folklore about gender roles, such as courtship rituals or jokes about sex, will be especially emphatic in their framing of identity. The more a genre is infused with roles of power, the more I expect to find creative strategies making it socially acceptable to address the topic of power, which is frequently taboo as power obscures its own discursive workings (Foucault 1972).
  • The connections between beliefs about and access to power, as well as the creative strategies for debating and displaying power, will thus be visible to the analyst of folklore and identity, even if these relationships take different forms among different groups and between different genres.


Historically, folkloristics has incorporated methods from both the social sciences and the humanities. Our discipline’s concern with the expressive aspects of social life makes it necessary to consider the quantitative and qualitative methods available. Culture is patterned—hence involves numbers and the relationships between them—but culture is also subjective, something that is experienced and felt in both conscious and unconscious ways. Thus, scholars of culture should incorporate both quantitative and qualitative methods where possible.

Folklore materials are generally flexible and adaptable in their forms. Unlike a literary work that is fixed in print once published, folklore materials display variation and multiple existence as part of their defining characteristics (Dundes 1999). For example, it is not uncommon to see legends and jokes that were once oral traditions now being transmitted by email and SMS, while folktales and fairy tales are transformed into films, books, poems, and games. The inherent instability of folklore makes it essential for researchers to be comfortable with a number of tools, methods, and theories.

In American folkloristics especially, there has been a divide between literary and anthropological approaches to folklore (Zumwalt 1988). As my training has been primarily in America (though I’ve benefited from the mentorship of numerous international folklorists), I have the ability to balance and negotiate these complementary research modes.

As I plan to investigate a number of genres, so must I be prepared to utilize various methods to examine them. I will use literary analysis and methodologies from the digital humanities (such as computer programs that allow for advanced text analysis) in order to study genres such as fairy tales and epics that have primarily existed in print in recent years. For those “living” folklore genres such as folk dance, belief, and gendered behavior, I shall utilize fieldwork methods (e.g., participant observation). The anthropological principles of ethical practices and reflexivity inform my fieldwork practices. I always emphasize studying folklore in its cultural context and treating the materials as respectfully as possible.


As my introduction and literature review demonstrate, my project addresses a gap in existing scholarship and thus makes a new and significant contribution to cultural knowledge production. While there are many ways to study folklore, placing power at the forefront of this investigation makes for an exciting and relevant research project. Though I am most drawn to genres such as dance and narrative, the multifaceted and timely hypotheses I propose here give me the flexibility to explore various folklore genres and folk groups depending on which avenues seem the most fruitful, as well as which topics will be conducive to collaboration.

With wars and economic crises afflicting numerous societies today, it is increasingly important to understand how power works, and how power structures both cooperate with and disrupt local traditional cultures. Understanding the dynamic interrelationship of power and folklore will help illuminate conflicts as well as the potential for their resolution in social microcosms and macrocosms.


Bauman, Richard. 1972. “Differential Identity and the Social Base of Folklore.” In Toward New Perspectives in Folklore, eds. Américo Paredes and Richard Bauman. Austin: University of Texas Press, 31-41.

Bauman, Richard. 1984 [1977]. Verbal Art as Performance. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.

Dundes, Alan. Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Foucault, Michel 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Jorgensen, Jeana. 2010. “Political and Theoretical Feminisms in American Folkloristics: Definition Debates, Publication Histories, and the Folklore Feminists Communication.” The Folklore Historian 27: 43-73.

Radner, Joan N. and Susan S. Lanser. 1993. “Strategies of Coding in Women’s Cultures.” In Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Cultures, ed. John N. Radner. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1-29.

Valk, Ülo. 2008. “Folk and the Others: Constructing Social Reality in Estonian Legends.” In Legends and Landscape: Articles Based on Plenary Papers from the 5th Celtic-Nordic-Baltic Folklore Symposium, Reykjavik 2005, ed. Terry Gunnell. University of Iceland Press: Reykjavik. Pp. 153-170.

Valk, Ülo. 2010. “Folklore and Discourse: The Authority of Scientific Rhetoric, from State Atheism to New Spirituality.” In Handbook of Religion and the Authority of Science, eds. James R. Lewis and Olav Hammer. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 847-866.

Young, M. Jane and Kay Turner. 1993. “Challenging the Canon: Folklore Theory and Reconsidered from Feminist Perspectives.” In Feminist Theory and the Study of Folklore, eds. Susan Tower Hollis, Linda Pershing, and M. Jane Young. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 9-28.

Zumwalt, Rosemary Lévy. 1988. American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialogue of Dissent. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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