As Alan Dundes writes: “The context of an item is the specific social situation in which that particular item is actually employed” (23). In theory, the context can be observed by anyone, since it has objective elements to it, such as the location, time of day, the number of participants, and so on. But there are also subjective parts, things that only cultural insiders or members of a folk group would know.
Since context is something we observe on the ground, as it’s happening, Dundes notes that it’s important to distinguish context from function. As I’ve written, function encompasses the role that folklore performs in society, such as education or validation of norms. You need context in order to grasp function, since function doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but they’re not the same thing. Both function and context have to do with the larger social scale of folklore, but context is observable on the ground, therefore making it somewhat more objective, while function must be extrapolated (based on interview data and the folklorist’s interpretation thereof; sometimes members of a folk group also can elucidate how a given folklore text functions for them).
Context matters more for some genres than others. Dundes goes so far as to write that “contextless jokes are of limited value to the social scientist” (26). What he means by this is that jokes so often deal with taboo topics that if we don’t know when they’re deemed appropriate or acceptable, we’re missing out on a big chunk of the overall picture. Because folklore always reflects culture on some level, we need to be able to connect the dots between the content (as seen in the text) and context of folklore items to understand them.
When it comes to recording context if you’re doing fieldwork, you can never be too detailed. Make note of every detail as though you’re answering the basic questions of journalism (who, what, where, when, why, and how). Distinguish between the specifics that you observe yourself, and those you have to ask others for. You can always pare down the details later if you’re writing your fieldwork observations into a paper or article, but you can’t go back to the original context to revisit it… at least not until we invent time travel or get a better handle on virtual reality!
This post wraps up the Text, Texture, Context three-part series. If you’re a student in one of my folklore classes, I’ve just handed you a cheat-sheet to doing well. For everyone else, I imagine these concepts are useful in a number of venues!
Dundes, Alan. “Texture, Text, and Context.” In Interpreting Folklore. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. 20-32.