What do you call stuff that is obviously folkloric in nature, but not clearly classified as a given genre of folklore? Especially when it’s deeply connected to worldview?
Luckily, Alan Dundes has an answer for us. And like much of Dundes’s work, it ties in to deeply held beliefs that are useful in making sense of the world around us.
In my #FolkloreThursday post on worldview, I defined worldview as how a group
perceives the world and their place in it…worldview encompasses factors like morality, causality, ethics, aesthetics, and more. Our worldview is what tells us what is good, right, and beautiful in the world; what makes the sun rise and set; what happens after we die; who deserves access to which resources; and perhaps even who deserves violence.
We study worldview as it manifests in various genres of folklore…but what happens when you’ve got folklore that crosses genres, or could fit in multiple genres depending on context, meaning, or intention? What then? (other than the anguished cries of thwarted archivists)
Dundes suggests that traditional notions that are expressed in folklore, but which are a poor fit for established genres, might be classified instead as folk ideas:
By “folk ideas” I mean traditional notions that a group of people have about the nature of man, of the world, and of man’s life in the world. Folk ideas would not constitute a genre of folklore but rather would be expressed in a great variety of different genres. Proverbs would almost certainly represent the expression of one or more folk ieas, but the same folk ideas might also appear in folktales, folksongs, and in fact almost every conventional genre of folklore, not to mention nonfolkloristic materials. (123)
There are a number of folk ideas common in (Anglo) American worldview, according to Dundes. He suggests that they include the Puritan idea about salvation requiring suffering (e.g. medicine needs to taste bad to be effective), and the idea of unlimited good (there always being enough to go around), and the prevalence of linear and visual thinking and metaphors.
Dundes also distinguishes between folk ideas and stereotypes, which he terms folk fallacies. It’s common to see these circulated-but-usually-false ideas called “myths,” which of course bugs the crap out of folklorists (since we use “myth” to mean sacred narrative about creation). People can often articulate folk fallacies, as they’re “part of the stated premises of a culture” (130). But in contrast, individuals aren’t always aware of folk ideas, and may not be able to state them aloud. Thus:
Folk fallacies such as stereotypes would therefore be part of the conscious or self-conscious culture of a people whereas folk ideas would be part of the unconscious or unself-conscious culture of a people. (130)
Distinguishing between the parts of culture that are consciously held, transmitted, and articulated, and those that are not, is of course tricky stuff. However, it’s a good task for scholars to set ourselves to, and one with potentially helpful effects as we help to understand cultural misunderstandings and conflicts.
So if you’re in doubt about how to classify an item of folklore, and it seems to convey a traditionally-held axiomatic belief about the world or human nature, keep in mind that you might be dealing with a folk idea. Once we identify and articulate it, we can study it, and perhaps even challenge it. This might be my activist side talking, but that’s one way we make progress, like when we fight racist, sexist, and heterosexist notions about human nature. It’s a good way to make an impact.
Dundes, Alan. “Folk Ideas as Units of Worldview.” In Toward New Perspectives in Folklore, eds. Américo Paredes and Richard Bauman. Bloomington: Trickster Press, 2000 . 120-134.