Have you ever heard someone say “Oh, that’s just folklore”? Here’s why it pisses off folklorists, and why it’s utterly untrue.
First, as I discussed in my intro post at Patheos, folklore isn’t just a collection of lies or falsehoods:
The way we define it, folklore is traditional, informally transmitted culture. Maybe you’ve heard someone say “Oh, that’s just folklore” or “oh, that’s just a fairy tale/myth/old wives’ tale/etc.” but that’s not the association we use in academic folklore studies. I think we have Mythbusters to thank for some of this, but ah well. That meaning of folklore, as false belief, definitely applies to some of what we study, but not all of it.
So that’s one association of “just folklore” that won’t win you any friends, and isn’t an accurate description of the material anyway. The second association of “just folklore” has to do with trivializing it or making it out to be unimportant.
Turns out, we’ve got a name for this phenomenon: the triviality barrier.
The triviality barrier was coined specifically in regard to children’s folklore, which is often ignored and dismissed on account of its seeming triviality. However, nothing could be farther from the truth: the folklore of children resonates deeply with the experiences of marginalized and disempowered people. It has many functions, from providing group cohesion to testing the limits of authority and social norms.
As Simon Bronner writes of his collection of children’s folklore:
This collection reports what children really have to say, and not necessarily what we like to hear. No, children’s folklore is not all the sweetness and light of “Ring around the Rosies.” And no, it is not stuck in a past golden age. Yes, it thrives in the city as well as the country, in our modern times as much as it did in pioneer days, among rich children and poor, girls and boys, of all ethnic groups and religions. It adapts to changing times and comments on them. It works hard for its living. (27)
If anything, folklore’s seeming mundane traits make it even more deserving of study. As Lynne McNeill writes:
Because people’s own folklore is so common, so familiar, so everyday, many people feel that it’s not worth studying. Now, if we look to the folklore of other cultures, it may indeed seem exotic and strange, but it’s important to remember that folklore isn’t defined by being exotic and strange; it only looks that way from the outside. To the people who grew up in that other culture, that same exotic and strange folklore appears mundane and familiar.
But there’s a strong argument to be made in favor of studying the mundane, the familiar, and the trivial, and we can see it when we look at the root of the word trivia. It comes to us from the Latin trivium, which means “three roads” or, specifically, the spot where three roads come together. […]
If we want to understand a group of people – not individuals, but the group as a whole – we need to look at the things they share, the places where their lives intersect,rather than the things that distinguish them…. The commonness of folklore is exactly what makes it so important as a subject of cultural study. (15-16)
Whatever realm of folklore or culture you’re studying, being aware of whether it’s been trivialized or marginalized can be a great start to understanding what role it plays in the broader culture. And not letting the triviality barrier deter you from looking into a cultural phenomenon more closely can yield unique insights into people’s lived experiences and deeply held values…which is what we’re after here at Patheos, right?
Bronner, Simon J. (ed). American Children’s Folklore: A Book of Rhymes, Games, Jokes, Stories, Secret Languages, Belief and Camp Legends for Parents, Grandparents, Teachers, Counselors, and All Adults Who were Once Children. Little Rock: August House Publishers, 1988.
McNeill, Lynne S. Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2013.