Of COURSE I’m a Folklorist Studying Emotional Labor

Of COURSE I’m a Folklorist Studying Emotional Labor December 3, 2016

When we talk about folklore as the social glue that holds communities together, it brings emotional labor into sharp focus as an academic topic that has relevance both within and beyond the ivory tower.

Photo of me by James Moriarty.
Photo of me by James Moriarty.

This semester in my Folklore of the Midwest class, I’ve been talking about folklore as social glue a lot. As in, performing and transmitting folklore serves many functions, but a key one is reinforcing group identity. This is true across multiple folk groups.

When we discuss family folklore, it’s often in terms of how families share narratives and customs to create a sense of cohesiveness. Often, it’s thematized as “us against the world” or “we’re quirky but we like it this way.” When we discuss foodways, we talk about not just the importance of understanding culturally relative systems of meal selection and preparation, but also the invisible labor that goes into meal prep and clean-up. When we did a unit on occupational folklore, many of my students had personal narratives of working retail and being expected to be extra smiley and nice on account of preserving the brand of the store they were working for (and women experienced this moreso than men).

At the same time, I’ve also been blogging a fair bit about emotional labor: first defining it, then discussing its relation to kin-keeping and worry-work, and sharing comprehensive documents on it. I’ve been thinking long and hard about the emotional labor in my own life and relationships, trying to figure out what’s ethical and good for me and those I care about.

Clearly, the two concepts (folklore as social glue, and emotional labor) are connected. I’m interested in both because they’re both areas I study as a scholar, but it’s only just now that I was able to articulate the connection.

See, one of the ways we define the study of folklore  is “looking at the overlooked.” This acknowledges the triviality barrier, or how folklore (especially children’s folklore) is “often ignored and dismissed on account of its seeming triviality.”

Folklore is the cultural stuff that “everyone knows,” or that is deemed too obvious or mundane to articulate. It might mean that most folks are passive bearers of it, unable to step back from their acculturation to unpack it. Or it might mean that they’re unwilling to do so, because we’re so steeped in expectations about whose job it is to do the invisible emotional labor that keeps society rolling along.

There’s a broad cultural assumption that women, LGBTQ+ folks, people of color, and other minorities will continue to do the emotional labor to fit in, seem unthreatening, and quietly survive without disrupting things too much. Feminism and folklore studies hold the keys to disentangle these assumptions by naming them and making them visible.

So of course I’m a folklorist (and feminist) studying emotional labor. We can’t talk about folklore as social glue, functioning to hold groups together, without also asking who is responsible for the social glue. Looking at the overlooked, and making visible the invisible, helps us understand the distribution of social power in our communities…thereby helping us change it.

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