Why I’m Glad I’m A Folklorist

Why I’m Glad I’m A Folklorist September 7, 2015

F is for Folklore! (not really; this is an illustration from an 1899 edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, now in public domain)

Despite the distance I’ve created between myself and institutional academia (explained in my I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore series), I’m still glad that my academic background is in folklore studies. Yeah, it’d be nice if my many professors and the disciplinary leaders in academic folklore studies had been more realistic about the utter lack of jobs, since 2-3 tenure-track positions a year does not a robust job market make. However, I don’t regret going into folklore studies, since it’s shaped my worldview in a number of beneficial ways.

First, studying folklore gives us a unique vantage point upon the world. IU folklorist Warren Roberts once said, “Ninety-five percent of the population has been left out of the history books.” By this, he meant that the historical record skews heavily toward people who make up a small portion of the population: royalty, nobles, war leaders, and religious leaders (mostly cis-gendered heterosexual Christian white men, imagine that). In studying folklore, however, we lift our eyes from written records to peer out into the vast human landscape that exists in oral tradition, in customs, and in material culture.

Next, studying folklore connects me with everyone. Every single human interacts with folklore, whether you think of it in those terms or not. Everybody uses dialect and proverbs; everybody recognizes jokes and legends, even if you don’t perform them. Everyone has been exposed to holiday customs, folk music, and family or occupational folklore. Everyone makes body art and adornment choices, and partakes in traditional foods. Now, this also leads to the problem wherein people think that because they know folklore, that also means they know about folklore in an analytical sense. That’s annoying, but the commonality of folklore remains: in any brief conversation with anyone, I can draw out a connection with folklore, and thereby have something to talk about with them. This is awesome in its own right, plus it saves me from having to make small talk. I loathe small talk.

Related to that last point, folklore gives us insights into group identity that are unique. Because folklore is traditional, informal culture, it thrives in group atmospheres. One person doing something in isolation isn’t necessarily interesting to a folklorist, though it might be interesting to someone who studies literature, fine arts, or music. But because we’re studying communally-practiced traditions, we’re automatically latching onto group dynamics. Folklore exists at the tension where innovation and tradition meet, and is thus responsive both to social change (dynamism) and the tendency to cling to the status quo (conservatism). Every group experiences these opposing forces, and every group deals with it differently. For this reason, studying folklore helps me understand my favorite dance form, American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, with greater nuance.

Folklore also gives us direct insight into what is relevant to people. This is why I’m not that excited about studying the origins of folklore; origins only tell us about when folklore started, not necessarily why it remains relevant. As my colleague Lynne McNeill writes in her book Folklore Rules, “if folklore is currently circulating, it must be important” (34, italics in original). Discerning why a piece of folklore is relevant enough to be transmitted takes a bit of interpretation, but once you know how to do that kind of analysis, it means you can look at folklore in its cultural context and learn about what people care about. It’s pretty neat.

The final point I’d like to make is that in studying folklore, we’re attuned to people’s life experiences and expressive forms on their own terms. When we go into a community to do fieldwork, we don’t arrogantly presume that we know The Truth about everything, and act like we’re just there to document some quaint traditions. That would be the height of arrogance. Instead, we’re trained to listen, respect, and respond with validation. This is not something I see a lot of in the academy. I see scholars filtering their subjects’ experiences through a lens that distorts those people’s experiences, implying that they couldn’t possibly know what’s going on in their own lives.* I find that tacky at best, and violent at worst. I’m much happier taking the view that people are rational, wise, and knowledgeable about their own lives, and that the role of the scholar is not necessarily to disprove what people think about themselves, but rather to listen and learn.

Okay, here’s the actual final point: it’s fun. Y’all, I get to study fairy tales! We have our own rigorous methods, and being a good folklorist (and specifically a good fairy-tale scholar) involves a LOT of reading and study. So it’s not all fun and games, nor is all folklore based on happiness, rainbows, and puppy dogs. But at the end of the day, I love the subject matter, and that makes it feel less like work.

Studying folklore has brought immense benefits to my life. Ruth Benedict, who was active in folklore and anthropology in the mid-20th century, once said, “We cannot see the lens through which we look.” Benedict was referring to culture, and how we have trouble identifying the worldview with which we’ve been socialized, since it conditions everything we see. But we all have many lenses, since we participate in many cultures and groups. Academic culture also counts here, and while I have many problems with the academic enculturation I received in grad school, I’m pretty happy with the lens folklore has given me.


*I’ve got another blog post or two brewing about this, but I see it quite often in medical and psychological scholarship on people who “deviate” from the norm, such as sex workers, transgender people, and, in the past, people who experienced same-sex or bisexual attraction. Why is it impossible to trust these folks’ perspectives on their own lives?

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