The Role of Folklore Studies in Society and the Academy
Folklore names both a popular concept and an academic discipline. While as a popular concept, folklore may be associated with nostalgia, triviality, and error, folklore as an academic discipline is concerned with the role of vernacular cultural forms and practices in the making of social life. Folklorists study how people construct for themselves (individually and collectively) a sense of a shared past, and membership in various communities. Folklorists investigate the changing expressions of historical and communal consciousness, in the mundane processes of everyday life as well as formal, stylized events that define and renew social identity. Whatever the scale or profile of the social phenomena under study, folklore draws on critical, social, and literary theory to understand the poetics and politics of ordinary life. Folklore focusses on particular transactions - material, verbal, or ritual - which are integral to overall processes usually viewed from greater distances.
Folklorists share methodological and theoretical interests and approaches with cultural anthropologists, social historians, sociologists, sociolinguists, material culture scholars, and scholars of various disciplines who engage with the vernacular. In general, folklore's practice of qualitative ethnography is distinguished by an ongoing dialogue with research subjects, and a commitment to non-covert research, which often leads to advocacy of marginalized groups. Because of this dialogue, which engages researchers and subjects in a process of collaborative meaning-making, folklorists' findings are often of interest to general audiences. Our findings tend to reflect upon and amplify peoples' daily experiences and the meanings they make from those, and we are therefore deeply implicated in the processes of self-definition we study.
This politics of proximity to and communication with our research subjects, and the public interest in folklore research shapes our professional mandate, and places folklorists on the front line of civic engagement through the humanities. Many who hold advanced degrees in folklore and folklife engage the work of cultural interpretation and administration in settings outside of the academy: in historical and art museums, public schools, local and regional historical and cultural societies, arts administration, planning and community development, public humanities, public libraries, parks, and nature centers, conflict resolution, professional facilitating, and the health professions.
In recent decades the concept of community has become increasingly central to the study of folklore and its applications. This idea encompasses not only local, regional, or ethnically-rooted patterns of association, but patterns grounded in professions and work places, or other social niches (for example, the cultures of medicine and law, of the deaf community, or of tourism and its sites) that appear as distinctive subcultures within complex institutions. Folklorists' critical-interpretive training and documentary skills are well-suited to the study of informal group communication and its function within complex institutions and social settings. Folklore study is motivated not by nostalgia (which folklorists study as a social force), but rather by an interest in understanding emergent social institutions through detailed attention to the forms of social communication that ground them.
- Adapted from the 1993 Mission Statement for the Graduate Group in the Department of Folklore and Folklife, University of Pennsylvania
For a history of the study of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, see the article published by Rosina Miller, a recent graduate of our program: Of Politics, Disciplines, and Scholars: MacEdward Leach and the Founding of the Folklore Program at the University of Pennsylvania (The Folklore Historian 21: 17-34).
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