Grand Theory in Folkloristics

Grand Theory in Folkloristics

Grand Theory in Folkloristics

Grand Theory in Folkloristics


Why is there no "Grand Theory" in the study of folklore? Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) advocated "grand theory," which put the analysis of social phenomena on a new track in the broadest possible terms. Not all sociologists or folklorists accept those broad terms; some still adhere to the empirical level. Through a forum sponsored by the American Folklore Society, the diverse answers to the question of such a theory arrived at substantial agreement: American folklorists have produced little "grand theory." One speaker even found all the theory folklorists need in the history of philosophy. The two women in the forum (Noyes and Mills) spoke in defense of theory that is local, "apt," suited to the audience, and "humble"; the men (Bauman and Fine) reached for something Parsons might have recognized. The essays in this collection, developed from the forum presentations, defend diverse positions, but they largely accept the longstanding concentration in American folkloristics on the quotidian and local.


Michael Dylan Foster and Ray Cashman

This book is an expanded edition of a Journal of Folklore Research special issue published in 2008. That original issue had a long history and, for a slim volume, has made remarkably expansive ripples in the disciplinary pool of folkloristics. the time is right, we feel, to republish the articles collected therein because the questions they raise are just as critical today as they were almost a decade ago. What is “grand theory”? Do folklorists in fact lack grand theory? Why should it matter (or not) for folklore studies? How does/should theory inform our research? the chapters that follow fervently address these questions and many more, exploring, comparing, revealing, speculating, and most of all theorizing. We will allow them to speak for themselves, but it is worth adding here a little context and explanation.

In October of 2004, the American Folklore Society (AFS) held its annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah. Alan Dundes, whose prolific and influential work crossed genres and geographic regions, was asked to give the Invited Presidential Plenary Address. Although he was, as one colleague put it, “the most renowned folklorist of his time” (Hansen 2005, 245), Dundes had not actually participated in the meeting in many years. He delivered, in the words of Regina Bendix,

One of his rousing, funny, critical, controversial, irreverent, yet erudite
papers in the rapid-fire pace in which he tended to lecture—pausing only
for an insight, a joke, or an analytic statement to sink in—only to pick up
the pace again with more. His address ruffled some feathers, as many of
his presentations and publications tended to do; it made the usual de
mands for rigorous scholarship founded on multilingual bibliographic
research and voiced a commitment to an internationally housed disci
pline; it challenged, politely but firmly, the fieldwork practices of major

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