Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

When the Folklorists Won the Battle but Lost the War: The Cumbersome (Re-)Birth of SIEF in 1964

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

When the Folklorists Won the Battle but Lost the War: The Cumbersome (Re-)Birth of SIEF in 1964

Article excerpt

The Winner Writes the History

In September 2014, the Societe Internationale d'Ethnologie et de Folklore (SIEF) celebrated its 50th anniversary. From one point of view, the age is correct and the date correctly chosen. SIEF got its name and its bylaws at a meeting in Athens on September 8-9, 1964. From another point of view, it was a rebirth or a rejuvenation that took place, rather than a birth. The adventure started in 1928, and the society was 86 years old at the time of its demicentennial.

When CIAP (la Commission des Arts et Traditions Populaires) became SIEF during two September days in 1964, the victorious parties were careful to present the passage as a legal and democratic transition. On the one hand, they claimed that a new organization was born, on the other hand, they claimed the full heritage, material and immaterial, of the old organization--archives, treasury, working-groups or commissions, even its UNESCO affiliation; that is, everything except the name. Even its rather somnolent scholarly life, which the new leaders had wanted to escape from, continued more or less as before. Hence, the debated question of the age of SIEF. The society's roots certainly go back to a meeting in Prague in October 1928. But do a change of name and amended bylaws make a new organization?

The transition was by no means a peaceful one. There are two scholars who were especially central in the tug-of-war around CIAP in the early 1960s, which ended with a putsch in Athens. One was Sigurd Erixon (1888-1968), professor of ethnology in Stockholm and research director of the Nordiska Museet. Sweden's most influential ethnologist through more than a generation, Sigurd Erixon was the founder of several international scholarly journals (Folk-Liv, Laos, Ethnologia Europaea). He was very active on the European scene from the early 1930s to the late 1960s, and to most European scholars his name was synonymous with "European ethnology." For Erixon, "European (regional) ethnology" comprised the fields of material, social and spiritual culture; to him, folkloristics was a branch of the discipline, and not a discipline in its own right--a position that brought him much opposition from folklorists.

The other protagonist was the German Volkskundler Kurt Ranke (19081985), professor of folklore first in Kiel and from 1960 in Gottingen. Ranke had a dubious past from the war, but he rose quickly in the post-war hierarchy of German Volkskunde and became one of the leading folk narrative scholars of his time. He founded the journal Fabula, an encyclopaedia on international narrative research--Die Enzyklopadie des Marchens, as well as the world-embracing International Society for Folk Narrative Research (ISFNR, 1962).

Erixon and Ranke each had their groups of adherents. Both parties claimed democratic ideals--Erixon wanted formal representation and safe election procedures (but accepted individual members in addition); the other wanted an open society with membership for everyone. That was the front issue. But a complex of other motives lurked underneath these ideals.

I call the Athens event a putsch, because in fact it was not members of CIAP who voted on the change. The majority of the voters were members of Kurt Ranke's two-years old ISFNR, which hosted CIAP's General Assembly in September 1964.

The Key, the Questions and the Sources

Looking at the past, it is the historian's privilege to observe the results of an action or a train of events. The key to what happened in Athens in 1964 is as follows:

The concrete results of the putsch were that

* The membership structure was changed, from a commission constituted by elected national representatives to a society consisting of individual members.

* A restricted number of official national representatives were replaced by an unlimited number of individuals, with no control of scholarly qualities or affiliation. …

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