Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

Toward a Definition of Folklore in Practice

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

Toward a Definition of Folklore in Practice

Article excerpt

My title is a reverent nod to Dan Ben-Amos's pivotal essay, "Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context" (1971), in which he famously proposed a definition of folklore as "artistic communication in small groups." I use it as a starting point to ask whether or not practice theory can inform a revised definition and concept of folklore, as necessitated by the advent of the twenty-first century digital age (Bronner 2012). Such a definition should go beyond folkloric behavior in digital communication and be applicable to a variety of cultural phenomena or "practices," including those not covered by Ben-Amos's definition. At the time it was published, his essay sparked discussion not only about the changing characteristics of folklore in a post-industrial world, but also about folklorists' need to have a distinctive definition of folklore for disciplinary identity. I hope my consideration of practice as a keyword of folkloristic and cultural analysis will renew thinking about the phenomena analysts observe to be folklore as well as the scholarly enterprise, or discipline, to which this information contributes. My stab at defining folklore at this time is not coincidental. I point out that we are in the midst of an auspicious time for this, as current social and technological factors at work are similar to those that prompted the definitional discourse around Ben-Amos's theoretical grounding of performance and contextual approaches. In both cases, signs point toward similar paradigm shifts.

To proceed, I first review the conditions and dialogues that prompted Ben-Amos and other folklorists to undergird their action-oriented study with a definition that would announce their analytical concerns for a transformative age. I reflect on the efficacy of Ben-Amos's definition for a rising discipline. I look at the span of time from the 1960s to the end of the century and move on to assess challenges the dawn of the twenty-first century presented to conducting cultural analysis of folklore as "artistic communication in small groups." In the concluding section, I propose a definition around the concept of praxis, growing out of Ben-Amos's concern for folklore as a process-oriented subject. I evaluate the ways that such a definition addresses those challenges, and I explore the ultimate philosophical implications of this move for a theory of mind in culture.

The Indefiniteness and Inertness of Folklore During the 1960s

As a point of departure, Ben-Amos's definition responded to a European ethnological precedent of conceptualizing folklore as a product of rooted or peasant communities (Erixon 1937; Dundes 1966). From the literary side, he addressed the text-based emphasis on survivals and literary treatment going back to the "Great Team" of Victorian British folklorists (Dorson 1968; Dundes 1969). However, rather than revising a definition from the ethnological or literary side, Ben-Amos suggested that folklorists of his generation needed to generate a distinctive conceptualization of their subject and professional enterprise. As Maria Leach's twenty-one different definitions of folklore in Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Fegends (1949) showed, there was hardly consensus on the scope of folklore or folklore studies by the mid-twentieth-century although various keywords such as tradition, oral, transmission, culture, and literature frequently surfaced. Anthropological folklorists tended to underscore culture and transmission while literary scholars were naturally drawn to literature and orality As the iconoclastic 1960s began, a probably less acknowledged, but nonetheless significant work is Ake Hultkrantz's eight "headings" of folklore definitions in General Ethnological Concepts (1960), in which he pointed to the common ground of tradition among different factions of folkloristic work. Ben-Amos's "context" at the time (according to what he calls his "personal narrative" of making his definitional essay) is the prompting of an innovative, cohesive definition suited to the rise of an independent, academic and degree-granting discipline (Ben-Amos 2014, 12). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.