Academic journal article Western Folklore

Framing Folklore: An Introduction

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Framing Folklore: An Introduction

Article excerpt

This volume contains essays inspired by Jay Mechling's use of the concept of the "play frame" to explain the processes in daily and ceremonial life by which folklore becomes evident and conveys meaning. Frames in his analytical rhetoric are not material boundaries, but are communicative strategies of organizing experience. They might indeed be performatively construed as "scenes" or "stages," but frame analysts usually find that those dramaturgical terms do not fully connote the multifocal, and often multivalent, characteristics of cultural expressions that arise from "framed" social interaction. For many scholars, the frame used as a tool of ethnography draws on the praxis of framing in photography (Bateson 1956:175-176; Bateson [1972] 2000:186; Bateson and Mead 1942). In this view, the ethnographer looks through a lens and identifies boundaries that will not be apparent to the subjects and be able to variously focus or bring into relief different activities in the shot. The act of framing captures a narrative as well as action that have a bearing on the perception of the event from the perspective of the participants and assorted viewers. Consequently, frames refer to the ways insiders and outsiders comprehend activity as a deep cognitive structure in addition to viewing, and strategizing, what occurs behaviorally. In sum, frames are metamessages: "a message about the messages" given within an event that can be analyzed socially and psychologically to explain how categories of action such as play, violence, work, rest, ritual, order, and chaos arise and engage. The use of frame does not imply a singleness of mind or society among participants, because as a culturally derived construct based on precedent that has been adapted to new situations, the frame is open to negotiation and contention (Mechling 1980a:36).

Mechling applies frame analysis to a number of genres and subjects, but he most extensively displays use of the frame in his ethnography of Boy Scout camp in On My Honor (2001), probably his best-known work. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) exemplifies issues that carry through from the cultural scholarship he established in the 1970s to the present. First of all, it is a group that is usually not recognized for folkloric behavior because it is a formal institution, but Mechling convincingly showed in speech, rituals, craft, dress, food, and games the way that members shape an organizational culture as well as submit to (or negotiate with) bureaucratic rules, hierarchies, and systems characteristic of modern life (Mechling 1980a, 1980c, 1981, 1984a, 1984b, 1987a, 1987b, 1989c, 2002, 2005a). The BSA is also organized according to gender, age, and nationality, and thus invites questions of invented and adapted traditions, historically and culturally contextualized, in human development and social movements, including masculinity, sexuality, belief, and religiosity. The kinds of activities he observed, and in fact participated in himself in an earlier generation, brought out mediated and negotiated binaries in human cognition of play and violence, sacredness and profanity, nature and civilization, folk and popular culture, and tradition and modernity. Even within the confined domain of the Boy Scout camp, he had to deal with multiple perspectives of social roles and cultural agency - from the views of campers, counselors, administrators, and national representatives.

With a surfeit of animal and Native American symbolism in the BSA, Mechling took off on rhetorical paths of questioning of animal-human relations and ethnic representation. Unlike others who had studied childlore in streets and playgrounds, his forays into the woods and mountains to observe traditional activities reflexively considered the cultural association of children being in a natural state waiting to evolve into adults as well as the implication of cultural construction of a temporary settlement within a natural setting. Rather than following the convention of examining the "life lessons" children learn through play for adult responsibilities, Mechling treated the children's experience as a distinctive culture onto itself. …

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