Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Ecotypes: Theory of the Lived and Narrated Experience

Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Ecotypes: Theory of the Lived and Narrated Experience

Article excerpt

An Innovative/Subversive Concept

Among the theoretical concepts that have emerged as fruitful crossroads of folklore studies and neighboring disciplines, one of the most versatile and productive may be the concept of ecotype, although created in the twentieth century true to older practice of naming scientific terms and concepts in Greek or Latin, traditionally named "oikotype." The classical Greek oixoç (pronounced: oikos) denoted primarily a house, a dwelling, or a household. It thus encompassed the experience of space in combination with the most intimate social formations associated with a private dwelling. When Swedish folklorist and ethnologist Carl Wilhelm von Sydow (1878-1952)1 picked the term for describing a process of cultural adaptation of tradition, he was imputing into his terminology the subjectivity of the tradition bearers (also his term) whose close contact with their natural environment was a key paradigm for his analytical work.

We cannot and do not want to gloss over von Sydow's enthusiasm for Nazi ideology during World War II in "neutral" Sweden, that has been documented, laid bare, and castigated by Nils Arvid Bringéus. This deplorable fact may have been connected with a heightened valuation of the physical territory and nature as the locus of the spirit of a particular folk identity transposed to a particular nation and/or race. It is, however, not visibly expressed in the essay in which the concept of ecotype is proposed: "On the Spread of Tradition" (Sydow),2 and was not really known among folklorists until its revealing in Bringéus's book (178-86).

Definition and Conceptualization

In its most general and unspecified form the concept of ecotype denotes primarily a variation in an international type (usually a tale-type) specific to an area or a group. It is thus rooted in the typological approach that reigned in the geographical-historical (Finnish) school of folklore studies dominating the field from the second half of the nineteenth century until the early 1960s. In his article "Geography and Folk-Tale Oicotypes," von Sydow elaborated the term with special reference to the study of folktales and integrated it into his study on the transmission and dynamics of tradition, calling for a study of folktales "as part of natural, living whole" (44). It is this aspect that has been viewed as his contestation of the methodology of the then-influential geographical-historical school. He later reformulated the concept a number of times.3

In a footnote von Sydow explicates the origin of the term in botany, referring to "an inherited form of adaptation to a specific environment, common to different individuals of a species" ("Geography and Folk-Tale Oicotypes" 243 n. II, 5). The biological metaphor of ecotype, which von Sydow creatively applied, refers to the ecological adaptation of a zoological, or rather botanical, species to a new environment to which it has been transported. For von Sydow's model of the distribution of tradition the activity of "tradition bearers" (a term that he created and theorized as well), that is, human agents who actively narrate and less actively listen, was of major importance. The functional or rather functionalist theory he constructed was thus deeply interactional and socially contextualized. Whereas von Sydow himself focused on narrative folklore, linking it strongly with what Dov Noy ("Folklore") has termed "cogitative folklore," that is, beliefs, symbols, and rituals, his disciples, for instance, Albert Eskeröd applied the concept and the ensuing methods to ethnological projects such as studying the entire "life world"4 of fishing villages and to the concept of year cycle as embodied in harvest festivals. Eskeröd amplified the von Sydowian functional analysis with explicit application of Malinowski's functionalist work.

Von Sydow's contestation of the dominant geographical-historical school's principles aims at their "super organic" theory isolating the products of tradition from the human agents of the production of tradition. …

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