Lee Having


2 America’s Antitheoretical Folkloristics

BEGETTING THIS COLLECTION of essays was an American Folklore Society forum in October 2005, which asked the question, “Why is there no ‘Grand Theory’ in folkloristics?” The origin of the phrase in sociology is explained in the essay by Gary Alan Fine. Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) inscribed “grand theory,” which he said “put the analysis of social phenomena on a new track in the broadest possible terms.” Not all sociologists, he knew, would accept those broad terms; some still adhered to the empirical level, as folklorists continue to do today (1937, viii-ix). In the AFS forum, the diverse answers 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 (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. To fill out the picture, John W. Roberts has contributed an unblunted look at the history of American folkloristics, a fuller paper than the brief pieces I solicited from the forum participants. It was originally addressed to a conference in May 2006 at Ohio State University on “Negotiating the Boundaries of Folklore Theory and Practice.” For contrast, one other country provides a comparison to the American emphasis: James Dow, America’s leading interpreter and translator of folklore studies in Germany, contributes an essay to show the decline in the status of folklore there and the fragmentation of Volkskunde studies.

Concentrating on the United States, it is important to be true to the history of the field. Dorothy Noyes and John Roberts point to

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