Richard Bauman


5 The Philology of the Vernacular

Grand Theory versus Prevailing Theory
in American Folklore

IN MY VIEW—and I suspect most contemporary folklorists would agree with me—any effort to proclaim or construct a grand theory for folklore is a misguided enterprise, notwithstanding the prominent role of grand theory in the development of modern social thought, its rhetorical utility in the political economy of discipline building, and the social capital that still somehow accrues to it in some provinces of academe. The rhetoric and intellectual politics surrounding claims to grand or high theory are all too susceptible to a number of stultifying effects: authoritative regimentation of inquiry, universalizing generalization and a priori abstraction that flatten out everything interesting about human existence, and banal “it fits” scholarship (here’s the theory, here’s my case, and it fits). If, though, we take the question before us to be whether American folklore has a grand theory in the sense of a prevailing one, I would answer in the affirmative, at the same time acknowledging that American folklore study has been inflected by a range of theories, some of them representing the reactivation of intellectual kinship with long-lost cousins with whom we share intellectual ancestors but whose families moved away from our neighborhood some time ago.

By prevailing theory, I mean (1) a conceptual frame of reference (2) that guides a general, common engagement with a coherent intellectual program, (3) based on a set of premises about society and culture, (4) providing an orienting framework for inquiry, and (5) derived from or aligned to a demonstrable intellectual tradition. I hasten to say that the common ground is not necessarily fully recognized or understood as such by all practitioners, but it is, I think,

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