John W. Roberts


7 Grand Theory, Nationalism, and
American Folklore

DIFFICULT QUESTIONS ABOUT the role of theory in folklore study have often been raised within the history of the discipline. These persistent questions have, at different times, created a great deal of anxiety over issues of theory. This anxiety has manifested itself in attempts to reconcile seemingly disparate approaches. However they have been characterized—as armchair philosopher versus fieldworker, literary versus anthropological, professional versus amateur, academic versus public—these labels and the seemingly dichotomous approaches that they suggest have only served to obscure the state of theoretical development in the field. Moreover, the debates spawned by these different approaches suggest that a divide exists between theory and practice, in ways not experienced in other disciplines. Of the questions consistently raised, the one concerning “grand theory” seems particularly urgent. Alan Dundes suggested that “the continued lack of innovation in what we might term ‘grand theory’” is crucial to an understanding of the current state of the discipline in the academy and he claimed that it is the “principal” reason for the decline in folklore programs in universities (2005, 387). He further asserted that this lack has caused folklore to be perceived as a “weak academic discipline” and, in large measure, is responsible for an absence of a level of respect for folklore necessary for its institutionalization in universities (393).

One of the difficulties in responding to questions related to theory in folklore has to do with the intricate relationship between theory and definition. Both have proven to be illusory prizes in the search for clarity in folklore. Various reasons can be offered for the difficulty in defining and developing theoretical models for folklore study.

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