Thesis: Folklore Literature Review

This post is one of a serialisation of key (edited) extracts of my thesis, “Digital Ethnography and a Virtual Orkney: The Role of Folklore in Creating an Online Orkney Place”, submitted and completed in 2018. You can download the full text below, with all footnotes, full data quotes, and list of references. I have left the original numerical chapter navigation in this post, for ease of reference.

2.1 Folklore

The term ‘folklore’ (or folk-lore) was coined in 1846 by William J. Thoms. Though this was the first recorded use of the term itself, folklore already existed as an area of study. There was folklore before folklore. By the time Thoms, under the pseudonym Ambrose Merton, created the term folklore in a letter to The Anthenaeum, popular antiquities (and, similarly, popular literature) had existed as a field of study in its own right for some time. The grouping of these (and other such “manners customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs etc of olden times”) into a “good Saxon compound” was, however, an important development in starting to draw together a variety of research under an umbrella term, the understanding of which would continue to grow over the coming decades (Emrich 1946). Many folklorists over the years have acknowledged their frustration at the relatively discipline-limiting examples of folklore listed by Thoms. As Nicolaisen lamented, “at the very moment when his new term “folklore” was capable of exciting people in ways in which the notion of popular antiquities had never managed to do, he links it to a limited vision and thus, together with others, turns generations of folklorists into gleaners and not into harvesters” (1995, p.74).

Folklore’s roots in history and literature, particularly the preoccupation with the oral tradition, meant that folklore took some time to expand as a discipline and move beyond those early associations. For several decades, the discipline focussed on what was communicated via typically traditional methods: initially concentrating on oral tradition, though gradually expanding to include other non-verbal methods of transmission. During the latter half of the twentieth century, this approach and fixation on the past was increasingly challenged and debated.

It is important to acknowledge the elastic nature of folklore as a discipline, particularly during the last sixty-five years, and how folklore has developed as a discipline. Many definitions of folklore have been published over the last seventy-five years (Leach 1959). Utley’s essay ‘Folk Literature: An Operational Definition’, first published in 1961 and later included in Dundes’ 1965 ‘The Study of Folklore’ (1965), provides an interesting snapshot of contemporary folkloric thinking in the early 1960s. Since then, authors have periodically called for discussion about the nature of folklore.

As a result of the lack of clarity as to how folklore is defined, some academics have attempted to use lists to explain the breadth of folklore. Dundes himself attempted a list in his essay ‘What is Folklore?’ (though also noted the inherent and irreconcilable flaws within such an attempt at definition) ( 1965, p.3).

As Dundes notes, however, lists have something to offer, particularly in trying to demonstrate the breadth of the spectrum of folklore to the student. There have also been many changes in the understanding of the ‘folk’ element of folklore. Dundes’ assertion that any group of people can be a ‘folk’ in terms of ‘folklore’ ( 1980, p.1-19) offered an inclusive, positive approach to the nature of groups studied by folklorists. As this became increasingly accepted, it moved the focus away from “marginal social groups” to some extent (Oring 2012, p.xv). This opened the floodgates in terms of the variety of folklore that would be documented in the years to follow. Though this also moved the discipline away from focussing predominantly on groups perceived to be rustic or traditional – those with a sense of otherness – it should be noted that there was and is still much to document and research in terms of such marginalised or minority groups. As Oring acknowledges “sociological understanding cannot rest solely in a grasp of the mainstream” (2012, p.xvi-xvii).

Glassie, in his 1983 essay ‘The Moral Lore of Folklore’, states that “[e]ach generation must state the definition anew, debate it afresh, because folklore’s definition is not factual and free of value” (1983, p.127). Folklore as a discipline has developed considerably over the last two centuries, and this iteratively analytic approach ensures that it remains of contemporary relevance, though the explosion of related academic studies afforded by the internet means folklore must be defined much more regularly than on a generational basis.

2.1.2 The Digital Environment

Bendix, referring to Thoms’s discipline-naming, if not exactly discipline-defining, letter in which the term folklore was first coined, states that the internet is “today’s equivalent of the Athenaeum.” (1998, p.242) Wilson notes folklore’s fixation on the past in his thoughts on ‘The Deeper Necessity: Folklore and the Humanities’, arguing for the need for folkloristics to take a more contemporary approach:

There is certainly nothing wrong with rural, ethnic, or immigrant folklore presentations; indeed, they should and will continue to demand our attention. But in these presentations, the focus should be on contemporary art forms, not just on those surviving from the past or from the old world – many of these will die out no matter how much grant money is poured into attempts to keep them alive.

(1988, p.163)


Since these two quotes, the digital environment has facilitated this new shift of focus for folklore, encouraging more contemporary forms to be easily accessed and subsequently analysed by folklorists. The commonly understood concept of a meme has changed significantly since Pimple discussed ‘The Meme-Ing of Folklore’ in 1996. Pimple states that “[f]olklorists seem to agree that an important attribute of folklore is that it emerges from face-to-face communication. We distinguish folklore from popular culture at least in parts on the grounds that popular culture is mediated” (1996, p.237). If that were even true then, it certainly isn’t true now. Fortunately, there is evidence that folklorists are beginning to turn their attention to digital folklore.

Unsurprisingly, there are several terms used to describe the study of folklore as discussed and presented on social media, including ‘internet folklore’ and ‘online folklore’. Though these are occasionally used to represent different, more specific, aspects of folklore studies, they are predominantly used interchangeably. The less restrictive term of ‘digital folklore’ is used where relevant throughout this thesis. Digital as a concept has surpassed its literal meaning to enter public consciousness meaning broadly ‘technological’, but is also inclusive by design, allowing for a wide range of technologies to be included in its remit, regardless of online interconnectivity. It should be noted that the term digital folklore is also occasionally used to describe digital archives of folkloric material; the creation and migration of which has been a priority for the discipline over the last several years.

The emergence of digital folklore over the last several years has possibly been the single biggest development in the field of folkloristics in several decades. The early focus of digital technologies for the purpose of the development and transmission of folklore focussed on faxlore, Xerox-lore, and photocopylore (Preston 1994). More recently, digital folklore has focussed upon online functionality, analysing emerging folk communities via the means of email forwards (Bacon 2011), and analysing social media data to ascertain the #DigitalTrendOfTheYear (Digital Folklore Project 2018). It is worth noting, however, that even projects which broadly feature elements which are of interest to digital folklore (including using the term) define themselves using a surprisingly narrow interpretation of folklore. #FolkloreThursday, a hashtag started on Twitter in the first half of 2015, quotes a definition of folklore on their blog as: “[t]he traditions, beliefs, customs and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth” (Folklore Thursday 2018). Such restrictive definitions of folklore – in terms of both its nature and its transmission – are commonly to be found outwith the field of folklore, and are often suggested to be one of the reasons why folklore as a discipline struggles with its identity, and why Bendix suggests the term is “compromised beyond salvation” (1998, p.237).

2.1.3 Current Challenges for the Field of Folklore

Folklore as a discipline has focussed on its definition and remit for many years. In 1971, Ben-Amos, noting that “folklore is very much an organic phenomenon, in the sense that it is an integral part of culture”, lamented the fact that “anthropologists and students of literature have projected their own bias into their definitions of folklore”, and called for a move away from a fixation on oral transmission:

The same applies to the notion of oral transmission; an insistence on the “purity” of all folklore texts can be destructive in terms of folklore scholarship. Because of the advent of modern means of communication, folklorists who insist upon this criterion actually saw off the branch they are sitting on.

(1971, p.14)


Perhaps due to the history of the development of the discipline of folklore, there has been, over the decades, some confusion between the oral lore of groups of people and what we now understand to be the concept of folklore by broad definition. This remains evident to the present day in the understanding of folklore by certain non-academic audiences. To many people outside the academic sphere, the term folklore effectively means the same as the term folktale. The stories that many people grew up with as a child have meant that an understanding of the sheer breadth of folklore and what it could – and does – encompass have been restricted by the characters found within these tales. The public conceptions and understanding of what folklore might be is, in a way, a reflection of the difficulties folklorists find when attempting to define the term and the remit of their studies.

Folklore may have come a long way since ‘popular antiquities’, but it still faces issues of what it actually is. An overriding definition of folklore itself – what it is as opposed to what it may be – has yet to be agreed amongst the academic community. The many issues relating to a definition and remit which harried the discipline before the creation of the compound term itself continue to linger in some form to the present day. While prescribed lists of examples of folklore provide encouragement to readers to think about specific examples of how folklore might manifest itself, with a view to understanding the extent of its breadth, they can only ever be helpful to a certain degree, as Oring notes in ‘On the Concepts of Folklore’:

[I]t is important to recognise that this list in no way defines “lore”. For a list to do so, the items included must be clearly defined…and the list must be complete. […] Even if one could define each genre on the list, an incomplete list would still remain unacceptable as a definition.

(1986, p.2)


Lists and examples are helpful to define the remit of the study of folklore, but still do not offer a definition or explanation of the discipline. It is made more complicated by the fact that terms frequently found in the discipline of folklore – culture, heritage, tradition – are themselves at times hard to define, or overtly political.

Aside from the name and the remit of the discipline, folklore has long been preoccupied with justifying itself as an academic discipline in its own right. Given the increasing demise of humanities in agreed curricula in the western world (Wilson 1988), and reduced investment in such subjects, there is a need for a renewed focus on what folklore can offer as a discipline: on its own, and also as part of interdisciplinary research. Despite the conflict which has been inherent in the discipline since the term was first coined, folklore still has much to offer academia and, more importantly, beyond. In fact, in this increasingly social age, where at times the reach of certain media appears limitless, folklore – as something which can be understood – is more important than ever. New groups of folk are forming every day, using technologies available on a scale which could not have been imagined only a handful of years ago. Similarly, the need to share, and to identify as an individual and as a member of different groups, appears more important than ever in an increasingly social media generation. There is more folklore in currency today than ever before, and it continues to grow exponentially. Folkloristics as a discipline needs to continue to adapt, as indeed folklore itself does. As Nicolaisen said, “there has always been and will always be folklore, and our main experience with it has been – has it not? – its remarkable durability through the invigorating, ever-innovative, ever-preserving process of variation in repetition, not its overriding vulnerability and irretrievable disappearance” (1995, p.74).

2.1.4 Folklore, Identity, Sense of Place

Folklore has long been accepted as both a key component, and representative, of individual and group identity. Dundes posits that “folklore is autobiographical ethnography – that is, it is a people’s own description of themselves” (1969, p.471), and Bauman states that “folklore is the product through creation or re-creation of the whole group and its forbears, and an expression of their common character” (1971, p.33).

Ter-Minasova argues that, in the search for national character, there are three important types of sources: international jokes based on national stereotypes, a national classic literature, and, “most reliable”, folklore.

Although folklore falls back on stereotyped, schematic representation of heroes, personages and even plots, the very fact that it is the collective effort or work of a people and that through the process of oral transmission from generation to generation it has become as smooth and rounded as a pebble on the seashore and, therefore, devoid of the subjectivity and idiosyncrasies of individual creative writing, makes it the most reliable source and repository of knowledge on national character.

(2015, p.24)


Though the folklorist would argue that jokes are an element of folklore in their own right and that folklore in this instance is used as a synonym for folktale, what is interesting here is the emphasis placed on the importance of a group identity created iteratively over time, and demonstrated through folklore. What is also pertinent for the purpose of the current study is that the principle mentioned in relation to the concept of ‘national character’ discussed above could quite well be interchangeable in this example with ‘sense of place’. Unsurprisingly, such complications, synonymies, and similarities relating to academic approaches and terminology appear throughout associated disciplines, with a clear overlap between some of the disciplines and fields of study discussed. Though Ter-Minasova is indeed referring to national character, many studies do not differentiate between local character, local identity or identities, and a sense of (local) place. As Dundes states:

Identity expresses a mutual relationship by connoting both a persistent selfsameness and a persistent sharing of an essential character with other. It is in the area of “essential character with others” that folklorists can contribute something to the understanding of identity.

(1984, p.150)


At the start of this study, my focus was specifically upon works relating to identity, and there is a clear grounding in folkloristics relating to identity, spearheaded by Dundes, who played a key role in unpacking concepts of identity in relation to folklore: both individual and group identities. An individual, he explained, is capable of having a series of identities: “identity is decidedly multiple in nature: there are many personal identities and many social identities” (1984, p.149). Though seen through the prism of the current political climate of the twenty-first century aspects of Dundes’ texts can now seem dated (for example, the binary approach to certain elements of personal identity in relation of gender and sex), the essence of what Dundes proposed several decades ago remains true and relevant today.

Gabbert and Jordan-Smith state that “[t]he sense of community (which might perhaps be better called a “sense of communality”) claimed by a place’s inhabitants and increasingly experienced by ethnographers, is perhaps the principal significant result of the transformation of space into place” (2007, p.227). Gunnell describes legends, which are “told within a particular space, and refer directly to that space however broadly or narrowly defined” as being “one of the features that turn ‘spaces’ into ‘places’” (2009a, p.14). It is difficult, therefore, to understand why folklore has played such a small role in helping define the academic concept of place, given the role it plays in the creation of places. A key reason for this is the discipline-specific division of place studies, with place studies historically being associated with human geography; and anthropology, folklore, and sociology focussing more on the concept of identity or identities.

The premise of this thesis is that folklore and place are inextricably linked, and the academic literature on both folklore and the study of place does not go far enough to draw appropriate parallels between the work of the different disciplines and fields of study. Folklore is predominantly focussed on place much more than it is space (Gabbert et al. 2007), yet defining what constitutes a place remains difficult. Much as Dundes states that a group for the purpose of folklore could be as small as two people (1980, p.1-19), it is possible for places to be equally limited in size: “as small as the corner of a room or as large as the earth itself” (Tuan 1974, p.245).

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