Genre: naming our terms

So I’m in Buenos Aires, and I’m a bit under the weather today, and despite my previous post, we actually have internet at our place.  We also have worms in the shower.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, I’m increasingly aware that, despite this blog’s tagline, there hasn’t been a lot of folklore content, per se. There are a number of reasons why this is so, not least because I’m not sure how interesting dry disciplinary stuff would be to most readers. And folks who use search terms like “folklore” are probably expecting something more along the line of Encyclopedia Mythica: i.e., a vast survey of iconic “folkloric” narratives, characters, etc. That’s certainly the kind of thing you get if you enter “folklore” as a topic search in WordPress, so people who wind up here via that route might be a bit disappointed.

But I’m an academic folklorist. I say this not to sound snobby or disparaging of pop culture; on the contrary, I like popular uses of folklore, and tend to prefer popular interests to academic ones. It’s important, though, to understand that those of us who define ourselves as folklorists use familiar terms in very specific ways, which often differ from popular usage.

In my page about the discipline I talk about how folklorists are very concerned with defining what it is they do. Today (at least in the US), folklorists do a ton of different things. I have colleagues with research interests as diverse as public health, fan culture, textiles, professional storytelling, historical reenactment, internet communities and culture, and fart jokes. Folklorists draw on academic theory from such fields as cultural and linguistic anthropology, cultural geography, sociology, cultural studies, and philosophy (among others).

This is all very different from the field’s origins as an amateur pastime. Once folklorists simply went out into rural communities and collected stories, rituals and other patterned behaviors, and material culture they feared would vanish as a natural result of the transition from “pre-modern” to “modern” society. This approach was strengthened by the influence of Darwinian evolutionary theory on the social sciences, giving rise to the unfortunate intellectual notion of cultural evolution. It was also tied to the emergence of the nation-state as the major political unit in the western world [1].

Okay, enough intellectual history for now. Suffice it to say that we don’t do that crap anymore. Like most of the social sciences and humanities, we’ve long since abandoned evolutionary models (because they’re horrible and oppressive and racist) and incorporated theoretical approaches from liberal scholarship in related fields. Now we do all kinds of fun stuff, but still have a focus on what we typically call expressive culture  [2].

But while we have tended to move toward inclusive, open-ended definitions and understandings of folklore and the cultural forms, practices, ideas and other stuff with which we are concerned, we still do have some shared assumptions about particular areas of culture which enable us to talk about it at all (without at least some common terms, no discussion is possible).

One area in which folklorists have always been interested is narrative. We tend to divide narratives (i.e., stories)–as well as other forms of expressive culture such as songs, dance, and material culture–into genres, identified by certain formal characteristics. These are scholarly creations and may not have much purchase among the groups with whom we work, but they provide us with necessary shorthand ways of referring to common ideas [3].

The major narrative genres vary somewhat depending on the scholar, but the most common for folklorists are myth, legend, folktale, and personal narrative (or personal experience narrative). The last of these is, I think, fairly self-explanatory; but the first three are perhaps not as obvious as they seem, at least from the way the terms are used popularly.

While we’re very flexible with our definitions, and many people eschew any kind of rigid terminology at all, folklorists generally stick (loosely) to the definitions outlined by William Bascom in an article appropriately titled “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narrative” [4]. In brief, Bascom defines the three major genres above as follows (I’m paraphrasing here):

  • myths are sacred stories, told as if true, concerning the creation of the world, and usually including non-human or divine characters.
  • legends are stories set in historical time, also told as if true, and usually containing human characters.
  • folktales are stories set in nonspecific time, are not believed to be true, and can contain pretty much any type of character.

Relatively simplistic, and yes, often problematic, but a useful starting point for discussion.

The primary reason I bring any of this up is because I’m tired of people equating the term folklore (and related concepts) with the concept of fallacy or superstition. We’ve all seen MythBusters, and it’s a great show; but that’s not what a myth is (I’m not reacting to the co-opting of the term itself, but its judgmental, disdainful use to mean, again, wrong). Plenty of folks have written on this issue, and I won’t bore you with any more lit reviews here, but I’m sick to death of the use of folklore–even by some scholars–to mean irrelevant, outdated, backward beliefs. Instead of labeling cultural forms as this or that (and then dismissing them out of hand), we might instead ask ourselves why these issues matter to people in the first place, why they choose to engage with them the way they do. Talking about the assumptions folklorists make, and the way we use these terms, is one way I hope to demonstrate the point that we need to take the stuff people do and think seriously, and not dismiss things as fallacious because they don’t satisfy our own ethnocentric standards.

Another motivation for this post was a quick scan of a couple of WordPress blogs on Skepticism. I’ve talked about belief several times before, but I’ll say it again: everyone, but scholars especially, have to stop judging the beliefs of others in terms of their own–even if your “beliefs” are purely “scientific.” The degree to which self-described Skeptics are comfortable dismissing, even ridiculing, the beliefs of others is seriously shocking to me. The Church of Science is apparently the one infallible institution in the land; all the rest are subject to its whims. This is towering, stultifying ignorance to me, as bad as any on display in the most fundamental of fundamentalist sects, and it’s the real (perhaps the only) enemy of “progress,” which I define as an increase in tolerance, understanding and cooperation among all groups of people.

Sorry, that was more soapboxing than I should probably allow myself. Chalk it up to being stuck in the apartment with only shower worms for company.


[1]For a succinct discussion of these issues, see Abrahams, Roger D. “Phantoms of Romantic Nationalism in Folkloristics.” The Journal of American Folklore 106, no. 419 (January 1, 1993): 3–37. doi:10.2307/541344.
[2]For a survey of the ways folklore has been defined, see “What is Folklore?” in the AFS Folklore Wiki.
[3] Ben-Amos, Dan. “Analytical Categories and Ethnic Genres.” In Folklore Genres, edited by Dan Ben-Amos, 215–242. Austin: University of Texas, 1976.
[4]Bascom, William, “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives,” in Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 9.
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4 thoughts on “Genre: naming our terms

  1. Bring on the dry disciplinary stuff! I love it! I always think of that as the foundation – or at least the jumping-off point – for all that follows. Lovecraft, Howard, even Rick Riordan…

    • Why thank you, sir! Yeah, there definitely is a lot of cross-pollination between horror lit and folklore study. Of the three you named, I’m only familiar with Lovecraft, but boy oh boy. Half of his characters are anthropologists.

      A folklorist named Tim Evans wrote a fantastic article on folklore in Lovecraft. The title is “A Last Defense against the Dark: Folklore, Horror, and the Uses of Tradition in the Works of H. P. Lovecraft.” Highly recommend it for Lovecraft fans.

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