Economics of Folk Culture

The following essay appeared in Dutch in a publication devoted to public heritage. I share it here in English for your comment. The citation is “De Economie van Volkscultuur” [The Economics of Folk Culture]. In Splitsen of knopen? Over Volkscultuur in Nederland [Splitting of Knots? On Folk Culture in the Netherlands], ed. Hester Dibbits, Richard Hermans, Jan Jaap Knol, Gitta Luiten, Taco de Neef, and Ineke Strouken, 130-38. Antwerp: Thonik.

The Economics of Folk Culture

Simon J. Bronner

Excitement among residents annually builds in the weeks before the traditional October 3 celebration of the Relief of Leiden in the Netherlands (Leidens Ontzet) with posters proclaiming yet another enactment of the municipality’s free distribution of herring and white bread to the town’s citizens.  For several Dutch ethnologists I met, the ritualized handing of herring and white bread over in the historic “weighing house” (Waaghaus) is the core custom of the event and a certain disdain could be heard in their voices as they describe the tacky carnivals and mercenary vendor stalls that occupy much of the city on the day and seem to have overshadowed the connection to thanksgiving for the relief.  When I was teaching at Leiden University, my neighbors informed me that as they were given the day off by their employers, they were leaving to avoid the tumult of the celebrations, but offered me a generous supply of hutspot (a stew of carrots, onions, and meat associated with the event) to have me experience, in their words, some authentic remains of the overly commercialized festival. Although historical chronicles recount the spontaneous celebration of the city’s relief in 1574, now the celebration is tightly organized by the 3 October Vereeniging Leiden (3 October of Leiden Society). Besides attending to the morning distribution of food in the town hall,  the society oversees a host of activities including parades, carnival, orations, and concerts and promotes the significance of the event as Leiden’s most important traditie, or festive tradition. The society sponsors officially licensed apparel emblazoned with the town seal and the year “1574.” On-line or on the streets, shoppers can buy red and white umbrellas, hats,  pins, scarves, and “herring-safe” gloves (palms are covered but the fingertips are exposed). Although American-styled baseball caps with flashing light-emitting-diode bulbs around the seal drew attention from consumers, the committee gave a nod to traditional headwear with a fisherman’s hat with the festival’s imprint (the renowned fishing village of Katwijk aan Zee is nearby). Responsibility for sales of the goods is given to the Committee on Commerce, which had formerly been given the more philanthropic name of the Committee on Fundraising. The chair understood the committee’s importance if the tradition were to continue, because staging the elaborate festival is expensive and the financially strapped city wanted the festival to pay for itself. A way that has been accomplished is to attract non-Leiden residents to partake of the festivities, although much of the parading and events are oriented to a local clientele.

 Although ethnological scholars usually investigate folk culture as non-commercial traditions with the kind of communal sharing represented by the distribution of herring and the neighborly sharing of hutspot, public events such as the Leiden festival in a capitalistic society unaffectedly blend commercial elements with performative aspects of the traditions. Such a fusion is hardly alien to a market town such as Leiden where visitors flock to stalls with regional cheeses and distinctly Dutch performances of shoppers raising raw herring above their mouths and downing it with flair. As a result, residents as well as town leaders acknowledge that the festival has a significant economic as well as cultural role to play in the region. If residents have second thoughts about the noise, trash, and crowding generated by the event, they also converse about it as an opportunity to reflect on the local identity represented by continuous practice of traditions at home and on the street.  Although the scholarly trend has been to treat consumerism as counter or even disruptive to folk culture, an argument exists that indeed commercialism at such festivals and public events follows or adapts to folk cultural patterns and can therefore be interpreted as part of the custom rather than threatening to it (see Bronner 1987; D�gh 1994; Long 2003; Santino 1996).  In classrooms and journals, scholars eagerly debate the implications of incorporating consumer culture into folkloristic and ethnological perspectives, but in the public imagination the lines are more sharply drawn, probably as a result of intellectual constructions of folk and popular culture initiated by ethnological scholarship: folk is social; popular is commercial. The implication of this binary thinking is folk culture is considered “out of sight” as well as “out of mind,” to borrow a folk proverb, in economic assessment and planning. Despite bookshelves of material showing artisanship and economic exchange as part of ritual and custom, folk culture is thought of as activity done at home rather than at work; the outcomes of folk practice are therefore social and private rather than monetary and public. Folk culture may be further relegated to the margins of the body politic by being rubricated under “arts,” therefore implying a non-utilitarian status of escape from, rather than integration into, the workaday world.

The marginalization of folk culture in the capitalistic public sector is particularly evident during fiscally difficult times, despite the appeal made that funding of folk cultural programming benefits ethnic, aging, rural, and working-class communities hard hit by economic downturns. In the midst of a deep recession in 2009, for example, United States President Barack Obama initiated a massive economic stimulus plan that he foresaw stabilizing declining construction, real estate, banking, and automobile industries. At the insistence of Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, the economic legislation earmarked a tiny portion, 50 million out of the total stimulus package of 787 billion dollars, for arts to be allocated by the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that during the 1990s beat back political calls for outright elimination.  Among the organizations receiving funding in the amount of 50, 000 dollars was the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. To be eligible the folk cultural organization needed to show how federal funds would help retain jobs. Among its activities, the Alliance sponsored a Mariachi festival, Laotian dance classes and performances, Hmong sacred funeral singing workshops, and an archives of folklife activities in the San Joaquin Valley. Yet despite demonstrating the generation of jobs and infusion of money into local ethnic economies, conservative critics attacked the allocation with the blanket view that arts do not have significant outcomes. Former presidential candidate Senator John McCain, for example proclaimed during the Senate debate that “We should take out these little, tiny, porky items that will provide questionable stimulative effects.” Tennessee Republican Representative Phil Roe added during House debate that “whatever one believes about spending taxpayer dollars on the arts … it should not be done when the country is facing a trillion dollar deficit” (Doyle 2009). In response, the National Endowment for the Arts referred to a study released by the National Governors Association stating “Arts and culture are important to state economies. Arts and culture-related industries, also known as ‘creative industries,’ provide direct economic benefits to states and communities: They create jobs, attract investments, generate tax revenues, and stimulate local economies through tourism and consumer purchases” (NGA 2009: 4). In hard numbers, economic impact studies consistently show that governmental spending on folk arts results in a significant return on investment with production of jobs and revenues. Nationwide, the nonprofit arts industry claims that it produces 166 billion dollars in economic activity every year and the generation of 6 million full-time equivalent jobs; of that amount, state art agency funding for folk arts has been consistently two to three percent of the annual budget total (Americans for the Arts 2009; Peterson 1996: 11). An argument can be made that the proportion for folk cultural funding should be increased to better reach a number of population sectors engaged in artisan, heritage, and ethnic maintenance activity as a compelling interest of governmental cultural policy. But that argument has been difficult to make without recognition that folk culture and arts can constitute an “industry,” or at least engaged in economic activity.

The problem persists in governmental deliberation that arts and heritage funding generally, and folk cultural programming specifically, are often deemed expendable. Despite the hard numbers showing the economic as well as cultural value of investment in folk arts, folk cultural organizations–typically being small non-profit agencies or supplemental educational concerns–are frequent targets for budget cuts or elimination. Although a world-wide recession during the last years of the twenty-first century’s first decade brought this situation to the fore, I predict that a rise in markets will not restore many of these programs because the organizations do not wield political leverage and governments of Western capitalist countries increasingly want to privatize cultural promotion (or avoid implementing cultural policy). That is not to say that success stories for folk cultural investment are not at hand. Many public heritage advocates look to federal “New Deal” programs in the United States during the 1930s as one model. In agencies of the New Deal, such as the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), folklore was a keyword used to designate a populist response to the Great Depression that involved documenting and adapting folk culture. According to B.A. Botkin, who headed the Folklore Division of the FWP, “In its belief in the public support of art and art for the public, in research not for research’s sake but for use and enjoyment by the many, the WPA is attempting to assimilate folklore to the local and national life by understanding, in the first place, the relation between the lore and the life out of which it springs; and by translating the lore back into terms of daily living and leisure-time activity. In other words, the WPA looks upon folklore research not as a private but as a public function and folklore as public, not private property” (Botkin [1939] 1988: 261; for contemporary invocations of the WPA for a cultural agenda today, see Graves 2005; Hirsch 2003; Ivey 2008).  In Japan, the 1950 Law for Protection of Cultural Properties established a category of  “living national national treasures”  that has encouraged maintenance and apprenticeship of folk crafts.  Some locations such as Miyajima Island near Hiroshima around the Itsukushima Shrine (on UNESCO’s World Heritage List) have been developed as folk craft centers where tourists flock to purchase as well as view traditional practices. In the public discourse about the site, visitors and government officials rarely voice a conflict between commercialization and tradition.

Overall, advocates of cultural heritage programming, whether they be citizens or professional ethnologists and folklorists, should be better able to assess, and interpret, the economic source, impact, and implication of folk cultural practice. To be sure, social and ethical justifications for folk cultural programming remain important: maintaining civic pride, gaining a sense of belonging, conserving and adapting folk knowledge and skills, and democratizing cultural participation. Economic justifications can and should be made for public funding and more plans should be formulated for economic development that take advantage of private and business interests in folk cultural programming (as occurred in Leiden). Scholarly involvement is essential meanwhile to better understand the economic context of folk cultural practice that may include revision of sharp distinctions drawn between folk and popular culture, as well as traditional and commercial practice, and altering disciplinary approaches to presenting folk culture in the classroom (see, for example, in the Dutch ethnological context, Roodenburg 2007).  We might then know not only the custom of downing herring, but also what it costs–and generates–socially and economically.



Americans for the Arts. 2009. Arts and Economic Prosperity III. Washington, D.C.: Americans for the Arts.

Botkin, B.A. [1939] 1988. “WPA and Folklore Research: ‘Bread and Song.'” In The Conservation of Culture: Folklorists and the Public Sector, ed. Burt Feintuch, 258-63. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Bronner, Simon J. 1988. “Reading Consumer Culture,” in Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America, 1880-1920, ed. Simon J. Bronner, 13-53. New York: W. W. Norton.

D�gh, Linda. 1994. American Folklore and the Mass Media. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Doyle, Michael. 2009. “Two Fresno Arts Groups Get Federal Economic Stimulus Money.” McClatchy Newspapers Website (July 9). . Accessed July 23, 2009.

Graves, James Bau. 2005. Cultural Democracy: The Arts, Community, and the Public Purpose. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hirsch, Jerrold. 2003. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Ivey, Bill. 2008. Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Long, Lucy M., ed. 2003. Culinary Tourism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

NGA Center for Best Practices, National Governors Association. 2009. Arts and the Economy: Using Arts and Culture to Stimulate State Economic Development. Washington, D.C. : National Governors Association.

Peterson, Elizabeth. 1996. The Changing Face of Tradition: A Report on the Folk and Traditional Arts in the United States. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts.

Roodenburg, Herman. 2007. “Their Own Heritage: Women Wearing Traditional Costumes in the Village of Marken.” In Reframing Dutch Culture: Between Otherness and Authenticity, ed. Peter Jan Margry and Herman Roodenburg, 245-58. Aldershot, England: Ashgate.

Santino, Jack. 1996. New Old Fashioned Ways: Holidays and Popular Culture. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Presss.

Hazing Lecture, Sept. 12, 2009, at Philadelphia Seaport Museum

Crossing the Line lecture in conjunction with special exhibit, SKIN AND BONES: TATTOOS IN THE LIFE OF THE AMERICAN SAILOR

Saturday, September 12, 2009, 2:30-3:30 pm


Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia PA

Hazing at sea will be the topic of a lively presentation describing the centuries-old sailors’ ceremony that occurs shipboard when crossing the equator.  This illustrated talk by Simon Bronner, Ph.D., Distinguished University Professor of American Studies and Folklore at Pennsylvania State University and author of a book on the subject, reveals the sometimes controversial rituals involving role-playing, cross-dressing, initiation rites, and a wild cast of characters that includes King Neptune, Davy Jones, shellbacks, and pollywogs.

For more information, click here

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