About Folklore

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Broadly defined, folklore is the study of cultural traditions. Folklorists study a range of cultural forms, practices, and performances, including everything from folk art and craft making; to oral storytelling; to dancing and music; to festivals, rituals, and folk beliefs. While early folklorists tended to study rural or isolated communities and heavily focused on orally transmitted traditions, folklorists more recently have dramatically expanded the scope of their research to include the study of urban and suburban communities, as well as the study of how media and technology play a role in folk traditions.  

Recent studies by folklorists include:  

  • Trevor J. Blank and Andrea Kitta, eds., Diagnosing Folklore: Perspectives on Disability, Health, and Trauma (University Press of Mississippi) 
  • Rachel Valentina González, Quinceañera Style: Social Belonging and Latinx Consumer Identities (University of Texas Press) 
  • Michael Dylan Foster, Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai (University of California Press) 
  • Fernando Orejuela and Stephanie Shonekan, eds., Black Lives Matter and Music: Protest, Intervention, Reflection (Indiana University Press) 
  • Joseph SciorraBuilt with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City (University of Tennessee Press) 
  • Jeanne Pitre Soileau, Yo‘ Mama, Mary Mack, and Boudreaux and Thibodeaux: Louisiana Children’s Folklore and Play (University Press of Mississippi) 
  • Levi S. GibbsSong King: Connecting People, Places, and Past in China (University of Hawaii Press) 

As an academic discipline, folklore was largely developed in the late nineteenth century. The American Folklore Society was established in 1888 as a professional umbrella for literary scholars and anthropologists who were both concerned with the study of traditional cultures. Some of its charter members included leading scholars such as anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia and Harvard’s Francis James Child, a noted scholar of folk ballads. It also included leading artists and public figures, such as authors Mark Twain and Zora Neale Hurston, and former US president Rutherford B. Hayes.   

Today, folklore is an integral area in the humanities and social sciences throughout the world. Folklorists can be found in museum settings, non-profit arts or governmental agencies, libraries and archives, and colleges and universities, among many other places. Folklorists conduct ethnographic fieldwork, produce documentary films, organize exhibits and festivals, and play a role in cultural sustainability efforts. Although there are relatively few standalone academic departments of folklore in the United States, training for folklorists is offered at many universities through departments of English, anthropology, and American studies, among other areas. Degrees offered span the full range from undergraduate to graduate levels as well as various certificate or credentialing programs. Many students also study folklore as an emphasis within their degree. For example, Penn State Harrisburg does not offer any official degrees in folklore studies, but it does offer a wide range of courses on folklore and ethnography available to students through the American Studies BA, MA, and PhD programs. Penn State Harrisburg also offers a graduate certificate in Folklore and Ethnography that serves as an indication of this concentration on the graduate level. 

Folklore is an exciting field that captures many diverse forms of traditional culture. Many people do not realize how often they partake in and transmit folklore in their lives. As this page demonstrates, folklore does not constitute every aspect of culture but is a significant part of our everyday lives. Folklorists throughout the world are working not only to preserve cultural practices, but also inspire others to observe the culture around them.   

For further background information about folklore studies, below is a list of books that can help to introduce you to the basic concepts and methods of the field: 

  • Simon J. Bronner, Folklore: The Basics (Routledge) 
  • Alan DundesInternational Folkloristics (Rowman and Littlefield) 
  • Lynne S. McNeill, Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies (Utah State University Press) 
  • Elliott Oring, ed., Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction (Utah State University Press) 
  • Martha Sims and Martine Stephens, Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions (Utah State University Press) 
  • Barre ToelkenThe Dynamics of Folklore (Utah State University Press)