First, collect a traditional oral poem (or song). Record an interview to document one person’s memories about that poem.
· Examples mentioned in lectures include… American songs like “Happy Birthday” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”; lullabies, children’s songs and counting-out rhymes; soldiers’ cadences; proverbs, etc. That tiny American mummers’ rhyme, “trick-or-treat,” can also work just fine. If you have an idea but aren’t sure, discuss with your teacher or class.
· Sometime during the recorded conversation, ask them for permission to use the recording in your essay for this class.
If you do not have permission, please find a different person to interview.
(Privacy will be protected. Only two other people will read your essay: your teacher and one student peer reviewer. It is illegal for us to download, copy or share outside this class, without the person’s and your permission).
· See items 1-4 below, for details to discuss during your interview (text, texture, context, variants).
Here’s an example of a fieldwork interview that I recorded online, while I prepared this Module’s Lecture 9. Because of pandemic restrictions, I was not able to meet Ia Dübois in person. But you can also have a similar conversation face to face:
Ia Dübois Interview
(Links to an external site.)
Later I reviewed my “interview” (I prefer to call it a “conversation”), and followed up with more questions about this counting-out rhyme’s text (and English translation), variants, texture and context. It was important, for example, to see “where,” exactly, she performed the rhyme, and she told me her old address. With a few clicks of the mouse, I took a virtual trip to Stockholm and looked around in street view! Following up again, I learned she lived on the top floor, corner apartment seen here. The house used to be yellow, but the swing set in the yard is the same as back then… One question led to another, and I could visualize the context ever more precisely!
But enough about me and my fieldwork.
Let’s return to directions for YOUR fieldwork assignment:
Write an ethnographic essay about the person and their traditional poem.
Henry Glassie’s “four conversations” are like four model Field Assignments. In his descriptions, sketches, and analyses, people and their memories come alive for his readers. THAT is your mission: To write an essay that helps your reader meet an interesting person!
Essay length will vary for different topics, but will probably be around 3-5 pages (750-1250 words). Cover the following information:
1. Describe the person, and describe your conversation(s) with them (the interview context);
2. Transcribe the text. Describe its poetic texture: rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, or other features that set it apart from everyday conversation. Interpret meanings of words or references that your reader may not know. (If the text is in a language other than English, ask them to help translate and explain).
3. Describe variants. These might come from the person or others in their group (see item 4 below); or from books in the library, or somebody’s website on the internet. For each variant, try to document a specific source (if it’s online, whose for example, who posted it and where did they get the text?).
4. Describe the “natural context” where they sang or recited the text. Let the person speak for themselves, and quote their words exactly as they said them, adding your explanations as needed.
· In your conversation they might begin with generalizations like “We would always sing this…”, but don’t leave it at that. Take the conversation further. Help them recall memories about at least one very specific occasion where they sang or recited this text. Who, exactly, was there? Where, exactly, were they? When? (can they remember the approximate year for that specific occasion?)
· Describe the tradition – where, when, from whom (name?) did they learn this song? Do they know variants?
· Document their repertoire: Do they know more songs, poems, proverbs, etc.? You may not be able to document everything they know, but it is useful to know if other folklore connects to this text.
· Diagrams, sketches, and old photos, if available, can help recall details that they (or your readers) might otherwise miss
5. Consider possible functions of this folk poem in natural context:
· The four “classic” functions listed in our textbook (Education, Entertainment, Social Control, and Validation of Culture);
· other possible functions and meanings for that particular person and group.
A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to
the Field of Academic Folklore Studies
Lynne S. McNeill
Utah State University Press
© 2013 by University Press of Colorado
Published by Utah State University Press
An imprint of University Press of Colorado
5589 Arapahoe Avenue, Suite 206C
Boulder, Colorado 80303
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
The University Press of Colorado is a proud member of
the Association of American University Presses.
The University Press of Colorado is a cooperative publishing enterprise supported,
in part, by Adams State University, Colorado State University, Fort Lewis College,
Metropolitan State University of Denver, Regis University, University of Colorado,
University of Northern Colorado, Utah State University, and Western State Colorado
∞ This paper meets the requirements of the ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence
Figure 4.1, “Omikuji,” is courtesy of Alex Anderson (abanderson.com). Figures
4.2–4.7 are based on Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
McNeill, Lynne S.
Folklore rules / Lynne S. McNeill.
ISBN 978-0-87421-905-0 (hardback) — ISBN 978-0-87421-906-7 (e-book)
1. Folklore—Study and teaching. I. Title.
Cover illustrations, clockwise from top: Alex Anderson (abanderson.com), “Omi-
kuji”; Van E. Porter, “Zonnie ‘Grandma’ Johnson and Barre Toelken”; © Allie Brosh
(hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com); Zander Westendarp, “Guanajuato 2013.”
For Barre Toelken
For the Instructor: Why You Want to Use This Book xiii
Chapter 1: What Is Folklore? 1
Chapter 2: What Do Folklorists Do? 20
Chapter 3: Types of Folklore 37
Conclusion: What Do I Do Now? 89
About the Author 91
The field of folklore studies has had a fascinating and
complicated history, growing out of and blending several different
established areas of study. It is also, for all its seeming simplicity, a
very complicated field to sum up and explain; the fact that defini-
tions for folklore are still being created and debated well over 100
years after the term was coined proves this. On a related note, the
field has also long been suffering from a prolonged and depressing
identity crisis, one that each new generation of scholars has inher-
ited and must come to terms with, and one that is, unfortunately,
often foisted upon students.
The reality is that folklore, as a field of study, is cool. Students
know this, they can sense it, and when they find themselves in a
class reading a textbook that right from the get-go tries to account
for all the difficulty in definition, all the ambiguity of placement in
the academy, all the questions of naming and whatnot, they’re dis-
appointed. The field needs a textbook that lets folklore be both fun
and complicated. Folklore Rules doesn’t deny the academic rigor of
the field; it simply shows new students that there is something both
coherent and, yes, cool, to be studied here. Once students buy into
that, chewing over the complexities actually becomes fun.
The field also needs a textbook that’s relatively short; it’s not
always feasible to take an entire semester introducing new students
to the field of folklore studies. Many folklorists are not employed
in departments that offer generalized folklore courses; when they
teach folklore-related classes, they are often special-topics courses
that throw unsuspecting and unprepared students into a field
that is new to them but to which there is no time to offer a full
introduction. Even at schools with a folklore program there are not
always prerequisites for upper-division folklore courses, so there’s
no way to ensure that students are familiar with the field in general
before launching into a focused special-topics course.
A concise text that introduces students to the field of folk-
lore studies without overwhelming them with case studies or with
the complexity of the field’s history will allow students to become
familiar with the field quickly but accurately, thus gaining a better
understanding of how the topic they’re studying in class is con-
textualized in the larger field of study. It is a common complaint
among graduate students, many of whom do not have undergrad-
uate backgrounds in folklore, that while they become experts on
their thesis topics, they don’t have a basic understanding of the
breadth of the field. This textbook hopes to ameliorate that situa-
tion as well, providing an enjoyable and concise introduction to the
basics of folklore studies.
For a superb grounding in the discipline of folklore, I
owe my thanks to Alan Dundes, Dan Melia, John Lindow, Jeannie
Thomas, Barre Toelken, Steve Siporin, Randy Williams, Elliott
Oring, Michael Owen Jones, Polly Stewert, Cathy Preston, Paul
Smith, Peter Narváez, Jerry Pocius, Martin Lovelace, and Diane
Goldstein. For their support, guidance, friendship, consideration,
scholarship, and time, I would also like to thank Ian Brodie, Jodi
McDavid, Andrea Kitta, Tok Thompson, Nelda Ault, Trevor Blank,
John Alley, and Michael Spooner. Thanks are due to Matt Bradley
for inspiring the title; his enthusiasm for folklore lives on. Special
thanks also go to my parents, Mike and Lysbeth McNeill, and to
my husband, Stephen VanGeem. I’m lucky to know and to have
known so many incredible people.
For the Instructor
Why You Want to Use This Book
A major issue in the teaching of folklore these days is
that folklore programs are few and far between. Many folklorists are
working not in dedicated folklore programs but in English, anthro-
pology, history, or communications departments, and while that
highlights the incredible interdisciplinarity of our field, it presents
an interesting quandary to many instructors.
Without a dedicated folklore program, students are likely to
encounter folklore courses randomly, taking an upper-division,
special- topic, “Folklore and Fill-in-the-Blank” (film, literature,
history, etc.) course without ever having taken Introduction to
Folklore. This is great on the one hand, as it helps students discover
the field. On the other hand, it means that students are showing up
in highly specialized folklore courses without any concept of the
basics of folklore studies (or worse, with an incorrect or misguided
concept of folklore studies).
There are several great intro textbooks out there for folklore
students, but they all share one thing in common: they’re long. As
any folklorist can tell you, folklore sounds simple, but isn’t. Most
introductory textbooks are way too long for students to consume
and comprehend in the mere week or two that their professors
can sacrifice to getting everyone on the same page about the basics
before moving on to the specific topic of the course.
Other fields don’t have this problem in the same way, because
other fields aren’t quite so unfamiliar to the general public as aca-
demic disciplines. Even without taking Introduction to Literature,
most college students can join in a “Literature and Fill-in-the-
Blank” (the West, race, identity, etc.) course without being too
far out of the loop. Even if they’re not totally prepared, they at
For the Instructor xiv
least learned the generic distinctions between a poem and a play
in high school. Try asking a college student who hasn’t taken an
Introduction to Folklore class the difference between a folktale and
a legend, and you’re not likely to get a correct answer. It’s simply not
a subject that’s mainstream enough (though we all know it should
be) to go forward without an introduction to the basics.
Enter this book. It’s short, it’s simple, and, most important,
it’s true to the field of academic folklore studies. Students will get a
sense of the basics—the accurate basics, not the foreshortened it’s-
for basics—without having to read an entire lengthy textbook.
For the sake of brevity, you’re not going to find a whole lot of
drawn-out or exotic case studies here—that’s not the point of this
book. What this book does offer is relatable, illustrative scenarios,
ones that will make students feel closer to the field rather than far-
ther away from it. And that’s not to say that there’s no room for
any extended examples to grow out of this book; bringing students’
own experiences in as concrete case studies should be quite easy.
In fact, this is one of the greatest things about folklore studies:
students show up knowing some folklore, even if they don’t yet
know they know it. This is due to the unique fact that folklorists
(and folklore students) are, across the board, also members of the
folk. As folklorist Jay Mechling once noted, thinking like a folklor-
ist involves “a sort of ‘double consciousness’ about everyday life”1—
participating in it normally and yet simultaneously stepping back
to observe it critically. Very few other fields of study allow for this
dual level of engagement, especially in the humanities.2 How many
Shakespeare classes can say that 100 percent of incoming students
show up already knowing (not to mention ready to perform) at
least two or three Shakespeare plays inside and out? None.3 Folklore
has the advantage,4 as all students have at least some folklore in
their lives and so can immediately begin applying cool analyses and
theories to stuff they already know about. I find that this leads to
a higher engagement in folklore classes than in almost any other
course that deals with the analysis of culture or literature—the anal-
ysis is the fun and challenging stuff, and folklore students are able
to jump right in.
For the Instructor xv
In addition to the preponderance of highly specific special-top-
ics classes and a glaring lack of required introductory courses, the
field of folklore studies also suffers from another unique problem. In
general, folklorists are really into validating/justifying/illustrating-
the-nuanced-complexities-of the field in the face of perceived judg-
ment from more universally recognized academic programs. This is
great, but let’s consider the student’s perspective—it’s one heck of
a complicated field. While it certainly can all come together in the
end (fairly simply, too), a rundown of all the famous and infamous
attempts to account for all the ambiguities and complexities up
front often leads to turning a really, really awesome subject into the
driest of all dry classes.5 Students find themselves looking around,
going, “Hey, I thought this was a folklore class! Isn’t it supposed to
be fun and easy?” While we shouldn’t say yes to the latter, we should
absolutely be saying yes to the former: folklore is fun. Period. And
students need to know that.
I can relate to the need to successfully sum up the entirety of
folklore studies. When I was a student I kept a notebook (three,
actually, by the time I was done with school), and every time I came
across a great summary of the field, I’d write it in there and try to
memorize it, mainly so I could explain to my relatives at the holi-
days what, exactly, I was studying. Most students, myself included,
don’t achieve such succinctness until the end of their studies, and
it’s easy for all the fun stuff to get momentarily lost in the lack of
So here’s the thing: folklore is fun and yes, its complexities and
depths and nuances and difficulties need to be addressed and com-
prehended, but let’s be honest: it should be fun first, to let students
know why exactly they’ll want to spend the rest of their lives (or at
least the rest of the semester) thinking about all the complexities.
As an instructor, although I want my initial explanation of folklore
to my students to be academically impressive, I want it to be inter-
esting and engaging, too.
Folklorists also have a tendency to overstate the complexi-
ties of the field, especially to new audiences. The downside of the
name “folklore” is that it’s an easily trivialized concept (by people
who don’t fully understand it, at least), and it appears that most
For the Instructor xvi
folklorists shy away from any explanation of the field that could
potentially support this trivialization. Thus, we get incoherent, exces-
sively qualified, overwrought explanations of a field that, whether
we like it or not, does have some basic rules.
This book is designed to present those rules in a user-friendly
manner and to serve in a variety of capacities: as a quick reference
guide for an intro class, as the introductory reading for a special-
topics class, as a reminder of the basics for grad students, as a gift
for relatives who still don’t get what it is you do. Its whole purpose
is to help nonfolklorists “get it” initially, so that they’re ready to
move on to deeper or related issues.
Set to teach a class on traditional English Morris dancing?
Great! Contextualize it within the field of folklore studies with this
handy book! Want to assign a grad class the forty-two great articles
that shaped the field of folklore as we know it? Great! Use this handy
book as a simple background guide. There will be plenty of time for
you to nuance and problematize all the information here, so take
the opportunity initially to make it seem more straightforward.
Personally, I found that the famous foundational works made
the most sense to me after I was done with my PhD anyway, when
I was finally ready to admire the simplicity those scholars strove to
achieve with their theories and definitions. So use this book as you
will, and never let yourself lose sight of (or fail to pass on to students)
the very first reason you chose to study folklore: folklore rules.
1. Jay Mechling, “How Do You Know What You Know?” Working Papers
of the Ohio State University Center for Folklore Studies 2, no. 3 (October 2011),
2. Psychology, a field that folklore studies often utilizes when divining the
motivation behind tradition, is perhaps the most similar in this regard.
3. Okay, I’ll admit I didn’t research that one. But it makes for a dramatic sen-
tence, doesn’t it? And it’s probably true.
4. Yes, this book is shamelessly pro-folklore.
5. I know this, because I’ve done it myself.
What Is Folklore?
So, you’re in a folklore class. Good for you—whatever
educational requirement this course is fulfilling for you, I guarantee
you’ve picked the best possible way to fulfill it. Perhaps you’re in an
Intro to Folklore course, or maybe you’re in a special-topics course:
something like Folklore and Literature, Folklore and Film, Folklore
and the Internet, or Children’s Folklore. No matter what course it
is (and hey—maybe you’re not taking a folklore class at all. Maybe
you’re not even a student, in which case, doubly good for you for
reading this book when you don’t have to!), you’re going to have
to start at the beginning. Unlike in other fields, when it comes to
folklore studies, the beginning can sometimes be the most confus-
ing place to start.
What is folklore? You’d think this would be an easy question to
answer. “Folklore” doesn’t seem like a very complicated idea, does
it? I mean, it’s not a rare or unfamiliar word—we use it fairly often
in daily life. So if someone asked you what folklore is, you could
probably give them an answer, right? Well . . . maybe not. Give it a
try and see how it goes. Lots of people answer this question by giv-
ing a few examples of stuff they think is folklore. They’ll say some-
thing like, “Oh, you know, folklore is old stories and songs from
your parents and grandparents” or “Folklore is stuff like supersti-
tions and old wives’ tales” or “It’s like unicorns and sea shanties and
quilting—stuff like that.”
As you will learn shortly, while these common perceptions
of folklore aren’t 100 percent wrong, they’re certainly not 100
What Is Folklore? 2
percent right, either. One of the first things that students of folk-
lore discover is that the word folklore encompasses far more than
they ever thought it did. It brings together the expected folktales,
myths, and legends, and yet also includes jump-rope rhymes,
pranks, jokes, graffiti, songs, emoticons, gestures . . . basically
a ton of stuff that often leads to the popular first-year-folklore-
student mistake of “I get it now—folklore is everything!” This,
sadly, is not true. You’ll see by the end of this book that while
folklore can likely be connected to almost everything, everything
is not, in fact, folklore.
Folklorists have spent a fairly ridiculous amount of time try-
ing to succinctly define folklore ever since the word was coined in
18461 by a guy named William Thoms. Thoms, interestingly, used
a pseudonym (he chose Ambrose Merton, for some reason) when
he proposed the term and revealed himself as the actual source of
the term only once he’d determined that people were generally
on board with it. He proposed it as “a good Saxon compound” in
favor of the then current term popular antiquities. People generally
accepted it, and voila!—a whole field of study was born.2
You might be wondering at this point why it has been so hard
for folklorists to define this basic Saxon compound. Well, you try to
explain what a creation myth, a jump-rope rhyme, a Fourth of July
BBQ, and some bathroom graffiti3 have in common, and you’ll find
it’s not a terribly easy task, either. Rest assured, though: the field of
folklore studies does have a few basic rules that can help to simplify
things. In the next few sections, we’re going to uncover these basic
concepts from within the murky depths of academia and put them
to work to answer the question at hand: “What is folklore?”
Folk aNd lore
To start with, we’ve got a compound word here—folk-lore—and
any decent definition will have to account for both parts.4 We’ll
start with “folk.” In order to begin to understand what “folk”
means, we first need to back up a bit and understand what “culture”
is. Why, you ask? Because I said so. Bear with me—it will become
clear in a moment.
What Is Folklore? 3
As it turns out, in terms of difficulty of definition, “culture”
is frustratingly right up there with “folklore.” A common use of
the word culture is to think of someone as being “cultured,” as in
“enlightened” or “refined”—snooty people attending the opera in
fur coats and such—but folklorists (and anthropologists) use the
term a bit differently. There have been whole books written on the
definition of culture, but since this guide is meant to be short and
straightforward, I’m just going to give you one of the most useful
ones, created by an anthropologist named Ward Goodenough (and
yes, you can insert a pun about it being a “good enough” defini-
tion here). He tells us: “A society’s culture is whatever it is one has
to know or believe in order to act in a manner acceptable to its
This definition tells us several things right off the bat. First,
that culture is something that a society, or a group of people, pos-
sesses. Second, that culture isn’t really a tangible object, but more
of a body of knowledge. “Acting in a manner that’s acceptable” to
a group of people encompasses a ton of information: you have to
know official things, like on which side of the road to drive, what
currency you use to pay for stuff, where you can and cannot be
naked—all the things that would get you arrested if you did them
wrong. But there’s a more subtle or informal level to “acceptable”
behavior, too—stuff that may not get you arrested if you do it
wrong, but that may earn you some weird looks and cause people
to cross the street to get away from you.
For example, if you just openly picked your nose while your
boss was talking to you, or if you greeted your date’s parents by pas-
sionately kissing them, or if you sat down at a table in McDonald’s
and tried to flag down a server to come and take your order—these
are all things that our informal culture tells us are incorrect ways to
act. There’s no official big book about how or how not to do these
things; we learn the right way to do them simply by observation,
by spending time in our society, and often these expectations are so
ingrained in us that we don’t notice them until we go somewhere
where people do them differently.
There’s no official regulation or documentation of how (and how
not) to greet strangers—we learn it by observation and experience.
What Is Folklore? 4
Fast-food restaurants don’t print manuals about how and where to
order—we learn it informally, by watching our friends or parents
go through the line ahead of us when we’re kids. It’s interesting to
note that when we travel to other cultures, it’s rarely the official
differences (the language, the currency, the laws) that make us feel
out of place—we expect those things to be different when we travel.
It’s the little stuff—the informal stuff, like how to greet people, or
whether to order at the counter or wait to be seated, or how close
to stand to strangers on a bus—that really makes us feel far from
This informal or unofficial level of cultural understanding is
the “folk” level, the level on which cultural knowledge is shared,
enacted, and propagated by regular, everyday people. Instead of
laws we have customs; instead of guidebooks we have experience
In the past, when scholars talked about the “folk,” they were
referring to a distinct class of people: typically rural, uneducated,
illiterate peasants. Today when we use the term we’re simply talking
about everyone, all of us, as we exist in the informal or unofficial
realms of our cultural lives.
Thus, when folklorists talk about a “folk group,” they’re not
talking about a certain type of people; they’re talking about all
people who share an unofficial culture together. In fact, the most
popular definition of a folk group these days is “any group of people
whatsoever who share at least one common factor.”6 That’s pretty
broad, isn’t it? By this definition, a family is a folk group, as is a
campus community or a neighborhood. An entire religion can form
a folk group, as can the population of an individual synagogue,
temple, or parish. A folk group can be national, ethnic, regional,
occupational, interest-based—basically anything that unites people
and generates a shared cultural understanding. Folk groups can be
small, with just a few members,7 or huge, with hundreds of thou-
sands of people included.
Many of these groups clearly have an institutional culture as
well as a folk culture—campuses, churches, occupations, states,
and nations will have both official and unofficial aspects of their
culture—and when we refer to those groups as a “folk group,” we’re
What Is Folklore? 5
purposefully focusing on their unofficial realm. In contrast, some
groups don’t have much of an institutional culture at all—friend
groups and families are typically entirely folk or informal8 in their
cultural existence and expression. It’s a useful distinction to make,
especially when seeking to avoid the “Folklore is everything!” fallacy.
Right away it should be easy to see that all of us are members of
many folk groups all at once, and it takes only a moment of reflec-
tion to understand that we use different sets of folk cultural knowl-
edge when we’re with those different groups. There’s often slang or
terminology that you use at school or at work that you don’t use at
home, not necessarily because it’s vulgar or inappropriate, but just
because no one at home would know what it means—they’re not
in that other group; they wouldn’t “get it.” There are songs you sing
at church that you don’t sing at work, because those songs aren’t
a part of your job’s folk culture. There are people who use thicker
accents at home than at work, and people who dress one way at
certain types of events (like football games) and another way at
other types of events (like dinner parties). You won’t get arrested for
wearing a cocktail dress to a football game (or face paint to a dinner
party), but it’s not the cultural norm. Our awareness of our many
overlapping folk groups allows us to adapt ourselves appropriately
to different cultural situations.
So that’s the “folk” part of “folklore”—the unofficial and
informal levels of a group’s culture, in which we all participate in
a number of intersecting and overlapping circles. But what about
Well, “lore” is what gives form to folklore. Rather than simply
being the general shared awareness of how to behave in a group or a
society, folklore comprises the specific expressive forms that a group
uses to communicate and interact. We call these forms the genres
of folklore, and just as literature students study different genres of
literature (poems, plays, novellas) or film students study different
genres of film (drama, comedy, action-adventure), folklorists study
different genres of folklore, such as customs, narratives, and beliefs
(there are a lot more than just these three—we’ll discuss this more
in depth in chapter 3). While many folklorists are certainly inter-
ested in the generalized folk culture of a group, they commonly
What Is Folklore? 6
focus their work on one or more of the expressive genres that a folk
group produces and shares.
As later chapters in this handbook will show you, the genres
of folklore are typically divided into different types of expressive
forms (some genres are in the form of narratives, some are cus-
tomary behaviors, some are conceptual, etc.). For now, given our
current goal of defining folklore in general, we can set that aside
and think about what separates all kinds of folklore from all other
types of cultural expression. Because, of course, while we have folk
customs and folk music and folk stories, we also have legal proce-
dures, symphonies, novels, plays, TV shows and the like, and we
need to consider what sets “folklore” apart from these other forms
of cultural expression.
Well, if you were paying attention just a few paragraphs ago,
you’ll likely remember that “folk” culture is the informal or unoffi-
cial parts of culture. It makes sense, then, to say that “folk anything”
(folk stories, folk music, folk customs) are the unofficial instances
of those things. “Folk” becomes an adjective that applies to “lore”:
What kind of lore? Folk-lore!
For example, if we’re talking about a story it’s easy to see that
“stories” can occur in both folk and official ways: our culture has
not only folktales and urban legends, but also comic books and
mystery novels. The former are folklore; the latter are not. Similarly,
we have not only folk songs, but pop songs and symphonies, too.
Not only do we have folk customs, but we have laws and govern-
The thing that distinguishes folklore from these other forms
of cultural expression is the way it’s transmitted. (You can tell by
the fact that those words are italicized that they’re important—
you should probably write that part down in your notes.) For
all that we might try to define folklore by what it is, it’s actually
much more clearly defined by how it’s used and shared. We can’t
simply say that folklore is stories, because so are TV shows and
so are novels. The difference is in how the story moves through a
What Is Folklore? 7
VariatioN aNd traditioN
In folk culture, the lore is typically shared by word of mouth;
more generally, we can say it’s shared person to person (which
could include direct conversation, indirect observation, e-mail,
phone calls, online chats, etc.). So, I tell an urban legend to a few
of my friends, and they in turn tell it to some people they know,
who in turn tell it to others, who then pass it on to more people,
and so on. A good analogy is the game “telephone”—a bunch of
kids sit in a circle and someone starts off a message by whispering
it to the person next to him or her, who then whispers it to the
next person, and so on. The main difference between folklore and
the telephone game is that folklore doesn’t go in a tidy circle. If
we were to draw the folk process of transmission, it might look
Lots of people are hearing the same story, but most of them
hear it from a different source. In contrast, the mass- or pop-culture
model has lots and lots of people hearing the same story from a
single source, such as the television, a news website, or a published
book. Millions of people might all watch the same show, but they
all get it from the same source, and so the version they all get is
identical. This process might look like this:
What Is Folklore? 8
The differences between these two modes of transmission are
pretty obvious. Even if the same number of people end up hearing
the folk story as watch the TV show or read the book, the folk story
was told and retold anew all along the way. And it probably changed a
bit as it was told over and over again, just like the message in the tele-
phone game, the point of which, as you probably recall, was always
to compare the final message to the original, to see the (hopefully
hilarious) ways it evolved during transmission. The study of folklore
is pretty much the same thing (minus the expectation of hilarity).
With a TV show or a published book, every single person who
watches or reads the story gets the exact same version, and that
single version is usually tied to a specific director or writer. With a
folk story, each new audience gets a unique, contextually specific
version, and each new teller is as much the rightful “owner” as the
next. This, of course, is what makes folklore so interesting. If I tell
you a joke, and you turn around and tell it to someone else and the
details change a bit, you didn’t tell it wrong, you just told a different
version of it.10 You also didn’t steal it from me—you might tell your
friends where you heard it, but even if you don’t, I don’t get to file
a copyright lawsuit against you. Folklore is mostly anonymous,11 so
What Is Folklore? 9
it can easily belong to whoever is telling it. In contrast, if I take a
novel and change some of the words, it’s not just “another version”
or “my own version” of the novel; it’s wrong. If I went out and sold
“my version” of the novel, I could be arrested.
So folklore, by the nature of its transmission, is malleable,
adaptable, changeable, and mostly anonymous, and this makes it
way more culturally and expressively communicative than a TV
show. I don’t get to alter an episode of TV to make it more relevant
to my life, but I can alter an urban legend or a joke in order to make
it more specific to me and my situation. Considering that folklore
is being slightly adapted and molded every time it’s passed on, after
a while it’s quite representative of the group as a whole rather than
of a single individual. The stuff that no one found meaningful or
illustrative or entertaining will eventually get leeched out, and the
stuff that most people thought was especially important or relevant
or significant will remain in. Group consensus shapes folklore, and
so folklore is a great measure of group consensus.
There’s another level of culture in which any given expressive
genre can emerge, and that’s “elite” culture. It’s more like pop cul-
ture than folk culture, but the audience is typically smaller as the
content is typically thought to have less of a broad appeal. This
is where we find the expressive forms that we tend to think of as
“snooty” and limited to highly educated audiences: the opera, mod-
ern art museums, symphonies, and so on. If we drew a model of
this one, it might look like this:
What Is Folklore? 10
There’s not just a single source, as there is with pop culture—
different ballet companies can all perform the same famous bal-
let and each company’s production will be slightly different—but
there’s not the numerous and accessible re-creations of the folk
method of transmission either. You can see how a single expressive
form, like a drawing, a story, or a song, could emerge in each of
the three different levels: as graffiti, a comic book, and a museum
piece; as a folktale, a romance novel, and a literary novel; and as a
children’s rhyme, a pop song, and a symphony, respectively. The
difference isn’t so much in the form; it’s in the way that form is
transmitted within a population.
Now, we need to make something clear here: there’s no judg-
ment intended in comparing “folk” culture to “popular” and “elite”
culture—once upon a time elite culture may have been considered
“better” than folk culture, but that’s a thing of the past. These are
terms that describe transmission, not ascribe value. And in fact,
these categories really aren’t all that clear-cut. Is this tidy three-level
breakdown an oversimplification? Totally. Are these categories per-
meable and inconsistent? Yup. Can stuff move from one level to
another, or exist in two at the same time? Of course! This model
is a useful tool for illustrating how folk forms of expression move
through a population differently than other forms, but in truth,
these categories are quite permeable and vague.
Consider, for example, the number of symphonic melodies
that are used and shared in a folk way. Many of us hum the first
few notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony when we want to indicate
that something dramatic has happened or is about to happen—
dun-dun-dun-DUN—and most of us do that because we’ve heard
others do it, not because we attended the symphony. Pop culture
gets in on the action, too: remember that lilting melody that always
accompanied Porky Pig when he skipped through a lovely nature
scene? That’s Humoresque No. 7 in G flat major, by Dvorak. The
folk can also borrow from pop culture: how many of us have whis-
tled the theme to Gilligan’s Island when we thought a trip was going
poorly? So we can clearly have a folk appropriation of elite and
pop forms, and a pop appropriation of an elite form, just as Béla
Bartók incorporating Hungarian folk songs into his compositions
What Is Folklore? 11
is an elite appropriation of folk culture. And just to round out the
borrowing nicely, the Boston Pops would be an example of elite
culture borrowing from pop culture.
This type of cultural appropriation isn’t limited to songs, either.
TV shows and movies (and sometimes even the news) love using
urban legends, folktales, and current jokes; and folk culture steals
narrative content from pop culture in return. There are tons of peo-
ple out in the world saying the phrase “May the force be with you,”
not because they’re big fans of Star Wars, but simply because their
friends keep saying it. So again, while these categories are illustra-
tive, they’re definitely not airtight.
It should be clear by now that defining folklore is as much
about understanding how it moves as understanding what it is.
Folklore is a part of informal12 culture, it moves via word of mouth
and observation, rather than by formal or institutional means. And
as we discussed earlier, what this means is that the lore, the stuff
that’s being passed around (which could be stories, customs, beliefs,
whatever) isn’t limited to a single correct version. When a cultural
expression is (re)created anew each time it gets shared, it varies a
bit, and it’s this variation that allows us to identify a particular cul-
tural form as folklore. Got that? Variation is the marker that we
look for when trying to identify the folk process.
Here’s an example: let’s say that you write a great story and
publish it in the school newspaper. You grab a bunch of copies of
the paper to give your friends, and you e-mail the e-edition of the
paper to your family. Let’s say the Associated Press eventually picks
up your story (wow—you’re clearly a great writer!). Suddenly your
story is running in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and
other impressive newspapers. If you gathered up all those different
versions of your story and compared them side by side, they’d all be
identical. That’s because, of course, they were transmitted via mass
media—they’d all be attributed to you, and they’d all have the same
Now let’s change the situation: say you hear a neat story from
a friend and tell it to another friend. The person you told it to then
turns around and tells it to some more people. Those people, how-
ever, don’t know the person the story was originally about, so some
What Is Folklore? 12
of the details that only a good friend would care about get dropped.
One of those people then decides to type up the story to e-mail it
to a sibling who lives far away. The sibling then e-mails it to some
more people, maybe adding a few sentences to the top of the e-mail
to explain where it came from and the reason for forwarding it.
Then those people forward it on, too, but they may erase the expla-
nation that the e-mail came with, and they’ll probably also erase the
list of previous recipients at the top of the e-mail just to save space,
so the identity of the person who first typed it up is lost. Maybe
one of the next recipients is a grammar fanatic who goes in and
rewrites some of the more awkward sentences before forwarding
it on again. A few more steps down the line, maybe someone else
changes the city the story takes place in, so that it’s more relatable
to the people she plans to forward it on to. Perhaps some of those
recipients don’t really like burdening their friends with e-mail for-
wards so they don’t forward it on, but it’s such a good story that it
ends up being told at a dinner party or around the water cooler or
while just hanging out. Now, if you held all those different versions
of your story side by side, they’d be different—folklorists would say
that they “exhibit dynamic variation.” Without ever talking to you,
a folklorist could determine that your story had been transmitted
via the folk process, rather than via mass media, by recognizing the
variation. This is one way we identify folklore.
Variation also implies another important marker of folklore:
there has to be more than one version of something in order for it to
vary. So in order to identify something as folklore, we have to find it
in more than one place. Let’s say that you write down a story in your
secret journal that you never let anyone read. Even if it sounds like
a folktale (with princesses and witches and fairy godmothers and
magic mirrors) or sounds like an urban legend (with hook-handed
maniacs and persecuted babysitters), it’s not folklore until it’s been
passed along. Remember, identifying folklore is all about identifying
how it travels; if it hasn’t traveled at all, then it’s simply not folklore.13
In fact, if it hasn’t been shared, it’s simply not “folk”—remember,
“folk” implies “culture,” which implies “group,” not a single person.
This is why we so often call folklore “traditional”—it gets passed on
from person to person, leaving multiple versions in its wake.
What Is Folklore? 13
This isn’t exactly the way that most people use the word tra-
ditional.14 Sure, the idea that traditional means “passed on” makes
sense given the fact that we commonly think of traditions as com-
ing to us from the past. A meal you’ve prepared is traditional if your
great-grandparents cooked it, too. A holiday custom is traditional if
that’s the way it was done in the old country. A ballad is traditional
if it was composed thousands of years ago. In the study of folklore,
however, it’s important to note that calling something “traditional”
doesn’t mean it’s “old.” A brand-new legend or rumor can be passed
along via e-mail to thousands of people in just a few days—and
that’s still traditional. Traditional simply means passed on, whether
that’s over many generations or over just a few days, resulting in the
same expressive form cropping up in multiple places.
Let’s put these two ideas together. Folk transmission is infor-
mal, and so one identifier of folklore is variation. And folklore is
traditional, so another identifier of folklore is that it’s passed on.
At long last we have boiled it down to some basic rules we can
follow when identifying folklore: folklore is informal (meaning vari-
able) and traditional (meaning passed on). Folklorist Barre Toelken
used the words “dynamic” and “conservative” to express the same
idea.15 Dynamic means variable; conservative means traditional. If
we were to watch a piece of folklore travel through a population, we
would be able to identify the dynamic elements as the details that
change with each new telling, that reflect the unique contexts in
which the folklore is shared. We would be able to identify the con-
servative elements as the parts that stay the same, that tell us we’re
still looking at the “same” piece of folklore, despite the variation.
To identify a cultural form—a story, joke, custom, or anything,
really—as folklore, we want to seek these two basic qualities: it’s
folklore if it’s passed on via person-to-person transmission, creating
multiple versions in which we recognize conservative elements (that
is, it’s traditional), and if those multiple versions are dynamic and
variable, with details changing to fit new contexts and new tellers,
so that there’s no single right version (that is, it’s informal).
So finally, many pages later, we have reached our answer: folk-
lore is informal, traditional culture. Those three words are our short-
hand for the whole general mish-mash of what folklore is. In those
What Is Folklore? 14
three words we are reminded of the importance of both halves of
the word folk-lore: without the folk (people sharing an informal
culture) we wouldn’t have dynamic variation, and without the lore
(the stories, beliefs, and customs), we wouldn’t have anything to
pass on traditionally. It’s a big concept in a small package.
The definition of folklore as “informal traditional culture” is much
broader than many people initially expect, and it also helps to work
against the common misperception that folklore has to be old (and
rural, backward, and untrue). For a long time, back when folklor-
ists thought the “folk” were peasants, folklorists thought that all
folklore was slowly disappearing from the world as peasant popu-
lations were becoming more educated and economically indepen-
dent. The conception of folklore as informal traditional culture,
however, highlights that folklore is always coming into and falling
out of use. A particular item of folklore may indeed disappear if it’s
no longer relevant to people’s lives, but folklore on the whole will
never disappear—we’ll always have informal, traditional aspects to
our cultural lives.16
This is a pretty uplifting message, if you think about it. We’ve
got a lot going on in the realm of culture these days—globalization,
McDonaldization, homogenization, digitization, depersonaliza-
tion—lots of -izations that make people worry about the cultural,
expressive, and interpersonal future of the human race. To be sure,
folklore isn’t all butterflies and rainbows—it includes racist, sexist,
xenophobic, and vulgar content as often as not17—but the contin-
ued existence of folklore does have some good news to offer. Even
if some aspects of our society are homogenizing, or even if some
aspects of our interpersonal communication are being stripped
of spontaneity and individuality, there’s always going to be a folk
realm where shared, emergent, discursive, and expressive culture is
growing and developing. Even in the most dry and scripted of cor-
porate environments, folk culture exists—always has, always will.
And studying it will help us gain a more balanced understanding of
life, the universe, and everything.
What Is Folklore? 15
Now, I realize that those are some big claims for a little disci-
pline, but I stand by them. The study of a group’s folklore can often
reveal the heart and soul of that group in a way that focusing on
other aspects can’t. Folklorists have long noted what they call the
“triviality barrier”18 in the field of folklore studies. Because people’s
own folklore is so common, so familiar, so everyday, many people
feel that it’s not worth studying. Now, if we look to the folklore
of other cultures, it may indeed seem exotic and strange, but it’s
important to remember that folklore isn’t defined by being exotic
and strange; it only looks that way from the outside. To the people
who grew up in that other culture, that same exotic and strange
folklore appears mundane and familiar.
But there’s a strong argument to be made in favor of studying
the mundane, the familiar, and the trivial, and we can see it when
we look at the root of the word trivia.19 It comes to us from the
Latin trivium, which means “three roads” or, specifically, the spot
where three roads come together. Like this:
What Is Folklore? 16
Now, let’s say you were going to build a marketplace for people
from towns A, B, and C to visit. Where is the most likely place to
put that market? At the trivium, of course, the place that is most
relevant to all three of those populations. Seeking cultural under-
standing is a similar endeavor. If we want to understand a group
of people—not individuals, but the group as a whole—we need to
look at the things they share, the places where their lives intersect,
rather than at the things that distinguish them. In other words, we
can learn a lot about the Irish people by reading the works of James
Joyce, as he was an insightful man who had a way with words,
but when we read his books, we’re also learning a whole lot about
James Joyce as an individual. If we look to the folklore—the cus-
toms, stories, beliefs, and so on—that’s been shared, promoted, and
shaped by the Irish people as a whole, we’re going to have a much
better understanding of that group.20 The commonness of folklore
is exactly what makes it so important as a subject of cultural study.
So, what are we left with, here? Are you ready to show up at
a party and field the “What is folklore?” question that inevitably
arises when you reveal that you’re taking a folklore class? It’s okay
if the answer is no—any folklore grad student can tell you that it
sometimes takes years to get to a point where you’re comfortable
explaining the discipline to others on the fly. For now, here’s a help-
ful script. You can carry it around with you to read to people when
Folklore is informal, traditional culture. It’s all the cultural stuff—
customs, stories, jokes, art—that we learn from each other, by
word of mouth or observation, rather than through formal institu-
tions like school or the media. Just as literature majors study nov-
els and poems or art historians study classic works of art, folklor-
ists focus on the informal and traditional stuff, like urban legends
What Is Folklore? 17
WaNt to kNoW More?
Barre Toelken, The Dynamics of Folklore (Logan: Utah State University Press,
Toelken presents a readable and informative introduction to the study of
folklore, offering lots of case studies that allow for learning about the tradi-
tions themselves as well as how to approach and analyze them. Examples
from Toelken’s experiences with the Navajo culture make this a great book for
anyone interested in Native American culture.
Martha Sims and Martine Stephens, Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study
of People and Their Traditions (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2005).
This book covers a lot of those complex, ambiguous, theoretical ideas of the
field and presents them in a way that helps them make sense. It doesn’t skimp
on the detail, making it an excellent choice if you’re looking to go beyond a
basic introduction to folklore.
Alan Dundes, The Study of Folklore (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1965).
And oldie but goodie. Dundes has influenced several generations of folklorists
with his straightforward assertions about the field, and while any of his works
come with a touch of his favorite method of analysis—psychoanalysis—his
ability to encompass the subject of folklore clearly and concisely can’t be beat.
Elliott Oring, Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction (Logan: Utah
State University Press, 1986).
Oring brings together a number of folklorists, each of whom provides a
chapter on his or her own area of expertise, while Oring himself introduces
the subject nicely, highlighting the need for identification of the common
denominators that unite all things folk. There is a reader that accompanies
this text for those who want even more elaboration and backstory on the
concepts at hand.
1. On August 22, no less, which I declare to be International Folklore Day
from now on. William Thoms, “Folk-lore and the Origin of the Word,” in Inter-
national Folkloristics, ed. Alan Dundes (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield,
2. It’s a bit confusing, but “folklore” is both the name of the academic field
and the stuff that people in that field study. There have been many debates over
the years about changing the name to something more scholarly and impressive
(like “cultural studies” or “verbal art” or “ethnology”), but folklore just seems to
stick. Occasionally you’ll see the phrase “folklore studies,” which this book uses, or
“folkloristics,” which folklorists use when they want to seem more impressive.
3. There’s actually a technical term for bathroom graffiti: latrinalia. It’s a fun
idea to try to work this word into as many college essays as possible.
4. Interestingly, many of the most famous definitions of folklore can be boiled
down to this two-part concept. Possibly the most commonly taught definition of
What Is Folklore? 18
folklore is Dan Ben-Amos’s “artistic communication in small groups,” and we can
see that “artistic communication” is basically “lore” and “small groups” is basically
the “folk.” Dan Ben-Amos, “Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context,” Journal of
American Folklore 84 (January–March 1971): 3–15.
5. Ward Goodenough, Cultural Anthropology and Linguistics, Report of the Sev-
enth Annual Round Table Meeting on Linguistics and Language Study, ed. Paul
L. Garvin, Monograph Series on Languages and Linguistics 9 (Washington, DC:
Georgetown University Press, 1957).
6. Alan Dundes, The Study of Folklore (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall,
7. Or even just two members: think about all the inside jokes and coded words
that couples or siblings share—nicknames, single words that reference entire experi-
ences, coded gestures to let the other person know you need to be rescued from an
awkward conversation at a party, etc.
8. I should point out that the word “informal” here doesn’t mean “casual” or
“laid-back” “unimportant,” it simply means that it’s not dictated by an institution.
9. I don’t want to encourage the misperception that folklore is only stories, or
narrative forms, here, but it’s helpful at this point to have a single, familiar example
to consider. There are a lot more forms of folklore than just stories, including some
entirely nonverbal forms of folklore like hand gestures and material objects; if you
find that the ideas in the upcoming section make sense with the story example, con-
sider trying them out with a folk gesture or folk custom example.
10. Even more interesting is the situation in which I tell a joke poorly, and you
turn around and tell it the right way. Because folklore is variable, it can be self-cor-
recting—we don’t have to live with unsuccessful versions of folklore, we just make
them better as we pass them on!
11. With some forms of folklore, especially folk songs, the original author is
sometimes known, or at least can be discovered through research, but in the folk
process that identification is often stripped out quickly.
12. Again, this just means noninstitutionally dictated. Calling folk culture “infor-
mal” doesn’t mean that folklore is necessarily casual or insignificant or unimportant.
It simply means that folklore isn’t distributed via a publishing house or protected by
copyright or enforced by the government, and thus is free to evolve, adapt, and be
adjusted to different tellers and audiences.
13. Yet. It may certainly become folklore later, if it eventually gets passed
around a lot.
14. Get used to this: folklorists love to use familiar words in specialized ways.
15. Barre Toelken, The Dynamics of Folklore (Logan: Utah State University
16. Just a quick note on the grammar of folklore: “folklore” is a mass noun,
not a count noun. What does that mean? It means that grammatically, “folklore”
is the same as “butter” or “milk” or any other (dairy or nondairy) noun that isn’t
by itself countable. For example, you wouldn’t say, “I have five butters”; you’d say,
“I have five pats of butter.” You wouldn’t say, “I drank three milks”; you’d say, “I
drank three glasses of milk.” This is because pats and glasses are count nouns, while
What Is Folklore? 19
butter and milk are mass nouns. Similarly, you would never say, “I collected seven
folklores today”; you’d say, “I collected seven pieces of folklore today” or simply,
“I collected seven legends today.” In addition, “folklore” isn’t an adjective; “folk”
is. So if you want to explain that a story you’ve discovered exhibits the qualities of
folklore, you’d say that it’s a “folk story,” not a “folklore story.” You have no idea
how many people make these mistakes, and you have no idea how silly they sound
to folklorists when they do. Don’t make these mistakes. Don’t sound silly.
17. Many folklore course syllabi include some kind of warning about this: folk-
lore reveals a culture as it is, not as we would wish it to be. Ignoring the unpleasant
parts leaves us with an incomplete and less than useful understanding. The study
of folklore can lead to some surprisingly explicit discussions, so it’s good to be pre-
pared. I doubt your instructors will expect you to enjoy or approve of it, but any
folklore student should be prepared to consider disturbing or questionable content
18. Brian Sutton-Smith used this term to talk about the scholarly disregard for
children’s folklore in particular. “Psychology of Childlore: The Triviality Barrier,”
Western Folklore 29 (January 1970): 1–8.
19. Elliott Oring describes this in detail in his book Just Folklore (Long Beach,
CA: Cantilever, 2012), chapter 18.
20. And this, of course, goes for any group we might want to understand better:
ethnicities, families, occupations, friend circles, political parties, anyone. There’s
even a recent interest in studying the folklore of corporations and office workers as
a beneficial human resources practice.
21. I used to do this. Seriously, it helps.
20 DOI: 10.7330/9780874219067.c002
What Do Folklorists Do?
So, now you know what folklore is.1 Pretty neat, huh?
There’s one more basic question to answer, though, before we start
getting into some examples of folklore, and that’s what, exactly, do
folklorists do when they study folklore? Just as many people have a
vague and often incomplete sense of what folklore is, many people
are similarly unclear as to what the work of a folklorist entails. It’s
important to know, though, especially if you decide to major in it and
have to justify not getting a business degree to your family and friends.
Let me speak from experience: It’s pretty common that at par-
ties and gatherings, when people learn I’m a folklorist, someone
will turn to me and say, “Tell us a story!” Ask any folklorist—I
guarantee that this has happened at least once to all of us. Since
people apparently have some idea that folklore and storytelling go
hand in hand, it makes sense that a professional folklorist would be
good at telling stories, right?
Well, to be honest, while I certainly do participate in my fair
share of folk culture (as do we all), I’m not a particularly captivating
storyteller when put on the spot. I, like a lot of people, don’t have a
repertoire of rehearsed stories at my immediate disposal that would
really be what the “Tell us a story!” crowd is looking for. There are
certainly a lot of folklorists who are great storytellers, but studying
folklore doesn’t make you one.
This common misunderstanding, while awkward at parties,
does, however, help to highlight some distinctions. I study folklore;
I don’t necessarily perform folklore. This is the case with scholars in
What Do Folklorists Do? 21
many academic fields; in response to a recent “Tell us a story!” sce-
nario, I tried pointing out to the party guests that no one ever asks
my criminologist husband to “Commit us a crime!” Unfortunately,
while I was patting myself on the back for finding such an apt anal-
ogy, most of the guests found it a pretty hilarious joke (and still
wanted me to tell that story).
But the thing is, it is an apt analogy, one that can help people
unfamiliar with the field better understand what is it that folklor-
ists do. Crime is a component of culture; it emerges from within a
society or group of people. So does folklore, as we discussed in the
previous chapter. Criminologists study crime, the different types of
crime that crop up in different cultures, the social and psychologi-
cal influences that encourage or discourage those crimes, and so on,
just as folklorists study folklore, the different kinds of folklore that
crop up in different cultures, the social and psychological influences
that shape and promote the sharing of that folklore, and so on. If
only there were as many prime-time dramas about folklore as there
are about crime, we folklorists might not have to go around finding
apt analogies all the time.
So, folklorists don’t necessarily perform the folklore they study,
at least not as a part of their professional work as folklorists, any
more than criminologists commit the crimes they study.2 Sure,
folklorists will probably learn lots of songs and customs and stories
during their formal education, and if there’s the inclination and
talent, it just might turn into a distinct skill set,3 but that’s separate
from their work as folklorists.
The crime analogy only goes so far, of course; for one, folk-
lore is often seen as a positive thing to emerge from a community
(though we know this is not always the case, as folklore can be
nasty, vulgar, and cruel as often as it can be beautiful and inspiring),
so while criminologists are often focused on preventing the growth
of crime, folklorists are often engaged in encouraging or admiring
(or at least not trying to prohibit) the growth of folklore.
But stick with me—the analogy can take us a bit further. Just
as some professionals in the field of criminology decide to focus on
applying their knowledge about crime to practical uses in a com-
munity (say, by becoming a police officer or an FBI profiler), some
What Do Folklorists Do? 22
professional folklorists decide similarly to focus on the applied side
of folklore studies. They take their understanding of folklore and
apply it within their communities by creating archives and museum
exhibits to preserve and display information about local cultures
for educational, documentary, and entertainment purposes, or by
serving as cultural mediators in fields like international business or
On the other hand, some scholars who study crime decide to
focus on the more theoretical aspects of the issue—considering
what causes crime, what factors influence who commits a crime
and who doesn’t, or what blend of individual and environment
creates a potential criminal. Some folklorists similarly choose to
focus on more theoretical questions about folklore—determining
how we distinguish one genre from another, how a particular piece
of folklore functions in a community, or what a certain tradition
expresses or reflects for the group that shares it.
From these two approaches, which certainly aren’t wholly sepa-
rate from each other, we get the two main types of professional
folklore work: public folklore and academic folklore. Much has
been made over the years of this dichotomy, the split between pub-
lic and academic folklorists, and you can read articles or talk to
folklorists about both the distressing divisiveness and the beneficial
cooperation between these two types of work. The reality is that
they both take a bit from each other, and choosing one over the
other as an area of focus usually has more to do with whether you
want to work in the public sector or at a university than with what
you want to do or not do (or think or not think) as a folklorist.
This book, however, is designed to tell you about the academic
field of folklore studies, so that’s what we’re going to focus on here.
If public folklore is of interest to you, I encourage you to find your-
self some public folklorists and start pestering them with questions.
For now, let’s discuss what academic folklorists do.
Well, for starters, folklorists collect folklore. That’s nice and
straightforward, isn’t it? While the collection of folklore used to be
considered an end in itself, that’s not really the case anymore. As
I mentioned in the last chapter, for quite some time (think early
to mid-1800s until fairly recently), the general assumption among
What Do Folklorists Do? 23
folklorists (who were usually identified, at that time, as either
anthropologists or antiquarians) was that folklore was disappear-
ing. They saw folklore as this glorious beacon of the noble past that
was slowly but surely slipping away.5
This, of course, was tied closely to the idea that the “folk” were
a limited segment of society—the poor, the illiterate, the unedu-
cated. Scholars believed that folklore was the leftovers of an earlier
age, leftovers that likely contained important remnants of a culture
that the elite and educated classes were sadly yet inevitably leaving
behind, leftovers that needed to be rescued from imminent demise.
We, of course, know better now. Everyone is the folk; every-
one lives cultural lives on both formal (institutional) and informal
(folk) levels. Rather than seeing folklore as something that’s slip-
ping away, we now recognize it as something that ebbs and flows
with the times. Folklore has no institutional anchor; the minute it’s
no longer relevant to us, it’s gone. Sure, collecting it and lovingly
storing it in an archive is probably a good idea in case it never crops
up again, but what, exactly, are we saving it for?
Thus we come to the second, and far more important, job of
a folklorist: analysis. Folklore studies is an analytical field, just like
anthropology and literary studies, the two fields from which it
derives most of its tools and methods. Like anthropologists, folk-
lorists examine and consider the behavior that surrounds folklore,
the processes by which folklore is learned and shared, and thus the
process through which it varies and evolves. Like literary scholars,
folklorists also examine and consider the folklore itself (the texts
of narratives, certainly, but also objects, rituals, concepts, and cus-
toms), and look for meaning and patterns in the content. These two
approaches, looking at the text and at the context, lay the founda-
tion for the study of folklore.
You have an assignment: go out and collect some folklore. Sounds
easy enough, right? Gather your friends, maybe bribe them with
food, ask them to tell you some jokes or stories or to describe what
their families do at the holidays, and you’re good. Right?
What Do Folklorists Do? 24
Well, here’s the thing: there’s a whole lot going on when folklore
emerges naturally through interaction that can’t be captured simply
by writing down the words of a story or joke (or taking a picture of
a quilt or describing a holiday custom). For one thing, the words or
actions that make up a folk narrative or a traditional behavior don’t
exist in a vacuum. The general cultural and social setting in which
the folklore is being performed affect both the form and the recep-
tion of the folklore. Jokes that are thigh-slappingly hilarious in one
country don’t always translate humorously in another; the cultural
background for folklore always needs to be noted.
There’s also the more immediate setting in which the folklore
happens—where and when it is performed,6 and who’s there lis-
tening or watching. If you don’t think this affects how folklore is
presented, think of what happens when someone is telling a dirty
joke and their parents—or their children—walk into the room.
Suddenly that joke isn’t so dirty anymore (or suddenly there’s no
joke being told at all!). If someone were to read only the words of
that joke, the sudden switch in tone or language wouldn’t make
sense without an explanation of the sudden change in audience.
And keep in mind, while it’s ideal to imagine yourself encoun-
tering folklore in its natural habitat, ready with your phone’s voice
recorder app to capture your friends’ natural banter as it occurs, it’s
unlikely that this is always how you’ll get to collect folklore. Let’s be
realistic: if you’re collecting folklore for a class, you’re likely calling
up your family two days before your whole project is due and ask-
ing them to please tell you some of those funny stories they always
tell at Thanksgiving dinner, so you can record and transcribe them.
This usually results in less than natural settings for the collec-
tion of folklore. So it’s important to find out how the setting of
collection differs from the setting in which the folklore would usu-
ally appear, because the folklore might be altered because of it. For
example, that dirty joke’s punch line might still be told, but in a
whisper rather than a shout, depending on who’s around when you
finally get your friend to tell it.
This brings up yet another issue—not simply where and when
the folklore is shared, but how it is shared. Is the story told or the
song sung in a lively way or a somber way? Is the recipe made
What Do Folklorists Do? 25
casually, with imprecise measurements, or painstakingly, with per-
fectly leveled scoops? Is the celebration carried out identically each
time, rehearsed down to the minute, or does it not really matter if
things are replicated perfectly? Is the joke told as if it is truly funny,
or as if it’s not funny at all? Is the punch line whispered or shouted?
These are the questions that keep folklorists up at night, as these are
often the questions that lead to an understanding of the folklore on
a deeper level.
Folklorists have come up with numerous ways to deal with all
this necessary extra info when collecting folklore. Different archives
have different formats in which they like to have information sub-
mitted, but in general, there are some guidelines that are accepted
across the board. Folklorist Alan Dundes7 came up with the three-
part consideration of text, context, and texture as the main things to
make note of when collecting folklore. In brief, the text is the what;
the context is the where, the when, and the who (or the with whom,
to be more grammatically precise); and the texture is the how.
So, to put it in practical terms of what you would need to con-
sider when collecting, say, a joke, you’d want to know what the joke
is (the text, often summed up as “the thing itself ”—the words of
the joke, in this case, and a description of any integral gestures or
expressions); where, when, and with whom the joke would normally
be performed (the context, on several levels—the general cultural
context as well as the more specific contexts of use and collection);
and how the joke is normally performed (the texture—the tone,
pitch, volume, rhythm, rhyme, and general attitude of the joke).
Filling in these three categories of information can be accom-
plished in different ways. Folklorists generally refer to the process
of going out and conducting interviews and such as “fieldwork,”
and this is the most common method of gathering information.
It’s important to note that folkloristic interviews aren’t your typical
nightly news, back-and-forth, information-gathering interviews.
Folklore is an emergent conversational form of communication, so
we want to re-create that kind of setting when collecting folklore.
Visit with your informant8 somewhere comfortable and casual.
Leave the recorder on the table so you’re not holding it in your infor-
mant’s face. Get your informants talking, rather than bombarding
What Do Folklorists Do? 26
them with questions right off the bat. In fact, maybe even share a
bit of your own folklore to give them a sense of what you’re looking
for. Of course, some collection projects (those involving music, for
example, or dance) can require more involved and technical setups
for recording, and there are whole manuals written about the minu-
tiae of fieldwork, but in general, when collecting folklore, think of
creating the kind of environment where folklore would naturally
flourish, and go from there.
Of course, these days, fieldwork is as often accomplished
online—via e-mail, chat, Facebook, or Skype—as it is in person.
This is fine. These are all normal, everyday means of communica-
tion that we use, and all three kinds of information—text, context,
and texture—can be determined through these methods. Sure, tex-
ture is different in a chat room than in a face-to-face interview (are
they using emoticons, typing fast or slow, spelling carefully or slop-
pily?), but there’s always a way to manage it.
And direct questioning isn’t the only way that folklorists get
information, either. As anthropologists know, the general practice
of “ethnography,” or the description of a culture, involves not only
interviewing but also observation. As we discussed in chapter 1,
folklorists are interested not only in the particular genres of lore,
but in folk culture in general. Sitting back and taking in the situ-
ation when you’re with the people from whom you’re collecting
folklore can provide a good understanding of the contexts of both
use and collection.
Paying attention to the ways people interact, both with each
other and with the space they’re in, provides lots of opportunities
for identifying the unspoken cultural knowledge that people are
putting to use in a given situation. The practice of ethnographic
observation often involves consideration of both emic (insider) and
etic (outsider) perspectives, which can require seeing familiar situ-
ations in a new light. We often don’t scrutinize our own cultural
settings this way (I’m betting you haven’t spend a lot of time won-
dering how everyone in a McDonald’s knows not to sit and wait
to be served), but it can be a helpful technique to employ when
attempting to thoroughly understand the multiple and nuanced
contexts of folklore.
What Do Folklorists Do? 27
Now, this all may sound fairly straightforward, and you can
probably imagine yourself easily coaxing folklore from your friends
and family—recording their descriptions of traditions, transcrib-
ing their stories, noting their gestures and facial expressions as they
talk. And sometimes it is that easy. One past student of mine, Anya,
had a grandfather who was known in his hometown as a ballad
singer and tall-tale teller, and all Anya had to do was sit down with
him, ask him to run through a few of his most popular stories and
songs (a request he was familiar with, one that many people made
of him on a regular basis), and within just a few hours, she had a
great set of stories and songs recorded.9 Of course, she needed to
document context and texture, but she could easily do that from
memory—she’d spent her whole life listening to her grandfather
tell these stories and sing these songs, so documenting the where,
when, and how wasn’t difficult at all.
Of course, there are some flaws with Anya’s approach. Perhaps
there are some meaningful stories that aren’t among her grandfa-
ther’s most popular, stories that come out only on certain occasions,
or that he wouldn’t want to tell in front of his granddaughter. And
the contexts and textures that Anya perceives may not be the same
as the perceptions of her grandfather or another audience member.
The assumption of understanding and familiarity when you’re inter-
viewing people you know well can often lead to overlooking some
interesting and significant aspects of the folklore you’re collecting.
Anyone in Anya’s situation, easy though the collecting might be,
would want to be wary of jumping only to the most apparent or
obvious conclusions when analyzing the collected materials.
Let’s consider a different collection experience: Craig was a stu-
dent who wanted to collect folklore from his roommates. Craig
knew that his roommates were quite clever and funny, that they
had been friends since high school and were always hanging out
together telling stories about past parties or crazy stuff they’d done,
and he thought he’d be able to get many stories and jokes from
them. Specifically, he was thinking of their common pastime of
visiting the local Walmart late at night and causing minor havoc
amid the aisles—his roommates were always telling stories about
run-ins with employees or store security, and he even knew some
What Do Folklorists Do? 28
of the more infamous stories well enough to prompt his friends if
To conduct his first interview, Craig arranged to have his room-
mates and some of their other high school friends visit his dorm.
When he initially laid out the topic, “those stories about the stuff
you all used to do at Walmart,” the group was enthusiastic but a
bit unfocused. Lots of references to stories were immediately pro-
duced—comments like, “Oh! Like that time Rob rode the tricycle
and knocked over the microwaves!” or “Chris’s thing about the
women’s restroom is funny!”—but no actual stories were volun-
teered. When Craig specifically asked the group to tell the stories,
they fell flat: “Well, you’ve heard it before—that’s pretty much it.
Rob took a tricycle from the toy department and crashed it into a big
endcap stack of microwaves.” Craig knew for a fact that he’d heard
these guys tell a very long, very funny version of that same story
before, but it simply wasn’t happening when he tried to collect it.
Craig’s friends decided that the best way to help was to visit
Walmart together, so Craig unexpectedly found himself crammed
in a car, trying to hold his phone up to continue to record the con-
versation (which wasn’t really focused on Walmart stories anymore
anyway). At the store, they all got drinks from the Subway restau-
rant which, they explained to Craig, was how a typical night would
start. Of course, it wasn’t nighttime when they visited, and there
were lots of shoppers around, so the typical antics didn’t take place.
They wandered around the store a bit, pointing out places where
memorable things had happened, and then went home. Craig was
left with roughly two hours of very garbled recordings, an empty
drink cup, and very few ideas of how to go about picking out stories
from the mess of information he’d gathered.
Craig’s situation is a very common one on many levels. First
off, many people don’t see their folklore as folklore, and when the
storytelling is taken out of a natural context, it’s awkward for most
people to go into full detail of a story that they know the person
to whom they’re talking has already heard. The stories Craig was
hoping to collect weren’t really folklore in Craig’s friends’ under-
standing of the term, and in fact, they didn’t really think of them as
stories at all—they were just good times, things that had happened
What Do Folklorists Do? 29
that were funny to remember. None of the guys he interviewed
would have referred to themselves as “storytellers”—they simply
didn’t think of themselves and their folk culture in that way.
It’s easy to sympathize with Craig’s frustrations, but rather than
focusing on what Craig didn’t get, we need to consider what he did
get out of his fieldworking experience. Clearly, Craig’s assumptions
about what he was looking for were incorrect, or at least incom-
plete. While he got a few brief stories, he got several other genres as
well—customs, foodways, pranks10—and more important, he got
a wealth of contextual and textural information. As revealing as the
short story of the tricycle is, the fact that the guys implicitly knew
that daytime was an inappropriate time to engage in mischievous
behavior is telling; for as much as they apparently enjoyed hassling
the late-night employees, they drew the line at inconveniencing
Craig got clear information about the appropriate (and inap-
propriate) where, when, and with whom of this folklore, and also
about the how, the attitude behind the traditions. While a second
interview was obviously necessary (and was made much more use-
ful through Craig’s idea to bring a new person along to provide
a fresh audience for the telling of complete stories), the jumbled
and confusing trip to Walmart provided Craig with a foundation
of understanding for what life in this folk group was really like. In
any collecting situation, it’s important to set aside expectations and
consider what folk culture you’re actually getting.
Once you’ve collected your folklore, you’re ready to do something
with it. One of the best things about the field of folklore studies is
that since folklorists are united by what they study, rather than by
how they study it, folklorists get to use any and all methods and
approaches that seem useful to them. We get to take useful tools
from lots of different fields and put them to work for us in whatever
way helps us understand our material better.
As we talked about in the previous chapter, folklorists look at
folklore as a thing, and also as a process of transmission. We can
What Do Folklorists Do? 30
ask, “What is it?” and also “How does it work?” and “How does it
travel?” Jan Harold Brunvand, a folklorist perhaps most famous for
his lifelong work with urban legends,11 put together a list of ques-
tions that folklorists commonly ask, and it’s a helpful summary.
Folklorists ask questions about:
• definition (what folklore is)
• classification (what the genres of folklore are and how to
distinguish between them)
• source (who the “folk” are)
• origin (who originally composed or created folklore)
• transmission (how folklore is carried and how fast and
• variation (how folklore changes and evolves, and for
• structure (what the underlying form of folklore is and
the relationship of form to content)
• function (what folklore communicates for its carriers and
how it works within a group)
• purpose (what the performer intends to convey and the
intended effect on the audience)
• meaning (what the folklore may symbolize or represent
in a metaphorical way)
• use/application (what the study of folklore can do for
other fields and in other areas)12
While folklorists examine all these questions, the most com-
mon form of study, especially in the sense of analyzing a particular
interesting type of folklore that comes from a particular group, is a
functional analysis. Answering the question “What does this folk-
lore do for the people who share it?” is a popular academic pursuit
for folklorists, especially since there are so many possible answers.
Another famous folklorist, William Bascom, once wrote an arti-
cle called “The Four Functions of Folklore” in which he claimed that
folklore can serve to entertain, to validate a culture’s customs and
rituals, to teach lessons, and to exercise social control.13 Are these
the only ways that folklore can function? Not remotely. In a broad
sense these are certainly applicable to many kinds of folklore, but
What Do Folklorists Do? 31
the smaller the group, the more nuanced the function. Sometimes
the folklore of a very small group, such as a single family, serves a
unique function that doesn’t even exist outside of that group.
I had a student once who grew up in a large family that shared
one very small bathroom. Over the years, the family members had
developed a whole lexicon of folk speech used to evaluate and com-
pare each other’s relative needs to use the facilities—whose case was
the most extreme and thus merited first usage, what new situations
could override the previously determined order of usage, and so
on. The terminology stemmed mainly from funny or embarrassing
incidents in the family’s history (“This is a ‘Julie-in-Yellowstone’
situation here!”) and was comprehensible and useful only among
family members within the family home. The student also felt that
the folk speech, which on the surface could appear to be crudely
pragmatic, reflected her parents’ and siblings’ enjoyment of even
the downsides of a large family—their insider terminology made
them feel closer, provided them with a humorous method to nego-
tiate awkward situations, reinforced their sense of unity as a group,
and reminded them of the importance of both equitable sharing
and graceful concession in the face of greater need.
So the same piece of folklore can serve multiple functions at
once. An urban legend can serve as a warning for a whole commu-
nity or simply as a psychological release for an anxious individual. A
political joke can allow an adult to test the leanings of a social gath-
ering, or it can allow a young person to unofficially push against
parental ideology. A folk song can serve as a literal commentary on
current or historical events, or as a symbolic expression of complex
emotion. A customary holiday game or sporting event can provide
social release as well as reinforce a group’s identity.
You can probably see already that a research question about
function would require a close examination of the folklore itself
(the component parts of the custom as practiced, the words of the
narrative in its most common variations, the form and feel of the
handmade object, etc.), meaning that you’d better have done a
great, detailed job documenting and transcribing the folklore you
collected (or, if you’re getting your folklore from an archive, you’d
better hope that whoever collected it did a great job for you).
What Do Folklorists Do? 32
And of course, such a research question will also require a con-
sideration of the ways in which the folklore emerges from within the
group (the common social and cultural contexts, the acceptable—
and, sometimes more revealing, the unacceptable—audiences for the
folklore, the ways different individuals alter the folklore and their
reasons for doing so, etc.), meaning that you really want to have done
a bang-up job noting the context and texture along with the text.
Craig’s folklore collection experience is a good illustration of
this. If we want to consider the function of Craig’s roommates’
Walmart traditions, it’s clear that the text alone won’t cut it. If we
looked only at the content of the story about Rob riding a tricycle
into a stack of microwaves, we might assume that the function of
that folklore—whether the custom of behaving that way or the
story that is told in remembrance—is to promote an appearance
of toughness, destructiveness, or recklessness. If we add in Craig’s
understanding of the context and texture, however—that the
group was conscientious of shoppers’ experiences—then we have
a more nuanced representation of their values. If we consider that
the stated target of their antics was typically the employees, not
the customers, then we can perhaps read an anticorporation mes-
sage into the tradition, rather than a generally antisocial one. We
begin to understand something about the culture of these young
men in particular, and perhaps the culture of young men in a rural
community in general; we learn about the push and pull between
impressing one’s friends and respecting authorities, and the ways
these particular friends express and reinforce their values for each
other in their choices of what to remember in story, what to laugh
at and what to cringe at, and what activities to engage in at certain
times in certain places. A consideration of the text, context, and
texture—of the thing itself as well as the behavior that surrounds
it—is required for a complete understanding of the folklore.
You may be wondering at this point why on earth anyone would
bother to study academically Craig’s friends’ juvenile Walmart tra-
ditions. In the face of more obviously “important” folklore (the col-
lections of the Brothers Grimm, world mythology, native peoples’
customs), the antics of some teenagers in a small town seem unim-
pressive as a form of cultural expression. Well, while we certainly
What Do Folklorists Do? 33
do not want to turn away from studying “important”-seeming folk-
lore, we need to consider the reality of the situation. It would be
great if young men in small towns sat around telling each other cre-
ation myths, but most don’t. If we want to understand the culture
of young rural men, we need to look at the folk culture they actually
have, not the culture we think they should have. The folklore we
choose to study depends largely on the group of people we’re inter-
ested in understanding.
Before we wrap up this chapter, I want to clarify why folklorists
bother to do these things (or, perhaps more significant, why univer-
sities would pay folklorists to do these things). Well, one, because
it’s fun. We shouldn’t ignore that fact, though it probably has more
to do with individual scholars’ choices to study folklore than it does
with why a university would value the study of folklore.
The significance of folklore studies as an academic field comes
back to the idea that folklore exists as a form of cultural expression
without the anchor of institutional culture. Think of it this way: if
everyone everywhere slowly came to the conclusion that the works
of Charles Dickens were no longer relevant to our society—that
the average person had nothing to gain from reading them—would
literature students suddenly stop reading them? No. Because the
works of Charles Dickens are a part of the official canon, the insti-
tutionally recognized collection of what has been determined to be
relevant to education.
Here’s another example: the law. Perhaps we realize that a par-
ticular law is no longer relevant to our society. Well, we can’t just
decide to start doing it differently—we’d get thrown in jail! As dis-
cussed earlier, laws are a part of our formal culture; they require
institutional administration in order to be changed, and it takes
an awfully long time to change them. Legal changes can be slow to
catch up with cultural changes.
Folklore, on the other hand, isn’t institutionally determined.
That urban legend no longer speaks to something we care about?
Gone. That custom no longer meets the needs of that family?
What Do Folklorists Do? 34
Done—never happens again. While we may record the legend or a
description of the custom in an archive so that we remember it was
once relevant, there’s no formal organization still making us tell the
legend or practice the custom. Unlike reading the past works of a
famous author or obeying an outdated law, the moment folklore is
no longer relevant, we simply stop using it.
What this means, of course (and this is the really important
part, so make sure you write it down), is that if folklore is cur-
rently circulating, it must be important. It certainly may not seem
important on the surface—as we know, folklore is often perceived
to be trivial—but no one is making that folklore stick around. If it
were completely superfluous, totally irrelevant to everyone’s lives, it
would simply disappear.
So, if we want to understand people, and how people in com-
munities and societies and other groups function and behave and
interact (and the longevity of such fields as anthropology, sociology,
political science, economics, and marketing suggests we do), then
folklore is possibly the single best barometer we have for under-
standing what is important to a group of people. Sure, we can try
to understand a culture by looking at what it teaches through for-
mal education, but students generally learn the stuff they’re taught
in school because they have to—they’re getting tested on it. If we
look at the stuff that people in any given group—students, parents,
Seventh-Day Adventists, orthodontists, the Irish, whoever—don’t
have to collectively know but all know anyway, then we’re on our
way to really understanding them. And that’s pretty cool.
WaNt to kNoW More?
Bruce Jackson and Edward D. Ives, eds., The World Observed: Reflections on the
Fieldwork Process (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1996).
Sixteen different scholars (not all strictly folklorists) share their fieldwork
experiences in this book, highlighting issues such as ethics, advocacy, identity,
and the very human experience of cultural research.
Edward D. Ives, The Tape-recorded Interview: A Manual for Fieldworkers in Folk-
lore and Oral History (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995).
I know, I know—who even owns a tape-recorder anymore? But despite the
old technology, this short book does a good job of highlighting some of the
What Do Folklorists Do? 35
social issues of collecting folklore. Ignore the outdated technical stuff and
focus on the situational issues that Ives addresses.
Michael Owen Jones and Robert Georges, People Studying People: The Human
Element in Fieldwork (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
This book has interdisciplinary applications but is written by folklorists and
speaks to folklorists well. Much more than objective data gathering, fieldwork
is presented as an interpersonal experiment in communication, compromise,
and reflection. The importance of the relationship between folklorist and
informant is highlighted here.
Paddy Bowman and Lynne Hamer, Through the Schoolhouse Door: Folklore, Com-
munity, Curriculum (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2011).
If you think you’re interested in public folklore and want to know more,
this book is a good starting point. While it’s mainly focused on education
and ways to incorporate folklore into the classroom, it touches on a number
of themes, including the history of public folklore, various applied folklore
projects, and the perspectives of community members as well as students and
1. It can be helpful, before moving on to this second chapter, to revisit what
it is you previously thought folklore was before you picked up this book. It can be
hard to overcome preconceived understandings of a common word like folklore,
and comparing what you previously thought to what you know now can be a good
way to avoid falling back into earlier misconceptions. And anyway, rather than
finding out you were wrong, it’s possible that you may find out you were right, or
at least partially right. More important, with the basic rules of folklore identifica-
tion under your belt, you’ll know why you were right or wrong in your previous
understanding of folklore.
2. Well, we hope they don’t.
3. The analogy to crime starts to gets a tad worrisome here.
4. This is just as cool as being a criminal profiler, I promise.
5. Of course, they also felt that the glorious beacons of the past had been cor-
rupted by all those darned peasants, so for a long time there were a lot of entertain-
ing efforts to re-create the original, more impressive forms of things.
6. Don’t get hung up on the idea of “performance” as meaning purpose-
fully staged or anything. We’re talking about folk performance, which is just the
moments in our normal lives when we switch from daily conversation to telling a
story or joke or to participating in a custom.
7. Alan Dundes is a famous Freudian folklorist; you should read his “Into the
Endzone for a Touchdown: A Psychoanalytic Consideration of American Foot-
ball,” Western Folklore 37 (1978): 75–83. He’s also the same guy who gave us our
current definition of folk group.
What Do Folklorists Do? 36
8. This word isn’t used here in the FBI, ratting-out-the-mob sense; it simply
refers to the person you’re interviewing.
9. People like Anya’s grandfather, people who are known to be ready with a
story, joke, or song, are known as “active bearers” of tradition. Many more people
are “passive bearers,” people who know the stories, customs, and songs but who
don’t regularly offer them up or perform them for others. You can collect folklore
from both types of tradition bearers, but it’s always easier to draw out a passive
bearer’s knowledge if it’s someone you know well. This is a pragmatic thing to keep
in mind if you’re asked to do a collection project for class.
10. We haven’t talked in depth about different genres yet, but take my word for
it that these are in there.
11. And his appearances on Letterman.
12. Jan Harold Brunvand, The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 4th
ed. (New York: Norton, 1998), 25.
13. William Bascom, “The Four Functions of Folklore,” Journal of American
Folklore 67, no. 266 (1954): 333–49.
Types of Folklore
Here’s what this chapter won’t do: this chapter isn’t here
to give you numerous examples of folklore in the sense of giving
you stories to read, customs to try, beliefs to learn about, or any-
thing like that. You can go Google that stuff if you’re interested in
it, or hit the library and find an interesting collection of folklore to
peruse. What this chapter is here to do is tell you about some of
the main types of folklore that folklorists have studied and give you
one or two cool examples of how each one has been approached or
analyzed. Sound boring? It’s not.
As I’ve said in earlier chapters, folklorists study a variety of
genres, or types, of folklore. After reading this section, you should
be able to identify many of the most common ones and to under-
stand how they’re different from each other. What distinguishes
a legend from a myth? A calendar custom from a rite of passage?
You’ll find out!
You’ll also discover how the differences in genres can affect the
way the folklore functions in society. There are hundreds (if not
thousands) of ways to approach each and every genre of folklore,
but after reading this section, you’ll have at least a few analytical
tools in your folklorist tool belt right off the bat. If nothing else,
you’ll come away with some solid examples of what a close exami-
nation of different types of folklore can reveal.
While there are more genres of folklore than can possibly be
listed in one place, one easy way to divide them initially is into
these four basic categories:
Types of Folklore 38
things we say (like jokes, songs, folktales, myths, and
things we do (like calendar customs, rituals, games, and
rites of passage)
things we make (like handmade objects, collections and
assemblages, and folk art)
things we believe (like superstitions, supernatural crea-
tures, and folk religion)1
It’s probably already obvious that there’s a good deal of over-
lap here, especially when it comes to the things we believe. For
example, a legend is something we say about something we believe;
a friendship bracelet is something we make that reflects something
we believe, and a rite of passage is something we do to indicate
something we believe. But as with all the not-so-clear-cut divisions
we’ve made so far, this one is a useful tool for conceptualizing the
breakdown of folklore, even if it’s an oversimplification.
This chapter is going to walk through these four main catego-
ries of folklore, describing the main identifying characteristics of
each and offering some initial examples of analysis.2 Unfortunately
(or fortunately, depending on how tired of reading you are at this
point), there’s not enough space in this short handbook to address
all (or even most) of the subtypes included in each general category
of folklore. Instead, each section below will focus on one or two
major genres of folklore within that category, as an illustration of
thiNgs We say
The category of things we say encompasses all the folklore that
comes out of our mouths or through our fingertips and onto a piece
of paper or a screen. That means jokes, slang, proverbs, riddles,
mnemonic devices, rhymes, songs, oaths, toasts, greetings, leave-
takings—basically tons and tons of forms of folklore—but the
most famous, the most well-known, and the most studied forms of
verbal folklore are stories.3
It’s probably not something you’ve ever thought about con-
sciously, but there is a big difference between beginning a story with
Types of Folklore 39
“Once upon a time . . .” and beginning a story with “You’ll never
believe what happened to my aunt’s hairdresser’s cousin’s roommate
last week!” The main difference is in how we expect our listeners to
react to the story we’re about to tell, and this is an excellent illus-
tration of how important the distinction between genres is in the
realm of folk narrative. When it comes to things we say, folklorists
have mainly studied the longer forms of folklore: the legend, the
folktale, and the myth.4
You probably can already guess that it’s a folktale that begins
with “Once upon a time,” and a legend5 that begins with the
friend-of-a-friend connection.6 So, what’s the difference? Well,
for one, no one tells a folktale as though it actually happened.
“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away” clearly sets a story in
an imaginary place. Thus, when we hear that something amazing
or miraculous happens in the story, we don’t really have cause to
doubt it—it’s fiction!
For example, when someone says to you, “Once upon a time,
in a land far, far away, there was a cat named Puss who wore a lovely
pair of boots and went around making farmers into kings,”7 you’re
not expected to react by saying, “Wait. Hold on a sec. Are you
honestly telling me that this cat could talk, much less wear human
footwear?” By framing this story as a folktale, or as a fictional story,
the teller makes it clear that we’re supposed to just accept what is
happening without question.
On the other hand, if a friend turns to you and says, “You’ll
never believe what I just heard! My mom’s coworker’s stepson just
got this new pet cat and when he got it home it started trying on
his shoes and offering to help him get a promotion at work!” we
absolutely would be expected to respond with disbelief.
This illustrates one of the great distinctions between these two
types of folk narrative: folktales are told as fiction and set in a fic-
tional world, while legends are told as true8 and are set in the real
world. A story told as fiction is entertainment, perhaps escapism for
most people; a story told as true is more of a commentary on con-
temporary life. This gets at the function of these different types of
folklore: legends tend to highlight the stuff that we as a society are
stressed out about; folktales tend to help us forget all that for a time.
Types of Folklore 40
So, if you were a folklorist out collecting stories, it would be
imperative to understand whether you were collecting a folktale or
a legend, especially since the content of the story might be the same
in both (something strange or unexpected, like talking cats). Let’s say
you collected a story about someone dining at a fast-food restaurant
and making the horrible discovery that what he thought was a piece
of chicken was actually a rat. If that story were told as taking place
“once upon a time,” then it wouldn’t have much of a direct soci-
etal impact—who cares if some fictional person ate something gross?
We might see symbolic metaphors in such a story but, as with most
fairytale content, we wouldn’t expect the story’s content to directly
impact our lives.
But if that story is told as true, as having happened to someone
who knows someone you know, someone very similar to yourself,
perhaps, maybe living very close to you (and eating at the same res-
taurants—oh, horror!), then suddenly that story is saying something
more. It’s a direct warning about personal health and well-being,
it’s a public condemnation of a particular business, and it’s a social
commentary on the conditions of modern food production and con-
sumption. The meaning of that particular story is very dependent on
what type of folk narrative it is.
So, we have folktales as fiction and legends as true (though not
necessarily believed); what about myths? Like legends, myths are told
as true, but it’s a different kind of truth: it’s a sacred truth. Far from
the popular use of the word myth to mean “something not true,”
folklorists use this word to refer to a sacred narrative. Sacred to
whom, you might ask? Well, to whatever folk group regularly shares
it. Calling a particular story a myth is making no claim on the factual
reality of that story; it’s simply saying that for the people who share it,
the story articulates a sacred (or at least fundamental) truth. Myths,
like legends, are set in the real world, but often take place in an earlier
version of it—our world as it was coming into being—so that, simi-
lar to folktales, we aren’t intended to readily question the strange or
amazing things that we hear in myths. So where we might see strange
or miraculous events described here, just as in a folktale or a legend,
again, the meaning of the story is unique to the type of narrative. In
a myth, we’re looking at deeply held, fundamental beliefs of a people.
Types of Folklore 41
So, in summary, we have folktales, which are told as fiction, set
in a fictional world, and which are only symbolically true, if pre-
sented or perceived as true at all. We have legends, which are told
as literally true (though not necessarily believed), and set in the real
world. And we have myths, which are told as a sacred truth, and
which are set in a sort of prototype of our world. As you can see,
knowing which genre you’re dealing with when you come across a
story is enormously helpful when it comes to analyzing the mean-
ing and function of that folk narrative.
Imagine that you’re visiting with a friend’s family, and during
a discussion of the family’s immigration to the United States, your
friend’s mother interrupts to say, “You know, back when great-
grandma was a little girl in Sweden, she once saw a jätte in the
forest.” Further explanation reveals that a jätte is a giant, and that
your informant’s family regularly tells the story of their ancestor’s
sighting of one with pride. The mother’s language tells you that this
is a legend—the story is pitched as historical, taking place in the
past but in the knowable past, not an ambiguous past of “long, long
ago,” and in a particular place, Sweden, rather than “a land far, far
away.” When you ask if the story is true, however, your informants
demure, saying that they don’t know for sure, that it’s always been
told that way in the family, that it’s maybe possible, because things
like that happened in the past, but they can’t be certain.
Consider what you know about the context of this telling of
the story—it came up right as discussion was turning to the time
when the family left Sweden for America, and it brought the con-
versation back to the topic of Swedish culture. Your friend’s family
evinces a clear pride in their heritage, and you learn through dis-
cussion that the sighting of a jätte is a special thing—it’s a marker
of genuinely being a Swede. You get the distinct impression that
your friend’s mother wants her great-grandmother to have seen a
jätte, to have this uniquely Swedish experience be a part of her fam-
ily history. It’s not enough to simply tell the story abstractly, or to
have heard about the jätte; the use of the legend genre ties it to the
family’s reality in a way that clearly matters to the family’s percep-
tion and presentation of its own identity. The genre of the narrative
clearly supports the story’s function within the folk group.
Types of Folklore 42
Interestingly, we see the different types of folk narrative rise
and fall in popularity over time.9 Currently, legends are the most
actively circulating form of narrative folklore.10 We rarely encoun-
ter folktales or myths in oral form—they tend to come to us in
print. What does this mean for these stories? Are they still folklore
if they’re printed in books?
Yes, they’re certainly still folklore, but since folklore is so largely
defined by its process, they can’t really be considered living folk-
lore—they’re more like a record of once-living folklore. Think of
it this way: when an archaeologist digs up an arrowhead and puts
it in a museum, is it still an arrowhead? Sure. But to be in its most
genuine context of use, that arrowhead should really be at the tip
of an arrow, aimed at an animal during a hunt, or in a toolmaker’s
hands, being carefully shaped and honed. We can learn a lot about
the arrowhead by looking at it in the museum, but we’re missing
a major aspect of its true cultural existence as an object, an aspect
we can only guess at or imagine from the museum display. We’re
also left to wonder if this arrowhead is representative of all arrow-
heads. Was it made using a common technique or one unique to
a particular toolmaker? We would be hesitant to consider this one
arrowhead as representative of all arrowheads, or of a whole group
of people who used arrowheads, without knowing the ways that it
was similar to or different from other arrowheads.
Another good analogy is the study of a dead bee pinned to a
card. We can learn an enormous amount about that bee: the struc-
ture and systems of its body, its size, shape, form, color, and so on.
And if we had lots of bees to look at, we could get a sense of the
general range of these qualities—what’s considered “typical” of bee
form and physiology. But what we don’t learn a whole lot about is
flight. And how can we really say that we fully understand bees if
we don’t watch them fly?
This true for stories, too. Just as with the bees and arrowheads,
we can learn a whole lot about a folktale or a myth or a legend by
examining printed texts. We can scrutinize a single printed version
of a story. Ideally, we’ll be able to compare many versions (assuming
we have many printed versions) of a story side by side and learn the
breadth of variation in form, length, content, and so on. We can
Types of Folklore 43
study the structure of the story: the dynamic qualities that change
and the conservative qualities that remain consistent. But to truly
understand a folk narrative, we have to watch it fly. We have to be
there when it’s told so we can observe the teller and the listeners;
we have to pay attention to the reactions of the audience and the
actions of the performer. Only then can we truly grasp the full pic-
ture of a folk narrative.11
This is why many folklorists prefer to study contemporary,
actively circulating folklore rather than the folklore of the past; it’s
easier to get the full picture. But of course, this isn’t always pos-
sible—sometimes the folklore that one wants to study simply isn’t
actively circulating anymore. Ideally, even if a piece of folklore isn’t
in active use, the folklorist who documented it will have used the
techniques we discussed in chapter 2—documenting not only the
text but the context and texture as well, so that future researchers
could approximate the experience of watching the bee in flight.
Unfortunately, that concentrated focus on context and texture is
somewhat new, and not many folklorists of the past took the time
to document those details. That doesn’t mean that the folklore isn’t
worth studying—no archaeologist would say that we might as well
give up studying arrowheads just because we can’t go back in time
to watch them in use—but it means that we’re limited in how far
our contextual analysis can go.
Want to Know More?
William Bascom, “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives,” Journal of American
Folklore 78 (January–March 1965): 3–20.
This is the quintessential article that delineates the differences between folk
narrative types, and here’s where you’ll find a full elaboration of the distin-
guishing characteristics of folktales, legends, and myths.
Kirin Narayan, Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon: Himalayan Foothill Folk-
tales (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
This is a collection of folktales from the Himalayan foothills, presented
alongside ethnographic descriptions of the contexts within which they were
collected. This is a great attempt to get away from the bee-on-a-card type
of story collection; it really works at describing flight as well. Readers get to
know the stories, but they get to know the teller and the collector, too, and
better understand their relationship with each other and with the stories.
Jan Harold Brunvand, Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends
(New York: Norton, 2001).
Types of Folklore 44
Jan Brunvand has written a number of books about urban legends, and any
one of them makes for a fun read. This one is a compendium of many stories
included in his earlier books, each documented with historical background
and information to help in the debunking (and occasional proving true!) of
William G. Doty, Myth: A Handbook (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004).
A lot of books out there about myths aren’t written by folklorists, and, as you
now know, folklorists take a very specific view of what makes a story a myth.
This book both acknowledges the folklorist’s purist view and goes beyond
it, to give a comprehensive understanding of how the word is used in other
fields as well.
thiNgs We do
When it comes to things we do, we’re entering an incredibly broad
area of folklore studies. Customs (like holiday traditions), gestures
(like a thumbs-up or flipping someone off), parties (like costume
parties or tea parties), rituals (like fraternity or sorority initia-
tions, or bar mitzvahs), celebrations (like sixteenth or twenty-first
birthdays), dances (like the two-step, the “Macarena,” the electric
slide, the chicken dance), games (like kick the can, tag, capture
the flag, and four-square12) . . . these are all things we do, and
since many of them exist in forms that we learn informally, from
our experiences in regular, everyday life, they fall under the pur-
view of folklore. The quality these things all share in common, of
course, is that they all require some kind of action—some type of
body movement or physical participation in the tradition. Thus,
the modes of transmission for this kind of folklore are largely
observational. Unlike a legend, which can be e-mailed as easily as
told in person, it’s not so easy to e-mail someone a Thanksgiving
dinner celebration. Maybe you could e-mail someone an aspect
of the custom, like a photo of the turkey or a copy of the toast
someone gave, but not the whole experience.
This necessary level of engagement makes customs and events
a super-fun form of folklore to study. Try asking different members
of your family to describe a typical holiday celebration—you’ll be
surprised how much meaning different people can place on dif-
ferent aspects of a holiday. In fact, it’s in traditional celebrations
of holidays that we can see one of folklore’s biggest impacts on
Types of Folklore 45
the lived experience: anyone who has married or moved in with
someone who decorates a Christmas tree differently (blinking
lights?! Who would do such a thing?) or who bakes the “wrong”
kind of pie at Thanksgiving (pumpkin is, I’m sure we all agree, the
only acceptable kind) or who never made green pancakes/beer/
milk on St. Patrick’s Day (blasphemy!) has likely experienced the
surprising impact that deeply ingrained customs can have on a
It can be hard to determine clear-cut boundaries for many
examples of customary folklore. When does a meal begin—with
the cooking or the eating?13 Does party prep or cleanup count
as a traditional part of a traditional celebration? What aspects of
the custom are dictated by tradition (foods? words? actions?), and
which are nontraditional or up to individual choice (dress? contri-
butions? arrival time?)? These questions can make the documenta-
tion and analysis of customary folklore quite tricky.
Imagine that a classmate is describing to you a weekly tradi-
tion he participates in, where a number of people gather each
week to sing folk songs together. You may assume that you’re
about to hear a lot of folk songs that your classmate sings, but
when you initially ask him to tell you about it, he begins by
explaining the group’s history, which predates his participation
in it. Then, his descriptions of the actual events don’t really seem
to focus only on the singing—there are desserts made and shared,
beverages contributed, inside jokes told and retold, and the criss-
crossing relationships of the people in the group—many of whom
know each other from different, overlapping associations—often
determine the shifting topics of discussion. When you ask directly
about the songs they sing, there seem to be some unspoken rules
at work: your classmate perceives that some songs “belong” to
certain people, while others are more general. He describes a few
times when someone clearly “stole” someone else’s song and there
was notable tension in the group, but when pressed, he claims
that no one really owns any of the songs, but that they’re just
sometimes so tied to a particular singer that it might as well be a
different song altogether when sung by someone else. He suggests
that you join him one week, and you find yourself wondering
Types of Folklore 46
how successfully you’d navigate the unspoken undercurrents of
How would you go about collecting and documenting that
weekly custom from your classmate? If you were transcribing his
words, at what point in his explanation would you choose to start
the “text” section of your documentation? When he described the
group’s history? When he detailed his initial participation? How
would you account for the numerous other folkloric elements of
the event—the foodways, the jokes, the folk songs—that emerge
from within the overall custom? What contexts would you need
to describe—the general context of the weekly gathering, or the
individual contexts of each singer’s age, gender, skill, repertoire,
prior relationships, and longevity in the group? If the same song
sung by two different people is so different as to be perceived as
a separate song, would you document it twice? Just from this one
example, it should be clear that the realm of “things we do” is
quite (excitingly) complicated.
When we talk about customary celebrations, we can divide
them into two main types: calendar customs and rites of passage.
These two forms of custom are distinguished mainly by the way
they relate to time.14
Calendar customs are cyclical, they happen over and over again,
following a regular pattern within the year or the seasons. That can
mean a custom happens every year (Hanukkah, Valentine’s Day,
Flag Day), every quarter (solstice and equinox), every month
(date night, book club), or even every week (Pancake Sundays,
your classmate’s weekly folk song gathering). Rites of passage, in
contrast, happen linearly, over the course of a lifetime (like baby
showers, getting a driver’s license, buying a drink at twenty-one,
marriage, divorce, remarriage, retirement, and death). We can
envision the temporal difference like this, with the calendar cus-
toms on the left and rites of passage on the right:
Types of Folklore 47
Along with the difference in temporal movement, there’s an
equitable difference in function. Calendar customs serve to remind
us of the consistencies in life, while rites of passage highlight the
transitions. Both of these types of custom can be purely cultural
(meaning that the subject of celebration is a human invention: the
Fourth of July or being able to drive at sixteen), or they can follow
a physical or biological reality (meaning that the event would hap-
pen even if people didn’t celebrate it: solstices and equinoxes, or the
onset of puberty). They can often appear in institutional forms that
are celebrated in folk ways (a family’s Fourth of July BBQ tradition
while observing the city’s fireworks display overhead), or in entirely
folk forms (small-scale things like Pancake Sunday or first-day-of-
school celebrations, things that may not be celebrated outside of
that group at all).
Rites of passage are especially interesting because throughout
time, a consistent pattern has emerged in the way that groups of
people acknowledge these transitions in life. Whether they’re a bio-
logical reality or we’ve just made them up, the turning points in
human beings’ lives often bring about a sudden change in social
status or a shift in responsibilities. As many teenagers have thought-
fully observed, there’s really very little difference between someone
at fifteen years 364 days and someone at sixteen. And yet, legally
and socially, that single day makes a world of difference. There’s
a whole new realm of life to engage in, and a whole new set of
responsibilities that come along with it. This is where rites of pas-
sage come into play—the celebration can help transition birthday
boys or girls by providing them with a physical enactment of their
otherwise conceptual or abstract status change.15
Types of Folklore 48
Rites of passage typically fall into three stages. The first is where
the subject of the celebration is separated out from the rest of the
crowd and identified as unique. We can see this stage in everything
from a birthday boy or girl being made to wear a funny hat to an
initiate into a secret society being asked to wear ceremonial dress
or abstain from normal activities. The second stage is defined by
its in betweenness (folklorists like to use the word liminality, as
“liminal” means “in between,” and as it sounds more academic than
in betweenness, which isn’t actually a word anyway). This is where
we see crazy fun stuff happening—all conventions go out the win-
dow. We spank people for their birthdays, eat and drink in copious
quantities, act silly and out of character—all the stuff we typically
associate with “celebration.” Because this middle stage is so often
equated with normalcy being turned upside down, folklorists will
often use the word carnivalesque to describe the types of things that
go on.16 The final stage is when the subject is reincorporated back
into regular everyday life, but with a greater ability to accept the
new role or new responsibilities that come with the new stage of
life. The rite of passage helps the transition feel less arbitrary.
It’s important to note that the middle stage, the liminal stage,
is really the most interesting. This is where folklorists get to jump
in and apply all sorts of cool theoretical ideas about the ways that
humans function in groups. One particularly cool idea is that in
the liminal middle stage of a rite of passage, not only are norms
and conventions set aside, but all cultural identifiers are dropped—
things like class and gender and relationship status. So, during these
times we may see children ordering their parents around, we may
see dressing down, dressing up, or cross-dressing, we may even go
around kissing strangers. Folklorists have theorized that this loss
of identity is what allows a new identity to be donned when the
celebration is over—we have to be undressed before we can put on
new clothes. Some folklorists also think that the occasional release
afforded by rites of passage helps maintain order the rest of the
time. Knowing you can cut loose and go crazy once in a while
makes it easier to maintain order on the whole.
We can see this three-part structure on both large and small
scales, even for the same transition point. Take engagement, for
Types of Folklore 49
example. On its own, the entire period of engagement could be
seen as the middle stage of the rite of passage of marriage—the
point where the couple is in between singledom and marriage. Or,
we could look at a specific celebration during this time, such as
a bachelor or bachelorette party, and consider the three phases of
that event: when the person is singled out as the focus of the party
(the bride- or groom-to-be may be made to wear silly clothing or
identifying accessories), followed by the carnivalesque celebration
itself (which may include excessive consumption of food and drink,
flirtatious or licentious behavior, or the purposeful embarrassment
of the bride or groom), and then the reincorporation into normal
life, better prepared socially for the upcoming change.
An interesting thing to consider is the way in which this often-
unconscious pattern, once recognized, is used by groups that want
to consciously create a new identity for someone. Whether it’s a
fraternity or sorority bringing in new pledges, an office bringing
a new employee into the fold, or even a family welcoming a new
in-law, there are often rites of passage that consciously follow this
pattern, incorporating symbols that reflect the group identity into
When I was a student, I attended Memorial University of
Newfoundland (a good school for folklore studies). Newfoundland
is an island off the eastern coast of Canada, and Newfoundlanders—a
culture with a wonderfully strong and self-aware sense of group
identity—have developed a rite of passage17 that they employ
to turn visitors and outsiders to their culture into “honorary”
Newfoundlanders. The process, referred to as getting “screeched in,”
involves a number of activities that use many stereotypical markers
of Newfoundland identity: kissing a dead cod fish, eating local food
like cods’ tongues, wearing a fisherman’s coat or hat, standing in a
bucket of seawater,18 drinking a locally made rum,19 and reciting
a complicated sentence in an extreme local vernacular speech and
accent. The symbolism of Newfoundland identity that’s employed
in the screech-in is completely over the top, and isn’t necessarily
representative of all (or even many!) Newfoundlanders (just as the
stereotypical American love of apple pie and baseball doesn’t neces-
sarily apply to most individual Americans). The screech-in has been
Types of Folklore 50
criticized by many Newfoundlanders as offensive and demeaning,
and yet the tradition persists.
This is an excellent example of a rite of passage that is not what
it seems to be on the surface. It consciously uses all the tropes of
a rite of passage to transition a person from one state to another
(from a non-Newfoundlander to a Newfoundlander), though all
parties involved are fully aware that the honoree has not in any way
become a true Newfoundlander, even at the end of the ceremony.
And while the symbolism appears to play to a potentially offensive
stereotypical image of a Newfoundlander (a cod fisherman who eats
questionable food and speaks unintelligibly), the undercurrents of
offense are more complicated them simple mockery. A fellow stu-
dent of mine explained her opinion that the screech-in isn’t offen-
sive by observing, “First, Newfoundlanders, in general, can take a
joke. Secondly, we can laugh at ourselves along with others. Third,
we know that the way in which the Newfoundland ‘screecher’ is
portrayed is not at all representative of Newfoundlanders or of
the province as a whole. The joke thus falls on the outsider.”20 So,
despite appearances, we have neither of the two most obvious possi-
bilities for analyzing or understanding this custom. It’s not a genu-
ine initiation, nor is it an offensive mockery of the local culture.
It’s a complicated mix of purposes and meanings, and the goals
and outcomes are likely different for insiders and for outsiders. As
simple as the idea of a rite of passage may be, there’s typically more
going on than meets the eye.
Here’s a fun thing to try: take a moment and consider what a
rite of passage to make someone an honorary person-who’s-from-
where-you’re-from would entail. What foods would you make
someone eat, what clothing would they wear, what would they have
to say or do to embody a generalized local identity? How much do
you yourself conform to the stereotypical identity that you’d con-
struct for your hometown or school or region or state? How much
more accurate would the representation be if you were creating a
ceremony to induct someone into your family versus your city or
state? Considering these questions highlights the level of complex-
ity that goes into any analysis of customary folklore.
Types of Folklore 51
Want to Know More?
Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,
This book, first written in French in 1909, is the one to read if you’re inter-
ested in rites of passage; almost all other studies written since reference it. If
you find the three-part breakdown interesting, this is where you’ll find a full
elaboration of the concept.
Jack Santino, Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life (Knoxville: Univer-
sity of Tennessee Press, 1994).
If calendar customs interest you, then this is a good resource to check out.
The focus of the collected essays is (obviously) on Halloween, but hey, it’s one
of the most fun holidays, and there is good generalizable information on the
concept of seasonal festivals as well.
thiNgs We Make
When most people think of folk objects (often referred to as “mate-
rial culture” by folklorists), they usually think of handmade goods:
furniture, tools, clothing, quilts, decorative cross-stitching, and
the like. Handcrafts are, indeed, one of the most studied forms of
material culture. For a long period of history, if you wanted some-
thing you had to make it; one result of this is that the qualities of
folklore (variation and tradition) were easily found in many of the
objects that people had in their homes—they had learned the gen-
eral form and style of furniture from those around them (tradition),
and through varied levels of ability and creativity they’d add their
own individual touches (variation).
These days, we get most of the “necessary” goods in our lives
from commercial rather than social processes, and so any obvi-
ous folk qualities in things like furniture, tools, and clothing are
diminished. As much as you want to claim that your IKEA chair
is based on a traditional Swedish form, it was still produced (if not
put together) in a factory somewhere, identical to all other chairs
produced the same way.
The stuff that the majority of us tend to make by hand these
days is usually (though not always) the unnecessary stuff—paper
airplanes, crafts, yard art, and so on—and it’s in these types of cre-
ations that we can still find a lot of folk variation. Interestingly,
the materials used for these kinds of objects are often appropriated
Types of Folklore 52
or found objects: jewelry or accessories made from food wrappers,
yard sculptures made from bottles or old machine parts, notebook
paper transformed into airplanes or cootie-catchers.21 Rather than
the romantic idea of harvesting and hand-hewing the goods we
need from the natural landscape, our contemporary material cul-
ture reflects our contemporary reality: we’re finding creative ways
to use junk and excess and make it an expressive component of our
lives. This is absolutely a form of “traditional material culture,” just
as much as a handmade object made from natural substances.
Not only do mass-produced objects become folk objects when
they are turned into something else, but even when they are used
in an unexpected, traditional way we can start to identify them
as a part of folklore. Ever gone on a trip and taken a small toy
or figurine with you to photograph in different places? Ever seen
all the pictures online of garden gnomes on vacations in different
spots? This tradition of travel mascots22 is another way in which a
mass-produced object can become a folk object, and some institu-
tions have even picked up on the process. The Flat Stanley proj-
ect,23 in which schoolchildren draw a picture of a flat boy and then
mail him to faraway family and friends with a request for photos of
Stanley in different spots, is basically the commodification24 of the
folk travel mascot model.
Collections of objects, or, to use a fancier term, assemblages,25
are another example of this phenomenon. Since people rarely go
around designing and making their stuff by hand anymore, we
see people expressing their material individuality through the tra-
ditional practice of collecting things: souvenirs, spoons, magnets,
shot glasses, and even more unusual things like colorful socks or
midcentury lamps. Anything that involves the bringing together of
a set of like objects can qualify as a traditional collection, whether
the likeness is found in theme, function, source, or whatever. We
also see group collections, compiled not by an individual but by a
bunch of people together, like the collection of candles, figurines,
notes, and flowers that appears at spontaneous shrines to memorial-
ize accident victims.
In addition, mass-produced items can become traditional in
the way they are passed on: items of family history that are handed
Types of Folklore 53
down generationally, prank pass-around gifts that regularly go back
and forth among families or between two friends, bookcrossing
books26 that are passed from reader to reader. This emphasizes one of
the more important aspects of resituating a mass-produced object as
a folk object: there needs to be some kind of repeated pattern. Keep
in mind that an object can be important and meaningful without
being a “folk” object—we’re going to need some evidence of both
tradition and variation in order to call it a folk object, and looking
for a repeated pattern can help us do that.
The pattern that helps us identify a meaningful object as spe-
cifically a folk object can be a pattern of use (an object is repeatedly
used at certain times and in certain ways, like a travel mascot or a
special platter brought out for every holiday dinner), a pattern of
creation (a type of object that is created regularly, over and over
again, like a paper airplane or bubblegum-wrapper chain or a col-
lection that’s always growing), or a pattern of passing on (an object
that has been continually handed on, shared, or circulated among a
group of people, like a family heirloom or a pass-around gift). Once
there’s a pattern there, we start entering into the realm of tradition
and open the door for the possibility of variation.
Imagine that you’re planning to collect material culture from
your own family members, and after you explain the concept to
them, they deliver to you a variety of objects: a friendship bracelet
made by your sister, a necklace that once belonged to your great-
great-grandmother that your mother wears every year at the holi-
days, and a small dog figurine that your nephew bought with his
allowance and gave to your brother for his birthday. Clearly you’ve
got a variety of meaningful objects in front of you, but determin-
ing whether or not they’re folk objects isn’t the easiest thing. All
three of these things are clearly very personally meaningful within
your family, and if you interviewed the donors you’d get some really
great explanations of how the objects came into their lives and what
makes them meaningful. In order to determine if you’re dealing with
folklore, though, you’ll want to consider each object with regard to
the patterns of use, creation, or passing on that they all entail.
The friendship bracelet is pretty straightforward, right? There’s
obviously a pattern of creation: this object is handmade, using a
Types of Folklore 54
technique that your sister learned from her friends on the swim
team, and this individual bracelet, like all the others she’s made,
uses a common and easy-to-produce design that your sister has
enhanced with her own creative embellishments and color choices.
Other girls on the swim team make similar, but not identical,
bracelets on a regular basis. There’s tradition in the style and tech-
nique, and variation in the color choices and unique pattern of
knots. Clearly a folk object.
What about the necklace? It once belonged to your great-
great-grandmother and now it belongs to her great granddaugh-
ter, your mother. It’s not handmade—it probably came from a
jewelry store, though no one knows for sure. There’s the possibil-
ity that you can find a pattern of passing on here, since the neck-
lace once belonged to an older family member and now belongs
to a younger, but your mother admits that her great-grandmother
didn’t necessarily set the necklace aside for her, and neither did
any of the generations in between. It was simply kept in the fam-
ily, and when your mother discovered it in her mother’s things,
she kept it for remembrance. That leaves us with a possible pat-
tern of use—is this object used in a way that makes it traditional?
It seems it is: your mother wears it at the same time every year, at
the holidays. She doesn’t wear it all the time, or even often, but
she subscribes to a repeated, traditional use of this object as part
of her celebration of a calendar custom. The necklace, through its
pattern of use, has become a folk object.27
Which leaves the dog figurine. Initially, this one may seem
similar to the necklace—it’s not handmade, so there’s no pattern
of creation, and while it was given as a gift, there’s no pattern of
passing on regularly. Is there a pattern of use? Let’s imagine that
your brother tells you that ever since he got the dog figurine from
his son, he’s kept it on his bedside table. This isn’t really a pat-
tern of use, it’s more an issue of consistent display—the object may
be meaningful, but there’s no pattern that involves any action or
intent on your brother’s part, not in the creation, use, or passing on
of this object. Survey says: not a folk object.
Now, this is a very fine distinction, right? It wouldn’t take
much to add in an element that would instantly transform this
Types of Folklore 55
meaningful, nonfolk object into a meaningful folk object. Perhaps
your brother decides he likes the gift so much that he’s going to
start a collection of dog figurines. Every time he finds one, he’ll add
it to the collection, and the family will quickly learn of his interest
and start buying them as gifts for him, thus starting a pattern of
creation. Or perhaps your brother begins a tradition of taking the
dog with him whenever he travels for work, and reporting back to
his son all the adventures the dog has while away, thus creating a
pattern of use. Or perhaps your brother will wrap the small dog up
in a giant, misleading box for Christmas and return it to his son, or
pass it on to another family member, with the expectation that it
will continue circulating through the family, thus creating a pattern
of passing on. In these ways, the dog figurine could easily become
a folk object.
As should be clear now, folk objects are different from the
word- and action-based genres in several ways—the variation and
repetition that we look for as markers of “folk” status don’t manifest
in the same way, since objects have physical permanence in ways
words and actions don’t. This lingering quality, while it may make it
harder to witness dynamic variation, does offer a significant benefit.
When someone finishes telling a story, it’s gone; when someone
finishes using a piece of jewelry, compiling a collection of objects,
or making a candy-wrapper chain, it remains. It may be dropped,
perhaps considered lost, but it’s not gone. Material culture can exist
separately from the people who create it, and that makes it an excel-
lent record of the past.
Want to Know More?
Henry Glassie, Material Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).
This is a wonderful comprehensive approach to the study of material culture.
Glassie covers the methods of material culture study and then provides exam-
ples of his own work to illustrate his ideas (and includes pictures!).
James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life
(New York: Anchor Books, 1977).
This book is written by a historical archaeologist who aims to illustrate how
paying attention to everyday material culture can illuminate an understand-
ing of the past. Especially useful to students of history, Deetz’s book covers
everything from pottery remnants to vernacular architecture. You’ll never
look at all the stuff in your house the same way again.
Types of Folklore 56
Michael Owen Jones, The Handmade Object and Its Maker (Berkeley and Los
Angeles: University of California Press, 1975).
This book presents an interesting portrait of a single folk artist, a maker of
Appalachian chairs, and his creations. It shows the depth of understanding
that can be gained from a single, focused case study, and stands in contrast to
the more comparative method that folklorists often employ.
thiNgs We BelieVe
As I explained earlier, the category of things we believe overlaps
with all the other forms of folklore quite regularly. As a discrete
form of folklore, however, the phrase “folk belief ” is commonly
understood to refer to superstitions, legends,28 and beliefs about
the supernatural. Now, there’s one very important thing to note
at the outset of any discussion about folk belief, and that is that
folklore can be true. It certainly isn’t always true, despite often being
believed, but the classification of something as folklore does not
mean that it’s specifically not true.
This is one of those preconceived notions that folklorists are
constantly working against—“folklore” is a word that in common
use is dismissive: “Oh, that’s just folklore!” Think back to what we
said about legends just a few pages ago; they’re told as true, right?
Well, some of them are true, and some of them aren’t.29 Whether
they’re true or not isn’t the reason folklorists are interested in them;
all folklorists care about is that they are shared among a group
via word-of-mouth transmission, prompting us to ask why they
remain popular. Rarely does the answer have to do with the literal
truth or untruth of the story. So while it’s a popular pastime to test
or try out various folk beliefs and legends,30 the final determination
is mostly just an interesting side note next to the social and cultural
forces within a group that keep a story, custom, or belief afloat.
For a long time in the history of folklore scholarship, super-
natural folk beliefs were one of the forms of folklore that allowed
scholars to see themselves as superior to “the folk”—clearly any-
one who believed in such ridiculous things as good-luck charms,
curses, fairies, ghosts, Bigfoot, vampires, werewolves, and the like
were simply uneducated and deluded by the traditional beliefs of
their equally misguided communities, right? Wrong, as it turns out.
Types of Folklore 57
Just as we now understand that everyone is folk, we also understand
that everyone—even scientists!—has folk beliefs. Whether they’re
to do with luck, the supernatural, the nature of the universe, reli-
gion, or whatever, all people have folk components to their beliefs
systems, components that work in tandem with their more official
beliefs to create a functioning and complex system.
People often assume that as scientific understanding increases,
folk belief in the supernatural will decrease. This seems to make
sense—as we come to understand the scientific mechanisms behind
natural phenomena, we’ll no longer need supernatural explana-
tions—but this isn’t borne out in fact. Supernatural belief hasn’t
declined much at all in the past century despite incredible advances
in science, and as with all folklore, it’s the job of folklorists to show
up and start asking why.
The field of folklore studies offers two alternative explanations
for supernatural belief: the cultural source hypothesis and the experi-
ential source hypothesis.31 According to the first, a person who sub-
scribes to a particular supernatural belief does so because his or her
culture has said that it’s true. In other words, if you grew up in a
family or community or culture that tells you that Bigfoot roams
around in the forest on the edge of town, then you’ll believe in
Bigfoot. Perhaps in the woods one day you might imagine that you
see a mysterious figure or hear a strange noise, and you’ll assume it’s
Bigfoot, whom you’ve been culturally prepped to believe in.
The other option is that instead of culture being the source for
a belief, actual experience is. Let’s consider Bigfoot again.32 If you
have grown up never having believed in Bigfoot (or Sasquatch, or
the Yeti, or the Skunk Ape), you may still find yourself, out in the
woods one day, encountering or observing something that you can’t
explain. You go through the possibilities: could I be hearing and
seeing a regular kind of animal? Could I be disoriented somehow?
Could I be mistaken? If you can’t find another explanation, you
may conclude that you may have seen Bigfoot or, if you’ve never
heard of Bigfoot, you may decide that you’ve seen some other crea-
ture that you have heard of, or perhaps an unnamed monster (and
in that case, it might actually be more reassuring to be able to put a
name like Bigfoot to it!).
Types of Folklore 58
The difference between these two hypotheses is clear: accord-
ing to the first, the source of supernatural belief is cultural;
according to the second, the source of supernatural belief is an
actual experience. Often, there’s a bit of both in any given belief
scenario—culture supplies the name “Bigfoot” and the expecta-
tion of that creature’s habitat and activities, while a genuine unex-
plainable sight, sound, or sensation leads to the application of
that cultural info to a specific experience—but there are some
important implications of both approaches that we need to be
For a long time, the cultural source hypothesis was all that
folklorists had to work with; it was assumed that people believed
in supernatural things because their culture told them to believe
in them. While there is undeniably an element of culture in many
supernatural beliefs, this unfortunately carries the implication that
the people in question aren’t very smart—that they’re deluded or
led astray by their traditional beliefs. Thus, the experiential source
hypothesis has had a huge impact on folklore studies, for two
main reasons. One, it shows that people who believe in supernatu-
ral things aren’t just dumb or deluded or crazy. Sometimes they are
rationally perceiving a real situation, even if their interpretation of
that perception can’t be verified.
In addition to giving people some credit for being thoughtful
and rational, the experiential source hypothesis also shows that
sometimes folk beliefs are actually onto something—when a belief
exists cross-culturally, and the sources of the beliefs are largely
experiential, there may be a real thing happening. This has been
borne out in a number of studies, most notably folklorist David
Hufford’s work with the Old Hag tradition.33
There is a traditional belief in Newfoundland34 (and in other
places, but Newfoundland is where Hufford started studying it) of
a frightening creature called the Old Hag who comes into people’s
rooms at night, slowly approaches the bed, and then sits either on
the bed or on the person, crushing or suffocating them. Hufford
interviewed lots of people who believe in this creature, and they
reported that when they see the Old Hag they are definitely
awake and not dreaming, and that they can’t move, they’re totally
Types of Folklore 59
paralyzed. Only when they’re finally able to make even the slight-
est movement—twitching a finger, maybe—do they break free.
Now here’s the thing: Hufford started giving lectures on this
Newfoundland folk belief at different universities and colleges, and
it wasn’t long before students began coming up to him and saying
thing like, “I’ve never heard of this Old Hag you’re talking about,
but I’ve totally had that happen to me!” This is where we start to
see that the cultural source hypothesis isn’t enough to explain this
belief—how could someone who’d never heard of the Old Hag
experience it? Hufford began interviewing tons more people, those
who’d heard of the Old Hag and those who hadn’t, and found that
an enormous number of people had had this terrifying experience.
The ones who were familiar with the tradition could easily clas-
sify their experience, but those who had no cultural explanation
simply filled in the blanks with their own interpretation of what
had happened: demon attack, haunting, evil spirits, very realistic
nightmare, and so on.
What Hufford found in the end is that people experiencing
the Old Hag are experiencing a sleep disorder called “sleep paraly-
sis with hypnagogic hallucinations.” And not only were his infor-
mants genuinely experiencing something, they were also describing
it almost as accurately as modern medicine has been able to do,
though some people were using cultural language rather than medi-
cal language.35 What can we take from this? That sometimes folk
beliefs represent a rational, intelligent assessment of reality. While
culture plays a role in belief, so does real experience. This is a far cry
from the days of assuming that people believe in stuff because they
are uneducated or simple.
The giant squid—once a legendary creature from sailors’ tales
and now a marine museum curiosity—is another great example of
the role that rational experience plays in the formation and propa-
gation of supernatural beliefs. By listening to the stories of giant
squid sightings, and by paying attention to the consistencies in
timing, weather, and oceanic conditions, marine biologist Fredrick
Aldrich was able to obtain fifteen specimens of a creature that many
people thought didn’t actually exist.36 Clearly there is value in con-
sidering the possible experiential sources of folk beliefs.
Types of Folklore 60
Now, does this mean that every single folk belief is just waiting
to be proven scientifically true at some later date? Probably not.
But what it does mean is that we can’t dismiss these things, and we
can’t assume that people who subscribe to supernatural beliefs are
somehow less intelligent or less rational than others.
If you’re out in the world collecting folklore and you run into
people who begin telling you stories of ghosts they’ve seen, aliens
they’ve encountered, demonic possessions they’ve witnessed, or
creatures they believe are living on the edges of their community,
the single worst thing you can do is scoff at them. For one, it’s
insulting, and folklorists should never be rude. But more than that,
you stand to miss out on something really interesting. It’s very easy
when you encounter supernatural folk beliefs to dismiss them, espe-
cially if you yourself aren’t inclined to believe in such things. But it’s
imperative that you remember that people can be rational without
being correct. You don’t need to agree with their conclusions about
what they witnessed or experienced in order to accept that they may
be accurately describing what they witnessed or experienced. They
may use terminology that is specific to their cultural background,
but that doesn’t mean that their culture is the only possible source
for their belief.
Despite what many people think, few people jump to super-
natural conclusions—it’s much more common that people consider
natural or scientific explanations for unexplained events before
deciding that it must have been supernatural. Giving your infor-
mants the benefit of the doubt that they are being rational, intel-
ligent human beings is one of the best ways to approach the collec-
tion of supernatural folk beliefs.
You’ll probably also run into people who classify what they feel
is “supernatural” in ways you don’t—many people who scoff at the
notion of aliens and vampires may fully believe in ghosts and angels
because in their perceptions those are aspects of religion, not the
supernatural. It can take careful investigation to parse through an
individual’s belief system. It also appears that when it comes to basic
things like luck superstitions (you know the ones: black cats, ladders,
mirrors, rabbits’ feet, etc.), humans may actually be hardwired to
buy into them. Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner (famed creator
Types of Folklore 61
of the “Skinner Box,” aka the operant conditioning chamber) found
that even the humble pigeon gives into the urge to re-create ritu-
ally a situation in which a random lucky occurrence happens.37
When researchers would randomly drop food on the pigeons, they’d
observe the pigeons later attempting to re-create whatever it was
they were doing when the food appeared, apparently in the hopes
of making it appear again. Apply this to sports fans, and you’ve
got the brain mechanism behind never washing your lucky socks,
since your team won its first game when (and maybe because!) you
were wearing them. I am not in any way intending to pejoratively
connect sports fans to pigeons in psychological functioning—the
fact is that we all give in to the desire to control the uncontrollable
through traditional means. Even while our rational brains are scold-
ing us for being ridiculous, many of us still find ourselves backing
out from under ladders, knocking on wood, forwarding that chain
letter, and tossing salt over our shoulders, just in case.
Want to Know More?
David J. Hufford, The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered
Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions (Philadelphia: University of Penn-
sylvania Press, 1989).
This is an incredible illustration of the importance of paying serious attention
to folk beliefs. Hufford’s work combines careful fieldwork with insightful
interpretation, and is one of those books that makes you look at the super-
natural in a different light. It also has lots of fun, scary stories about the Old
Hag in it, so it’s an enjoyable read.
Wayland Hand, ed., Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina,
vols. 6 and 7 of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1964).
You may be able to find this collection only in the reference section of your
library, but it’s worth the search. It’s a classic example of old-style folklore
collecting: superstition after superstition, listed and numbered and (occasion-
ally) attributed to a person or region. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn.
Diane Goldstein, Sylvia Grider, and Jeanie Banks Thomas, Haunting Experiences:
Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2007).
With a focus on contemporary ghost beliefs, this readable collection of essays
highlights the fact that supernatural belief is here to stay. Topics range from
science to gender to haunted real estate (did you know that some states require
you to alert buyers to the fact that your house may be haunted?).
Types of Folklore 62
1. William A. “Bert” Wilson first suggested this division. You can read more
about it in his collected essays (The Marrow of Human Experience, ed. Jill Terry
Rudy [Logan: Utah State University Press, 2006]).
2. Remember the two-part job of a folklorist: to collect folklore and then to
analyze it. This chapter offers some concise examples of this process.
3. Folklorists prefer the term narratives, as it sounds more academic.
4. So much so that these are often referred to as the “major” genres of folklore,
while the shorter forms are the “minor” genres; this is not because the major one
are more important, but simply because they’ve been studied more.
5. An urban legend, or, as folklorists prefer, a contemporary legend, specifi-
6. Folklorists have shortened “friend-of-a-friend” to FOAF. It’s a fun word.
7. This version of AT 545B is highly abridged. And FYI, “AT” is short for
“Aarne-Thompson,” an awe-inspiring classification system for folktales. Look for
a book called The Types of the Folktale, and prepare to be impressed. And to start
referring to stories by number. Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, The Types of the
Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography, FF Communications 75, no. 184 (Hel-
sinki: Academia Scientarium Fennica, 1961).
8. It’s very important to note that “told as true” is not the same as “believed
to be true.” The legend derives its impact from being presented as literal truth, but
that same presentation also invites doubt, questioning, and criticism. This is exactly
what we’re supposed to do with legends; it’s folktales that we’re not meant to be
9. At least when it comes to folk transmission. We don’t tell folktales orally to
each other much anymore, but they’re incredibly popular subjects for books, film,
and television these days.
10. Aside from jokes, which we unfortunately don’t have space to address here.
11. Or any kind of folklore, really.
12. The kind of four-square you played as a kid with a ball, not the kind you
play on your phone.
13. Or perhaps even with the shopping for ingredients?
14. That’s pretty neat, right? Makes folklorists seem like physicists!
15. If, at this point, you’re cleverly noticing that “birthdays” as a customary
celebration are sort of both a calendar custom and a rite of passage—good for you!
Birthdays are unique in that they happen yearly and yet are also a transitional point
in one’s life. When it comes to the study of folklore, however, it’s really only the
culturally significant birthdays (sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one, fifty, sixty-five, etc.)
that get treated as full rites of passage, because the shift in social expectations is so
much greater for those years. And, of course, that list really only applies to contem-
porary American culture—in cultures and times where other birthdays coincide
with culturally or legally significant changes, those would be the big years.
16. Think of Carnival, or, as it’s better known around here, Mardi Gras, and
you’ll get the idea.
Types of Folklore 63
17. This kind of consciously created tradition is known as an “invented tradi-
tion.” Invented traditions can easily become “real” or “authentic” traditions over
time, but the term implies an awareness that originally, this was constructed with
the intent of becoming folklore, which often makes folklorists wary of assuming
that the functions and implications of the event are genuinely representative of the
18. Are you catching the emphasis on fishing yet?
19. The rum is called Screech, after the noise an early taster made when sam-
pling it, and provides the ceremony with its name.
20. Alicia Cox, “Screech In or Screech Out?” Transmission (Memorial Univer-
sity of Newfoundland) 7, no. 2 (2005): 6.
21. Remember cootie-catchers? Those little fortune-telling things you’d make
with paper? They had four chambers to put your fingers in, and you could open
and close them in different directions and unfold different tabs to reveal different
messages. Those were fun.
22. Do a Google image search for “travel mascots” or “roaming gnomes” if you
don’t know what I’m talking about here. An interesting aspect of this tradition
is how it’s now being reappropriated back into mass culture: movies, television
shows, and commercials have all featured the roaming gnome tradition. The travel
company Travelocity’s spokes-gnome is now so ubiquitous that many people think
the connection between gnomes and travel started there, rather than the business
having appropriated a folk tradition.
23. Check out www.flatstanley.com.
24. When folklore is appropriated by the mass media or manufacturers, folklor-
ists refer to that process as the “commodification of folklore,” since a folk item is
being turned into a commodity that can be bought or sold. We can also see the
opposite process taking place, such as when we make a mass-produced toy into
a travel mascot (or take movie lines and make them into inside jokes with our
friends). I like to call this process the “de-commodification of pop culture.” Share
and share alike, right?
25. This term has slightly different meanings in different contexts. There is
the general understanding of the word in English to mean an assembled group of
things, and there is also the way the term is used in art (where it is typically pro-
nounced in the French way), which indicates a creative process that utilizes found
materials to create a work of art. Both uses of the word can apply to the folk process
of compiling objects into an expressive collection.
26. Check out bookcrossing.com.
27. It can be tricky to reconcile the idea of an individual’s customary wearing
of a piece of jewelry with the understanding that folklore is, by definition, shared
among a group, but take a step back and consider the bigger picture. It’s unlikely
that your mother has never heard of anyone else in the world having a special item
that is worn or used only on special occasions—this is a common type of behavior
in our society. It’s similar to the way that an individual sports fan’s wearing of a
lucky shirt—itself unique to the individual who owns it—can still be classified as
a folk belief or superstition. The shared cultural expectation that individuals have
Types of Folklore 64
lucky items or special jewelry that are brought out at traditional times is what
makes this process folk.
28. This one is genuinely double-booked as something we say and something
we believe, as evidenced by its definition as a narrative that’s told as true—the pos-
sibility of belief is at the heart of a legend.
29. A great example of a true urban legend is a story that circulated widely via
e-mail and by word of mouth a few years ago about a pregnant woman who was
stopped in a sporting goods store and accused of stealing a basketball. The manag-
ers made her stop and show them her pregnant stomach before they were willing
to accept that she wasn’t smuggling a basketball under her shirt. So she sued them.
30. Mythbusters, Snopes.com, and a ton of people on YouTube are all evidence
31. These opposing hypotheses have been described at length by a famous folk-
lorist named David Hufford. Check out the “Want to Know More?” list at the end
of this section for a recommendation of some stuff of his to read.
32. No, I do not know if Bigfoot really exists—sorry. That’s beyond the scope of
my expertise as a folklorist.
33. David J. Hufford, The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience- Centered
Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
34. You’ve probably noticed that lots of folklore work comes out of Newfound-
land—you should visit sometime!
35. Lots of people say that Hufford has “explained away” the supernatural belief
with medical jargon, but that’s really not the case. What he’s done is show the con-
nections between the traditional and the institutional languages used to describe
the same phenomenon, and noted that both are equally accurate. We should won-
der why we assume that the medical phenomenon “explains” the traditional belief.
What if the traditional belief explains the medical phenomenon? Rather than say-
ing that someone experiences the Old Hag because they have sleep paralysis with
hypnagogic hallucinations, maybe people experience sleep paralysis with hypnago-
gic hallucinations because the Old Hag has come to visit. Think about that when
you’re falling asleep tonight.
36. He did this partly by posting “Wanted!” posters all over the place, which
nearly got him in trouble with his university. Can you imagine a zoologist or a
biologist today putting up posters saying, “Wanted, Dead or Alive: One Unicorn!”?
They’d be fired.
37. Skinner, “‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 38
Types of Folk Groups
It may seem a bit arbitrary to pluck just a few random folk
groups from the vast array of possibilities to talk about here, but too
bad, because that’s what we’re going to do. There are some groups
that folklorists have studied more than others, and it’s more likely
that a student in a folklore class will have the opportunity to collect
from some groups rather than others, and the examples here reflect
those realities. In this chapter we’re going to look at folk groups
based on work, age, beliefs, and interests, considering some of the
main types of folklore that crop up in them. If you’re interested in
a folk group that’s not discussed here, that’s okay—it’s likely that
you’ll still gain some insights that can translate.
Remember that a folk group is half the equation of folklore:
when folklorists looks at a given folk group, they’re seeking the
folklore that exists within that group as a means to better under-
stand that group as a cultural unit. While certain types or genres
of folklore may exist more in one kind of folk group than another
(college students may be heavy on the legends while a workplace
may have many customs), it’s important to note that any kind
of folklore can appear in a given folk group: to say that there’s
such a thing as “occupational folklore” or “campus folklore” is not
to say that these are types of folklore distinct from other genres
such as legends, jokes, and customs. It’s simply to apply a shared
theme (occupation, education) to all the legends, material objects,
and customs that can be found in that group. It’s important to
keep the distinction between “folk” (the group of people) and
Types of Folk Groups 66
“lore” (the genres or forms of expression) straight: a folklorist
can approach the field from either or both of these angles, start-
ing with a particular group (college students), a particular type
of folklore (political jokes), or the intersection of both (political
jokes told by college students).
We should also remember that many folk groups have both folk
and institutional components to them. Occupations have the rules
and regulations of the company, along with the stuff that a new
employee learns informally from coworkers on the job. Religions
have the doctrinal expectations for believers, along with the cul-
tural expectations that come from the community rather than from
the officials. In these instances, the word alongside is often used to
describe the relationship between the folk and official cultures of
the group. Folk religion exists alongside the institutional aspects
of a religion; occupational folklore exists alongside the business’s
rules and regulations. This emphasizes an important fact about the
culture of folk groups: the folk culture is no more or less impor-
tant than the official culture.1 It doesn’t exist above or beneath the
official culture, but right next to it, affecting how we act toward,
interact with, and react to the other people in the group.
My students one semester came up with a great example of
this: the cultural knowledge we have about driving a car. The folk
group here is a broad one—people who are licensed drivers. On
the institutional level, members of this folk group are aware of the
many legal requirements for drivers: that they be licensed and that
they take an official test in order to become so, that they obey traffic
lights and speed limits, that they wear a seatbelt and have working
turn signals and lights, and so on. On the folk level, we have the
common folk belief that you are allowed to drive up to five miles
per hour over the speed limit without getting a ticket,2 we have the
custom of kissing your hand and hitting the roof of your car when
you drive through a yellow light, of lifting your feet when you go
over train tracks or a cattle guard, of holding your breath through a
tunnel or past a cemetery. We know that cars with only one work-
ing headlight are called padiddles (or perdiddles, spadoodles, or
padinkles), that the proper acknowledgment for being allowed to
merge ahead of someone in heavy traffic is a friendly wave, and that
Types of Folk Groups 67
we pass time on long car rides by playing the license plate game (or
the punch buggy game). All this folk knowledge exists right along-
side, and is employed at the same time as, the official knowledge.
Of course, not all folk groups have an institutional level to their
culture: families, for instance, rarely have a truly institutional level
to their culture—everything is on the folk level. The same goes
for groups united by more abstract concepts: knitters, high-school
cliques, fishermen, mothers, really tall people . . . remember that a
folk group is made up of any two or more people who share at least
one thing in common. Lots of groups created by that definition
aren’t going to share an official culture.3 That’s okay—a group, espe-
cially a smaller group,4 can get by with only folk culture quite easily.
oCCupatioNal Folk groups
Occupational folk groups were one of the earliest areas of folklor-
istic inquiry in this country. Since America didn’t have a peasant
class in quite the same way as European countries did, American
folklorists turned to various occupations, especially labor-intensive
occupations like lumberjacks, steelworkers, or firefighters, in search
of traditional expressive culture. Of course, they found a treasure
trove of lore: work techniques that are learned on the job rather
than through formal training, lingo and jargon pertaining to tools
and skills, legends of especially great (or especially awful) past
workers, customs for initiation into the labor force or ascension to
a new rank, and so on. Occupations create intense shared identi-
ties—especially when the work is risky or dangerous and workers
have to rely heavily on each other for safety—and any time there’s
a shared identity, there’s usually folklore to reflect and reinforce it.
Even in jobs that aren’t labor intensive, however, there’s still
occupational folklore. Many office or service industry workers learn
within their first few weeks how things actually work—whom to
approach for help or with questions, whom to avoid about certain
projects, when to follow procedure and when not to, how long a
break actually lasts, which customers are notorious and how best to
treat them—and this sometimes ends up being the more important
skill set, at least on a daily level.
Types of Folk Groups 68
A student of mine once collected a story from her coworker
about a past employee who had been simply terrible at his job. He
was so terrible that he didn’t last long, and by the time she collected
the story he hadn’t worked at the organization for many years. His
popularity as a subject for conversation and storytelling, however,
was undimmed by the passage of time. Certain mistakes that he was
infamous for had been named after him and specific instances of
his ineptitude were so familiar to current employees that his name
became synonymous with them. Employees would say things like
“He’s a new Dave!” or “Watch out for Dave v2.0!” when someone
would make a mistake, or they would warn each other, “Don’t pull a
Dave!” when it seemed that someone might be headed toward a mis-
step. Stories like this5 are clear cautionary tales; when a new employee
hears the story, or even when longtime employees rehash it over and
over, it’s a symbolic reminder to not act like Dave, to not do what
Dave did or make the kind of mistakes Dave made. Personifying
incapability helps illustrate incapability, and provides a group of
employees with a neutral (well, neutral once Dave didn’t work there
anymore, at least) character through which to offer advice, give
warnings, and reflect norms and expectations. Workplace stories like
this serve as ongoing training and education, reaffirming the values
of the business and the expected traits of its employees.
Rites of passage are also a popular form of folklore in the work-
place, as people are often arriving as new employees or being pro-
moted to new levels. My students have told me stories about new
movie theater projectionists being made to drink shots of popcorn
butter, apprenticed butchers being dunked in cow’s blood, and new
customer service reps being prank-called by coworkers with pur-
posefully unanswerable questions—these initiations help bond new
employees to old ones and can create a sense of camaraderie. One
great example of a workplace rite of passage was at Henry Ford’s
“English School” graduation celebration during the early 1900s.
Since Ford hired so many immigrant workers, he wanted to find
a way to unite them all and ease their transition into American
culture. His school taught not only the English language but also
American customs and manners. For the graduation ceremony,
the workers would exit a large model of a boat (representing their
Types of Folk Groups 69
arrival as immigrants to the United States), and then enter into
a giant “melting pot” wearing the traditional dress of their home
countries. They would eventually emerge from the pot wearing a
business suit and waving an American flag.6 It seems strange in this
day and age, when we are taught to respect and encourage diversity,
that so obvious an effort would be made to culturally homogenize a
group of people, but it’s an excellent example of the power of a rite
of passage in the workplace. Ford found a need to unite his work-
force, and he consciously created a folk custom in order to do so.
Similarly self-conscious forms of occupational folklore—wherein
a company decides to institute a tradition for its workers to share—
exist today. Casual Fridays, monthly office lunches, and promo-
tion and retirement parties are common examples of office customs
that, while they may be initially fabricated, can grow into genuine
components of an office’s culture. Seeking the ways in which folk-
lore grows organically in a workplace and comparing that to the
purposefully invented traditions can help to highlight the nature
of an occupational experience in a unique way. Business students
would do well to consider the utility of occupational folklore stud-
ies to their future endeavors.
Imagine that you’re interviewing a coworker about your shared
occupational folklore. You bring up the monthly office tradition
of going out for drinks on the final Friday of each month, a cus-
tom that you felt helped you to get to know your colleagues when
you first joined the company, and that you feel reflects a friendly,
cohesive office community. Your coworker, who has been working
at the company longer than you have, has a different perspective.
She tells you that not long before you arrived, your boss decided
that she wanted to encourage her employees to be friendly with
each other and basically forced everyone to postpone their weekend
free time once a month and put on a show of being friends rather
than colleagues for an hour or two. No one had wanted to do it,
your coworker tells you, and everyone basically resents the fact that
while they’re not “officially” required to show up, they pretty much
have to if they want to stay in the boss’s good graces.
How does this affect your perception of the custom, which
you genuinely appreciated and considered successful at creating
Types of Folk Groups 70
group cohesion? Is your coworker simply cynical, or are you blind
to the actual attitudes of your officemates? Is your boss a responsive
leader with a belief in office friendships, or a manipulative aggressor
imposing her will on her underlings?
People spend enormous amounts of their lives at work, and the
culture (and folk culture) of the workplace is therefore an impor-
tant element of modern life. Some folklorists have begun using
the concept of “organizational folklore”7 (another way of saying
occupational folklore, but with an emphasis on complex corporate
structure) as a form of public-sector work, taking academic theories
and putting them to use on behalf of human resources departments
trying to best serve their employees.
Want to Know More?
Robert McCarl, The District of Columbia Fire Fighters’ Project: A Case Study in
Occupational Folklife (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press,
Robert McCarl is one of the leading experts on occupational folklore, and
this book, published by the Smithsonian, is a classic example of the study of
workers’ folk culture. It’s amazing to learn how much there is to know about
being a firefighter that has little to do with fighting fires—the true breadth of
occupational folklore is featured here.
Archie Green, Only a Miner (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1972).
Archie Green, another leading scholar in the study of occupational folklore,
presents the culture of coal miners through a consideration of their tradi-
tional working songs. Some are well-known tunes, some are esoteric and
unfamiliar, but all of them reveal how the life of a miner can be captured
uniquely in the expressive form of song.
Michael Owen Jones, “Why Folklore and Organization(s)?” Western Folklore 50
(January 1991): 29–40.
This article is one of the first to take on the question of occupational folklore
in the office-based workplace, related to but distinct from the folk culture
found in situations of manual labor. This study pushed the boundaries of this
folk group to a new place. Business students should check this one out.
religious Folk groups
When it comes to religious belief, folklore gets really interesting
(and tricky), for a variety of reasons. One, if you go around call-
ing someone’s religious beliefs “folklore,” you’re asking for trouble,
given the general misconception that folklore means “not true.”
Types of Folk Groups 71
Two, it can be problematic to talk objectively about religious issues
with anyone—folklorist or otherwise—who has his or her own per-
sonal faith. Between these two potential pitfalls, however, there’s a
lot of fascinating stuff to be learned here.
What is religious folklore? Rather obviously, religious folklore
is the stuff that emerges from a religious group but that isn’t deter-
mined by the institutional levels of the religion. A typical example
of this is saints’ legends in Roman Catholicism. While much of saint
lore is codified by the Catholic Church, there’s a lot that isn’t. Take,
for example, the burying of a saint’s statue in your yard in order to
force the answering of a prayer (St. Anthony for finding romance,
St. Joseph for selling your home, etc.). The Catholic Church has
never officially put this plan forward as a recommended course of
action, but if you ask people why they did it, or why they believed
it would work, they’d answer that it’s because they’re Catholic. It’s
an element of noninstitutional (aka folk) religious belief.
Catholics aren’t the only ones who have noninstitutional
aspects to their religious practice and belief. Muslims in need of
luck or protection may seek out a marabout (a holy person, though
the term can also refer to the tomb of a holy person) to procure an
amulet or blessing, even though this practice is considered unorth-
odox. Contemporary Jewish people may similarly carry a talisman
to protect against the evil eye. Practitioners of syncretic Vodun
(Voodoo) traditions may create mojo bags to heal specific maladies
or repel curses. Religious objects like these can run the gamut in
meaning and use from kitschy tourist gift to sincere object of belief,
and can even fill a role somewhere between the two.
We can see this multilayered meaning playing out at Shinto
shrines in Japan. Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan, and
many of its practices constitute a folk religion, as there is no official
governing institution for the belief system. Many Shinto shrines
and temples will offer patrons paper fortunes called omikuji, which
contain predictions of luck ranging from terrible to wonderful. It’s
a common folk practice to tie one’s fortune to a tree or fence outside
of the shrine, either to leave bad luck behind or to increase good
luck. Tourists and locals get in on the tradition in equal measure,
and the trees near some Shinto shrines end up nearly enveloped by
Types of Folk Groups 72
the small pieces of paper. Knowing that this custom is performed
by a range of people from a range of belief systems for a range of
reasons, it is hard to generalize about the function and meaning
of this particular custom. Individual believers have very personal
relationships with both the institutional and folk aspects of their
religions, and careful fieldwork is necessary to fully understand any
instance of faith.
There are also examples of folklore that aren’t actually about a reli-
gious topic but that emerge from within a religious folk group,
and so become associated with that particular religion. Members
of many faiths, for example, often associate certain foods with
certain religious holidays, leading to an identification of the food
with the religious celebration, even though there is no institutional
requirement that that specific food be consumed during the event.8
Among Utah Mormons, there’s a popular side dish called “funeral
potatoes”9 that takes this connection ever further. The potatoes
themselves have no religious meaning (and they are served at non-
funeral events, too), but they’ve become a clear cultural marker of
that particular religious group. If you were to ask people why they
make funeral potatoes, or how that tradition became a part of their
Types of Folk Groups 73
lives, they’d say that it’s because they’re Mormon, or because their
families are Mormon.10
There are some terminological distinctions that can help clar-
ify the difference between these two types of religion-based folk-
lore. The term religious folklore applies generally to all the folklore,
belief-oriented or otherwise, that is shared by a group united by
religion (like funeral potatoes). The term folk religion, in con-
trast, is more often used to describe beliefs and practices that are
religious in nature but not defined by the official dogma of the
church or belief system (like saint burying). Sometimes you’ll find
the two terms being used interchangeably,11 but it’s good to have
the distinction in your mind.12
We also need to remember that people who do not identify
with any institutional religious group may still have folk religion,
even though there’s no official canon for their beliefs to exist
alongside. People may have a belief in a deity or deities, in the
existence of spirits or angels, or in the power of prayer, all with-
out subscribing to any particular religious doctrine, and they may
even have legends and memorates13 that support their beliefs, and
customs that they share with other noninstitutionally spiritual
people. Even the phrase “spiritual but not religious,” which is a
new shared identifier for many people, is itself a form of folklore.
Considering that many people both leave and join religions
in their lifetime, and that religious groups often overlap with
regional groups, there’s also the possibility that people may be
able to report on the folk religion or religious folklore of a group
that they’re no longer a part of, or on a group that they’re cultur-
ally affiliated with but not religiously affiliated with. A student of
mine once attempted a collection project with a local branch of
the group known as the Post-Mormons,14 people who have left
the Mormon religion and are seeking advice and companionship
during their transition out of the religion. My student was very
interested in what kinds of stories and beliefs this group would
share—she quite reasonably expected that there would be a tra-
ditional batch of “Why I left” stories, stories that might share
themes of doubt, disillusionment, or growing unease with the
teachings of the church.
Types of Folk Groups 74
Interestingly, she found no such stories. What she did collect
were a bunch of faith-promoting Mormon stories, legends that
the group members recalled hearing back when they were active
members of the Mormon Church. They were all stories that my
student could have collected if the folk group she’d worked with
had been current satisfied members of this religion, and yet they
all came from a group specifically defined by its break from that
religion. Clearly, while the Post-Mormon group members had
left the Mormon religion, they were still quite embedded in the
Mormon culture. And of course, while the legends themselves were
the same, the intent behind the telling of them—the significance
of the stories to the group and their function within it—were dras-
tically different. Rather than being faith-promoting legends, they
were viewed in this new context as falsehoods, perceived as stories
designed to blind followers to reasonable doubts and contradic-
tions. This is an excellent example of the importance of context
and texture to the meaning of a narrative; looking at the text alone
could be extremely misleading when trying to discern what a leg-
end might mean to its tellers.
Want to Know More?
Don Yoder, “Toward a Definition of Folk Religion,” Western Folklore 33 (January
As indicated by the title, this article deals with the basic definition of “folk
religion.” Yoder describes a range of historical attempts to define this field of
study and brings aspects of them together in his own succinct definition.
Leonard Norman Primiano, “Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in
Religious Folklife,” Western Folklore 54 (January 1995): 37–56.
This article presents an important alternative view for the study of religious
folklore. Primiano disagrees with the dichotomy of “institutional” and “folk”
religion, believing that it overlooks too much and does a disservice to indi-
vidual believers, within whom the reality of religious experience resides.
Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption
in Southern Appalachia (Philadelphia: Da Capo, 1995).
Written by a journalist who begins his investigation in a courtroom and ends
up joining a snake-handling church, this book explores the nature of uncon-
ventional religious belief and conviction. It’s a great example of how main-
stream and folk religious practices blend in an individual’s experience.
Types of Folk Groups 75
CaMpus Folk groups
College campuses offer a wealth of folklore, and if we consider
that one of the things folklore can do for a group is to offer social
and psychological support and release during times of stress,
then we see immediately why this is true. Consider some of the
most enduring college legends: if your roommate dies, you get
an automatic A in all your classes, right? What about that music
major who died right before graduation—supposedly you can still
hear her ghost playing the piano in the concert hall at night. Did
you see that one test by the guy who gave an incredibly clever and
creative answer to a question about thermodynamics by talk-
ing about how a girl told him she’d date him “when hell freezes
over”? and got full credit, even though the answer was wrong?
Or have you heard that if your professor doesn’t arrive within
the first fifteen minutes of class, you’re legally allowed to leave
and can’t be docked points?15 And wasn’t the library built upside
down, or backward, or by two warring architect brothers who
each designed half the building with no regard for matching what
the other was doing? Say, did you hear about that one kid who
totally openly cheated, and then stuck his bluebook in the middle
of the stack and got an A because his professor didn’t know his
name? Yeah, I’ve heard them all, too, as have thousands of college
students across the country.
These legends sum up the myriad stresses that the average
college student has to deal with on a regular basis. Social and
emotional stresses seem nigh unbearable in the face of academic
stress; it’s a relief to think that the extreme of the former (your
roommate dying) would be softened with a removal of the latter
(guaranteed straight As). Professors hold an enormous power over
their students, and it’s satisfying to think that there’s a limitation
on that power, or that students can outwit their professors and get
the upper hand once in a while. Even without a story of warring
architects, college campuses are often a hodge-podge of building
styles and pathways—it’s nice to think it’s not that you can’t find
your way, it’s that the campus is poorly designed.
Take this legend, for example: two college seniors decide
to take a break from studying for finals and spend the weekend
Types of Folk Groups 76
partying hard. Unfortunately, they party so hard that they over-
sleep Monday morning and miss their chemistry final. They agree
on a story and approach their professor with their explanation:
they had taken a trip over the weekend and got a flat tire on their
way back. As they didn’t have a spare tire they had to wait for res-
cue and thus missed their final exam. Their professor takes pity on
them and offers to write them a new final exam (since they could
easily find out from classmates what had been on the original)
and let then take it later that day. The two guys are thrilled with
their success, but when they show up to take the final they’re pre-
sented with only one question, worth 100 percent of their grade:
“Which tire was flat?”
This legend, told often about a specific professor at Duke Uni-
versity and purported to be at least partially true,16 has circulated
since at least the late 1970s and has been set at a number of dif-
ferent colleges. So what’s so appealing about it? Well, it’s a nice
tale of comeuppance, for one. These two cocky guys think they’re
smarter than their professor, only to find out that he’s managed
to outsmart them. While we might have expected their trickery to
work in their favor, we instead get a reassuring message that the
way we’ve been doing it—studying long and hard and showing up
on time—is in fact the best path to success.
What about this one? Bored students in a psychology class
decide to turn their professor’s own lectures against him by con-
ducting an experiment in positive reinforcement and behavioral
conditioning. They slowly begin to shape the professor’s actions
by acting very attentive only when he does certain things, like
stand on the left side of the room or puts a foot up on the trash
can. Whenever he does anything else, they talk, fidget, and act
uninterested. By the end of the semester, they’ve got the professor
lecturing from on top of the trash can!
We get a totally different message here than we do from the
story of the flat tire. In this scenario, the students win—not only
do they manage to play a prank on their professor, but they’re
actually illustrating how adept they are at employing the very
concepts he’s supposedly an expert on. This is clearly an appealing
idea to students—who wouldn’t want to believe this was possible?
Types of Folk Groups 77
The scales are so regularly weighed in the faculty’s favor17 on a
college campus—power over grades, over passing or failing, over
recommendations, over internships, over enrollment—that it’s a
relief to hear about a situation in which that power structure is
overturned. In contrast to a system-supporting message in the first
legend, we get a rebuttal to the norm in this one. Both together
start to paint a picture of the nuanced issues being addressed and
reflected by campus legends.
Whether it’s providing wish fulfillment or the articulation
of an underlying anxiety, campus folklore clearly both reflects
and helps to negotiate the college experience. Rites of passage are
another of the most common ways this happens. Not only within
fraternities and sororities—where initiation rites are at times infa-
mous—but in many general campus populations there are tra-
ditions that allow for the fast and furious bonding that intense
social and academic pressures require. When you meet your new
dorm mates, you know that these people are going to be present
for your most crazed cramming sessions, your most embarrass-
ing emotional collapses, and your best parties. The sooner you
can bond with them, the better. Many campuses have developed
quasi-institutional customs that meet these needs, such as campus-
wide celebrations during the first week of school, Homecoming
activities, pregame rallies, and dorm-specific theme parties. At
other times, the students themselves develop customs in which
the school officials play no part.18
Knowing the insider culture of a campus is in some ways
similar to occupational folklore, in that students quickly learn the
unofficial ways to navigate the institution. Sharing insider tips
on getting into the most popular classes, learning how best to BS
on a test you didn’t study for, knowing which areas of the library
are the best for napping, where to go for the best parties, how to
get the most food for your money from the cafeteria . . . when
people look back on their college days, it’s often this stuff that
they remember as much as (if not more than) the content of their
classes. The folk culture of campus life is an enormous part of the
overall college experience.
Types of Folk Groups 78
Want to Know More?
Simon Bronner, Piled Higher and Deeper: The Folklore of Campus Life (Little
Rock, AR: August House, 1995).
Bronner brings together previous research and his own fieldwork for this
compilation of campus-specific folklore. He applies a range of approaches to
understand the material, and it makes for a fun overview of student life.
Elizabeth Tucker, Campus Legends A Handbook (Westport, CT: Greenwood,
This book goes beyond just legends (though it has a good number of those,
too) to talk about all kinds of campus folklore. Tucker’s straightforward pre-
sentation offers ideas for analyzing and interpreting the folklore in the unique
context of the academic setting, too, and her book serves as a great accessible
example of folkloric analysis in general.
ChildreN’s Folk groups
Children’s folklore is awesome for one main reason: the population
of this folk group is constantly changing, and yet the folklore it
generates is some of the most consistent and long-lived folklore out
there. It’s bizarre—considering that the people who qualify as “chil-
dren”19 are changing every single year, you’d think that the folklore
they share would be equally changeable. Nope. Not at all. Consider
the fact that kids have been playing Ring around the Rosie20 and
London Bridge21 for decades, if not centuries, and you get a sense
of the longevity.
Another interesting thing about children’s folklore is that it’s
one of the rare folk groups in which all adults have at one time
been a member. An unfortunate result of this is that it’s very easy
for adults to feel that they completely understand children’s cul-
ture, perhaps better than the children themselves do. This is an atti-
tude that most people would never presume toward any other folk
group; how patronizing it would be to look at members of another
culture and claim to understand them better than they understand
themselves!22 With children, however, that condescension seems
more acceptable—they’re young, not yet fully developed mentally
or physically, and so it’s not a true judgment of capability to say that
adults know better. The problem is that while adults certainly were
at one point members of the culture of childhood, they no longer
are, and it can’t truly be said that the adult imagination is capable
Types of Folk Groups 79
of genuinely recalling the experience of being a child, at least not in
the way that a child perceives it. Folklorists need to be constantly
reminding themselves that children are a unique, fully formed cul-
ture all on their own, and not simply unfinished adults.
We can see examples of this rich folk culture when we look at
the way that children can be extremely crafty and clever in their
play. I’m sure everyone remembers one or two of the rhymes that
kids use to choose an “it” for a game, right? Eeny-meeny-miney-mo,
catch a tiger by the toe, and all that jazz? Well, then perhaps you’ll
also remember the common situation in which you were rhyming
your way through your playmates and it became obvious to you
that you were about to end the rhyme on an undesirable “it.” What
to do? Add a verse to the rhyme, of course! “My mother says to pick
the very best one and you are going to be it!” Or, if that one leads
you to the wrong “it,” too, you can say, “. . . and you are not going
to be it,” thus starting the rhyme over again. It’s great to see how a
tradition that’s ostensibly for the purpose of introducing random-
ness into the selection process can be turned against that goal.
Children also have a ruthless sort of ranking system that
emerges in their traditional games. Remember playing house? The
selection process for who gets to be parents and who has to be
kids (or pets!) is always interesting, as is the way in which roles
are easily dismissed after being fought for. We can see in children’s
traditional games a reflection of their perception of adult life—the
roles, the rules, and the social expectations into which they’re going
to have to assimilate at some point. The really cool thing is how
those expectations are just as often obliterated by children’s folklore
as they are upheld. We grown-ups could probably learn something
Children are always doing things in ways that mystify
adults—the world assumes one course of action and children
regularly take another. This is exemplified in children’s material
culture—the ways that children play with their toys. Folklorist
Jeannie Thomas has studied the things that children do with
their Barbie dolls—not only the expected (and commercially sup-
ported) activities of dressing them up and playing with their offi-
cial accessories (houses, cars, companions, etc.), but the real things
Types of Folk Groups 80
that real children actually do, like rename them, undress them,
remove their heads (the toilet seems to be a typical repository for
dolls and doll heads), hack off their hair, cross-dress them, com-
bine them with toys from unrelated toy lines, and so on. One of
Thomas’s informants has a specific type of favorite Barbie play that
involves Barbie getting into accidents over and over again—she
is blown up, run over, or drowned.23 These are presumably not
the typical situations that the designers of Barbie had in mind
when they envisioned their impossibly feminine dolls being used
by children, but it’s what many children actually do with them.
There is a whole world of creative play with mass-produced toys
that children engage in and learn from each other that has nothing
to do with mass-produced goals or intentions—children’s folklore
culture is a far weirder place than many popular representations
acknowledge. This distinction between what the media portrays as
children’s culture and what children’s culture is actually like makes
for interesting analysis.24
Want to Know More?
Brian Sutton-Smith, Jay Mechling, Thomas W. Johnson, and Felicia R. McMa-
hon, Children’s Folklore (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1999).
This interdisciplinary collection of essays and resources is a must for anyone
interested in pursuing study of children’s culture. It provides a history of the
study of children’s folklore, many examples of different genres of folklore,
and a discussion of methods and approaches.
Iona Opie and Peter Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (New York:
New York Review of Books Classics, 2000).
This is an older book (originally published in 1959), but it is still an amazing
compilation of children’s folklore. You’ll find almost four hundred pages of
riddles, pranks, rhymes, beliefs, rituals, superstitions, games, customs, taunts,
nicknames, and more. Given the age of the book, the familiarity of many of
the types of folklore included will help highlight the impressive consistency
within this ever-evolving folk group.
digital Folk groups
Wait, what? “Digital” folklore? I know, I know—it seems strange to
connect something like tradition to something like technology, but
don’t let your preconceived notions about folklore outweigh what
you now know to be true: folklore is informal traditional culture
Types of Folk Groups 81
and has nothing to do with being old or quaint or rustic. These days,
we do much of our informal daily socializing on our computers or
phones and, quite unsurprisingly, folklore has shown up there, too.
In 2002, a guy named Mark Prensky coined the term digital
native to describe everyone25 born after the year 1980.26 What he
meant by this is that people born after that date have never lived in
a world without digital technology—computers, cell phones, video
games, and the like. The most interesting implication of this (for a
folklorist, at least) is the basic suggestion that there is a digital culture
out there that one can be native or nonnative to.27 Just as with any
other linking factor, online interaction can be at the root of a folk
group, and this particular type of folk group is a kind that more and
more of us each year are increasingly affiliated with.
We should take the time to note that there are several differ-
ent types of digital social interaction. There are offline folk groups
that have an online presence—a family might share a blog or several
blogs, a campus club might have a Facebook page, and a local group
of young mothers might have a Web forum where they share Web
links and post pictures. Of course, nonlocal moms might find that
Web forum and want to join in, too. Or maybe there wasn’t ever
a local, physical group that met in person—maybe the group was
started online by a mom who felt isolated and wanted to seek out
advice and camaraderie. This bridges us into another kind of digital
folk group: the kind that exists only online. One isn’t better than
the other, but a complete understanding of any group is going to
require that you understand the extent of the group’s connections.
If you lurk around a popular Web forum that is its members’ only
way of connecting, then sure, you might be getting a picture of their
entire cultural interaction.28 But if you’re lurking around a site that’s
the digital component of an otherwise analog (offline) folk group,
then you’re only getting a partial picture. Lots of students assume
that digital fieldwork is going to be easier than traditional fieldwork
because it can be done from home while in your PJs, but that’s not
always the case.
When we look at what kind of folklore appears in digital set-
tings, we often find that it’s just old folklore in a new guise, such
as the urban legends or jokes that circulate via e-mail or as text
Types of Folk Groups 82
messages. We tend not to see genres such as folktale or myth crop
up in virtual settings (at least not in folk circulation—there are a
lot of online repositories, however), but we do see things like folk
speech (slang, abbreviations) and customs.
Digital culture has given us a whole new language to deci-
pher—lol, rofl, ily, bff, imho, tptb, ftw, fwiw, icymi, etc.—and a
whole new set of text-based “gestures” used to indicate tone and
attitude.29 For digital natives, there’s a significant difference in the
meanings of these three sentences:
Hope your day goes well 🙂
Hope your day goes well :/
Hope your day goes well 😉
In the first, a genuine well-wishing is taking place. In the
second, there’s clearly some knowledge that the speaker has about
the recipient’s upcoming day that compromises the possibility of
the day going well—the speaker is offering support and acknowl-
edging that there is a reason the day may be difficult. In the last
example, there is again an unspoken understanding on the part
of the speaker; this time the tone is playful or teasing, as if the
speaker knows of a reason that the day might go especially well
indeed. As with all folklore, there’s no guidebook for how to use
these emoticons—it’s something you learn from observation and
experience. You only have to send a winky-face to the wrong per-
son once before you learn never to do it again.
When it comes to customary traditions online, we have
things like the understanding that certain information belongs in
a private message on Facebook rather than on someone’s timeline.
One of the markers of someone being new to a social network like
Facebook is that he or she puts the wrong types of communica-
tions in the wrong places (like a generic “Hey, friend, long time
no see, here’s what’s been going on, hope you’re doing well” greet-
ing in the comment section for a specific photo or status update).
Just as in the offline world, where people learn from experience
and observation what kinds of things to bring up in public and
what kinds of things to say in private, or what kind of things to
bring up as a point of order at a meeting versus over drinks after
Types of Folk Groups 83
work, our online social spaces require the same kind of folk cul-
Of course, not all forms of folklore on the Internet are forms
that also exist IRL.31 Some forms of digital folklore are new genres
altogether, ones that make use of the mixed media available
through technology. Internet memes—images, phrases, or con-
cepts that spread rapidly over the Internet32—are one great exam-
ple. We have pictures, videos, and text, all being used together
to create personal expressions that then are appropriated and
adapted by others and put back out there for further re-creation.
The qualities of variation and tradition are extremely easy to see
in this form of digital folklore—some elements are notably con-
servative and some are notably dynamic. For as “new” as this kind
of folklore may seem, it’s a great way to practice the basics of
folklore identification. Consider the evolution of the “X all the
Y” Internet meme, which began with this frame of a Web comic
from the blog Hyperbole and a Half.33
The original Web comic was a reflection on the initial enthusi-
astic ambition one often feels to clean one’s house (followed by the
inevitable dismay at realizing how many things there actually are
to clean), and quickly got picked up by others who began altering
Types of Folk Groups 84
Here’s one inspired by the Beatles:
And one in honor of a popular NPR show:
One that clearly grew from the ever-popular theme of
the zombie apocalypse:
Types of Folk Groups 85
One about the Internet’s favorite topic34:
And one made for a folklore class by one of my students:
The conservative elements let us know that all these images are part
of the “same” tradition, but the dynamic elements express a variety
of interests, themes, cultural trends, and affiliations.
Overall, one of the main things we find in digital folk culture
is a blurring of the barriers between the levels of culture, so that
we get mass-media techniques (film, photography, graphic edit-
ing, far-reaching broadcast, etc.) used in the creation and sharing
of folklore. We also see a blurring between the genres of folklore, so
that we have images and words and actions all coming together in a
single form. Is an Internet meme something we say? Something we
make? Something we do? Or all three? It’s still very much a folk pro-
cess, just on a different (and generally intriguing and exciting) scale.
Types of Folk Groups 86
Want to Know More?
Trevor Blank, ed., Folklore and the Internet: Vernacular Expression in a Digital
World (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2009).
While a few individual articles and book chapters had come earlier, this is the
first compilation of academic essays to directly address the topic of folklore
on the Internet. Case studies span from familiar forms of folklore online to
digital-only forms of cultural expression.
Trevor Blank, ed., Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of
Human Interaction (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2012).
This book, a follow-up to the previous volume, offers readers more case stud-
ies that show the interesting, important, and useful ideas that studying online
folklore can reveal.
Nancy K. Baym, Personal Connections in the Digital Age (Malden, MA: Polity,
Baym’s book serves as a straightforward introduction to the idea that mean-
ingful social and cultural interaction can take place through technologically
mediated communication. Readers get some clear, theoretical concepts to
help them think about the subject, and several historical and contemporary
case studies to illustrate the social and cultural validity of online interaction.
1. Though the penalties for breaking the rules of official culture may be more
specific than for breaking the rules of folk culture.
2. This is, unfortunately, not true.
3. And in truth, many of them may not even share folklore. There are innu-
merable potential folk groups created by this definition—women who wear a size
7 shoe, for example—that while they may exist nominally, do not actually interact
exclusively enough to generate a definable folk culture. Make the link a rarer fea-
ture, though—say, women who wear a size 11 shoe—and perhaps that character-
istic is rare enough that people who share it have sought each other out (to share
tips on where to buy shoes, maybe). Just be aware of both the benefits and the
limitations of this broad definition of folk group.
4. This is one reason why folklorists have often chosen to study smaller groups
rather than huge ones.
5. They’d be classified as legends if told in the third person, and as “personal-
experience narratives” if told in the first person—remember, folklore can be true!
6. Applying the three-part structure of a rite of passage here is interesting:
what happens in the pot, during the middle phase? The previous identity is
stripped (along with clothing), but the new one hasn’t yet been put on. What a
strange moment that must have been!
7. Michael Owen Jones, “Why Folklore and Organization(s)?” Western Folk-
lore 50, no. 1 (1991).
Types of Folk Groups 87
8. This makes for a fun exercise. Think of the religious holidays that your fam-
ily or your community celebrates, and consider what foods it simply wouldn’t be
that holiday without. See if you can discover where the emphasis on that food came
from, and whether or not it has any official connection to the theme or purpose of
9. In case you were wondering, the genre that folklorists use to describe food-
based traditions is “foodways.” And also, the potatoes are sometimes called “cheesy
10. If you doubt the localized importance of funeral potatoes to Utah Mor-
mons—Google it. It has its own Wikipedia page.
11. Isn’t it fun how ambiguous all the terminology used in folklore studies is?
12. Not all folklorists are on board with the term “folk religion.” Check out the
recommended reading by Leonard Primiano at the end of this section for a more
13. A “memorate” is a first-person belief narrative. Basically, it’s a personal-expe-
rience narrative that’s told about a supernatural subject. If the same story were told
in the third person, it would, of course, be a legend.
14. Visit www.postmormon.org for information, if you’d like.
15. And if the class is taught by a TA or grad student, you have to wait only ten
16. Check it out on Snopes.com—they asked Prof. Bonk himself.
17. Well, from a student’s perspective; ask the faculty and you’ll get a different
18. It is interesting to consider when school officials choose to ignore unsanc-
tioned campus traditions (like pranks, parties, rumors, unofficial holidays, etc.) and
when they finally decide to take action. The fact that things usually have to get pretty
bad before anything happens—students injured or property damaged—shows that
school officials see the value in preserving folklore within their institutions.
19. This is an incredibly ambiguous and subjective term, by the way. When does
childhood start and end? At a particular age? Is it a particular stage in life, regardless
of age? If the answer to these questions has changed over time (which it has), then
how do we classify past “children’s” folklore? When children worked in coal mines,
maybe coal mining folklore was actually a type of children’s folklore! It’s interesting
to mull this one over.
20. OMG, did you hear that it’s really about the Black Plague?! Sorry—it’s not.
21. And this one’s about child sacrifice during construction, right?! Sorry—
22. Of course, anthropologists—and yes, even folklorists—did this for quite
23. Jeannie Thomas, Naked Barbies, Warrior Joes, and Other forms of Visible Gen-
der (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 155.
24. If you’re in a folklore class and are thinking of collecting or studying chil-
dren’s folklore, remember that there will likely be some sort of special permission
involved. If your project is going to end up in an archive or anything, there surely
Types of Folk Groups 88
25. Well, more like everyone born in the developed West into a family with
enough money to own a computer.
26. Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” On the Horizon 9, no. 5
27. It is important to note that being “native” to a culture is not the same as
blindly accepting all the generalizations that go along with it. As we noted before,
not all Americans love apple pie and baseball, even though those are generaliza-
tions regularly made about them. Similarly, there are digital natives who love to
write with fountain pens rather than type on a keyboard and who prefer to chat
in person over coffee rather than online. Similarly, there are immigrants to digital
culture who are way more adept at technology than younger, more native peo-
ple—it’s not a simple either-you’re-in-or-you’re-out situation.
28. Though you’d likely still be missing out on things like private messages,
e-mails, and chats—one thing to remember about doing fieldwork online is that
you often aren’t aware when you’re missing something. Unlike being with a group
in person, where you can observe when two people pull away and start talking
privately, you’ll never know when two forum members start to message each other
privately. Only solid ethnographic work can help offset this disadvantage.
29. In truth, the “newness” of these forms is only in perception. The use of a
colon and closing parenthesis to indicate a happy tone in text was first suggested
on September 19, 1978. (Yes, September 19 is also International Talk Like a Pirate
Day—two folk holidays in one!)
30. One of the reasons that digital culture often becomes a contentious topic
in contemporary discourse is because it’s so relatively new that we haven’t yet had
enough time to develop widely agreed-upon cultural norms for it. What’s consid-
ered rude when it comes to the use of cell phones in public? When is it tacky to
solicit help or funding for a personal project on a social networking site? What’s
the protocol for dealing politely with accidental or intrusive reply-alls in group
e-mails? We haven’t had these technologies long enough for everyone to have sim-
ply grown up knowing what’s rude and what’s polite, and so we run into lots of
trouble as we figure it out. It’ll be interesting to watch consensus grow over the
31. In real life.
32. Also known as image macros; see http://knowyourmeme.com/ to get an
idea of what we’re talking about.
33. See hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/.
34. Spend just a little time on the Internet and you’ll soon discover that much
of it is about cats. The Internet loves cats.
What Do I Do Now?
So, what should you do with your new understanding of
folklore now that you’ve (almost) finished this book? Class assign-
ments aside, the knowledge and skills of a folklorist are (perhaps
surprisingly) quite useful in the real world, so let’s consider some
ways in which you might use them.
One thing that most students discover upon learning the ins
and outs of folklore is that they start seeing it everywhere. Stuff
that simply never caught your eye before will suddenly jump to
the front of your attention and you’ll be going, “Hey—is that folk-
lore?” This provides a great next step: start putting your new under-
standing of folklore to use identifying things as (or as not) folklore.
You know how to go about it now—just remember the basic rules
that folklore follows: it’s variable and it’s traditional.
And don’t forget the second goal of a folklorist: not just find-
ing but interpreting the folklore. While you’re out in the world
discovering and identifying folklore, make sure you take the time to
ponder what makes these kinds of cultural expressions unique and
relevant, how they function in their cultural and social contexts,
and what they mean to the people sharing them. If your coworker
e-mails you an urban legend, take a moment (after the natural reac-
tion of debating with your lunch pals whether or not it’s actually
true) to consider what underlying social truth might be reflected in
the story. When you hear a political joke at a party, pause in your
laughter (or maybe keep laughing, just to maintain appearances)
and think about what social function the joke teller intended the
joke to have, and what the joke’s reception by the listeners commu-
nicated in return. At the next holiday celebration, when someone
claims that the Jell-O salad wasn’t made the “right” way, take a
moment to reflect on what it means to a family to have mutually
agreed-upon “correct” versions of their traditional foods.
In short, remember that thinking like a folklorist involves being
both genuinely engaged in and consciously aware of your own cul-
tural contexts—at the same time. You laugh at the joke, gasp at the
legend, smile at the custom, and then you think about the mean-
ing of those traditional forms within the group that shared them.
It’s kind of like having X-ray vision1—you’re seeing, reacting to,
and participating in all the same things as the people around you,
but you’re going a bit deeper, too, recognizing that there’s a whole
world of shared understandings being symbolically communicated
around us at all times. When this double awareness gains you an
insight you’d otherwise have missed—when your awareness of the
presence and significance of folklore allows you to engage more suc-
cessfully with and appreciate the world around you—you’ll remem-
ber the single most important thing this book has told you: folklore
1. That’s right, being a folklorist is like being a superhero.
Lynne S. McNeill, PhD, is an instructor and director of online
development for the folklore program at Utah State University and
co-founder of and faculty advisor for the USU Folklore Society.
Active bearers, 36n9
Aldrich, Fredrick, 59
Anthropology, 23, 34
Archive, 22, 23, 25, 31, 34, 87n24
Bascom, William, 30
Ben-Amos, Dan, 18
Boston Pops, 11
Brunvand, Jan H., 30, 43–44
Calendar custom, 44–47
Carnivalesque, 48–49, 62n16
Children, 19n18, 48, 52, 78–80,
College (incl. “campus”), 65–66,
Context, 13, 23, 25–29, 32, 41–43,
46, 63, 74, 89, 90
Criminology (incl. “crime”), 21–22
Dickens, Charles, 33
Digital culture, 80–86, 88n27, 88n30
Dundes, Alan, 25, 35
Dynamic variation, 12, 14, 55
Elite culture, 9–11
Ethnography, 26, 43, 88n28
Facebook, 26, 81, 82
Folk belief, 56–61, 64n28, 64n35,
Folk group, 4–6, 29, 35, 40, 41, 63,
65–67, 70, 72, 74, 78, 80, 81, 86
Folktale, 38–43, 62n7–9, 82
Foodways, 29, 40, 45, 46, 87nn8–9,
Function, 30–32, 34, 39, 41, 47, 72,
Funeral potatoes, 72–73, 87n10
Genre, 5–6, 37–38
Giant squid, 59
Gilligan’s Island, 10
Goodenough, Ward, 3
Grimm brothers, 32
Hufford, David, 58–59
Hyperbole and a Half (blog), 83
International Folklore Day, 17
Internet, 83, 85–86, 88n34
Invented tradition, 63n17
Joke, 8–9, 18n7, 24–25, 31, 62n10,
66, 81, 89–90
Latrinalia, 16, 17n3
Legend, 31, 37–44, 56, 62n5, 62n8,
64nn28–29, 67, 71, 73–74, 75–78,
81, 86n5, 87n13, 89
Mass culture (incl. “popular culture”),
7–11, 63n24, 85
Material culture, 51–56
McDonald’s, 3, 14, 26
Memes, 83, 85, 88n32
Mormon, 72–74, 87n14
Myth, 32–33, 37–44, 82
Newfoundland, 49–50, 58–59
Occupational folklore, 67–70
Old Hag, 58–59, 61, 64
Organizational folklore, 70
Passive bearers, 36n9
Personal experience narratives, 86n5
Political science, 34
Popular antiquities, 2
Public folklore, 22
Religious folklore, 60, 70–74, 87n8,
Rites of passage, 47–51
Skinner, B. F., 60–61
Star Wars, 11
Supernatural, 56–61, 87n13
Telephone (game), 7
Texture, 25–27, 32, 43, 74
Thomas, Jeannie, 79–80,
Thoms, William, 2, 17
Toelken, Barre, 13
Tradition, 7, 12–14, 16, 22, 80, 83,
Transmission, 6, 7–10, 13, 29, 30, 44,
Triviality barrier, 15–16
Urban legend (incl. “contemporary
legend”), 31, 43–44, 62n5, 64n29,
75–77, 81, 89
Variation, 7, 11–14, 30, 31, 42, 51,
Walmart, 27–29, 32
Chapter 4: Types of Folk Groups
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