Education Guide

ResourcesDefining Folklore

Defining Folklore

The Educative Matrix of Folklore

Clearly, folklore is alive and well. It constitutes a basic and important educative and expressive setting in which individuals learn how to see, act, respond, and express themselves by the empirical observation of close human interactions and expressions in their immediate society (that is, the family, occupational or religious group, ethnic or regional community). Folklore structures the worldview through which a person is educated into the language and logic systems of these close societies. It provides ready formulas for the expression of cultural norms.

The Dynamics of Folklore, by Barre Toelken
Utah State University Press, 1996

General Traits of Folklore

  1. Folklore involves a tradition that passes over time and through space and is not necessarily old; in fact, it is often contemporary and dynamic.
  2. The learning process is usually by word of mouth, observation and imitation.
  3. There are conservative elements that stay the same through many transmissions. For example, the plot of the ballad “Barbara Allen” remains the same: A woman forsakes a man and he dies.
  4. On the other hand, folklore is also dynamic, changing in transmission (versions), while keeping a storehouse of conservative elements such as motifs, metaphors, characters that belong to the collective and get reworked again and again. Thus, each singer of “Barbara Allen” might accidentally or purposefully change the lyrics.
  5. The source is often anonymous.

Folk Groups

Folk groups can be any groups of people who share special language, customs, traditions and can be based upon factors such as nationality, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, region, neighborhood, social class, social clubs, family, occupation, school, classroom. All of us belong to many different, sometimes overlapping, folk groups that change throughout our lives.

Functions of Folklore

  • Entertainment
  • Education and instruction
  • Relief of cultural tension
  • Boundary-defining
  • Validation of a culture (paradoxically, folklore can also violate cultural norms)

Basic Types of Folklore

  • Oral Narratives – tales, legends, proverbs, jokes, riddles, anecdotes, oral poetry, toasts, sermons, personal experience narratives
  • Music – lullabies to highly polished song styles
  • Material Culture – the “stuff” of traditional culture, which includes, for example, the following:
    • Architecture – barns, fences, outbuildings, houses
    • Crafts and Decorative Arts – baskets, quilts, coverlets, carvings, pottery, weaving, tool-making, furniture-making, needlework, home or yard decoration
    • Foodways – preserving food, recipes, ritual meals, who does what
  • Beliefs – folk wisdom, superstitions, weatherlore, remedies, prejudice, spirituality
  • Customs – group celebrations, holidays, calendar traditions, rituals, birthdays
  • Body Communications – greetings, handshakes, dance, games, gestures

Traditional, Popular and Elite Culture

Traditional knowledge and culture are learned and transmitted by word of mouth and observation within our many overlapping folk groups. Elite or academic knowledge is learned and transmitted formally in a society’s institutions such as schools, universities, museums and concert halls. Popular culture is learned and transmitted through mass media. The boundaries between these kinds of knowledge and culture blur interestingly, and often traditional knowledge and culture are overlooked or dismissed as quaint or untrue.

Content and Methodology

Folklore’s relevance to K-12 educators is interdisciplinary and twofold. Young people respond not only to the content of folklore–sharing their own and discovering others’ traditions–but to collecting folklore through various fieldwork methods, which can include observation, notetaking, mapping, interviewing, audio or video recording, archiving and presenting findings in any variety of ways.