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What is Folklore?

What is folklore?

Defining Folklore

One of the best known explanations of folklore is found in Alan Dundes’ brief essay, “What Is Folklore?” Dundes disputes the notion that “folk” should be automatically identified with peasant or rural groups, or with people from the past. He argues that contemporary urban people also have folklore and suggests that rather than dying out, folklore is constantly being created and recreated to suit new situations (Dundes, 1965: 2).

Dundes asserts that “folk” can refer to “any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor. It does not matter what the linking factor is-it could be a common occupation, language, or religion-but what is important is that a group…have some traditions that it calls its own” (Dundes, 1965: 2).

Rather than offering a definition of folklore, Dundes provides a list of various types of folklore to demonstrate the large range of the field of study. His list includes the expected subjects of folktales, legends, myths, ballads, festivals, folk dance and song, but also offers examples of folklore that may not be as obvious, such as children’s counting out rhymes, food recipes, house, barn and fence types, latrinalia (informal writings in public restrooms), as well as the sounds traditionally used to call specific animals. Dundes stresses that his list is not exhaustive, but merely a sampling of the subjects that folklore scholarship can address, and which merit study for the insight that they provide into specific cultures (Dundes, 1965: 3).

Genres of Folklore

  • Material culture: folk art, vernacular architecture, textiles, modified mass-produced objects
  • Music: traditional, folk, and world music
  • Narrative: legends, urban legends, fairy tales, folk tales, personal experience narratives
  • Verbal art: jokes, proverbs, word games
  • Belief and religion: folk religion, ritual, and mythology
  • Foodways: traditional cooking and customs, relationships between food and culture

Folklore as an Academic Discipline

Folklorists focus on the study of human creativity within specific cultural and social contexts, including how such expressions (i.e. stories, music, material culture and festivals) are linked to political, religious, ethnic, regional, and other forms of group identity.

Suggested Books and Articles about Folklore and Folk Groups

398.03 F719 (SSHEL Stacks)
Bauman, Richard (ed.). 1992. Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: A Communications-centered Handbook. New York: Oxford University Press.

398 D73FO (Main Stacks)
Dorson, Richard (ed.). 1972. Folklore and Folklife, An Introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

398 D91s (Main Stacks and Oak Street)
Dundes, Alan. 1965. The Study of Folklore. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

GR66 .D87 1980 (Main Stacks)
Dundes, Alan. 1980. “Who Are the Folk?” In Interpreting Folklore. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

398.05 JF (Main Stacks, Literature and Languages Reference, Online, Oak Street)
Noyes, Dorothy. 1995. “Group.” Journal of American Folklore . 108 (430): 449-478.

398 F7183 (Oak Street)
Oring. Elliott. 1986. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.


Websites Defining Folklore

What is Folklore? (American Folklore Society)
This site contains collective contributions from members of the American Folklore Society and others in the folklore community. Includes a “How Do Folklorists Define Folklore?” section that provides citations and quotes of folklore definitions from a variety of authoritative sources, including  the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, and the Journal of American Folklore. Other sections provide information about Folklore Studies programs, contact information for prominent scholars, and links to research resources for folklorists.

New York Folklore Society
Provides some useful definitions and examples of folklore in modern contexts drawing for folklore scholars and documentation of community folklore by public folklorists.