A Brief History of Folkloristics &/+/vs. Anthropology

Metaphors are a great way to talk about something indirectly. They help us better understand the thing in question, but through a shift in language. Such is the case with trying to enumerate the differences between folklore and anthropology, at least historically.

Historically, the difference between the two disciplines can be illustrated as such:

Folklorists are the particle physicists of culture. Folklorists are interested in the stuff that makes up the day-to-day lives of individuals within communities. By contrast, anthropologists are the cosmographers of culture. Anthropologists map out the expanses of culture, the institutions that make up social life. That is, folklorists go for the small, almost imperceptibly minute building blocks of social reality (stories, jokes, quilts, foodways, etc.) while anthropologists, not ignorant of those building blocks, step back and try to map out the cosmos of social life (family structure, religion, law, economies, etc.).

Of course, this is historically speaking. Boundaries between the social sciences and humanities have always been shifting as each practitioner configures their discipline anew, but the disciplines of sociocultural anthropology and folkloristics have been on a crash course with one another for many years. This is not a new observation, but a necessary one. W. Lloyd Warner wrote in 1940, that “It is plain that, if we are to develop a full-grown comparative social science of man, the communities of modern life must be included among those studied by anthropologists. If this means that the subject matter of ethnology is the same as that of sociology, so much the better. Anthropologists may then make effective use of sociological methods, sociologists of anthropological ones” (xiii).[i] To this cross-disciplinary pollination we could easily add folkloristics, as the practioners of both anthropology and folkloristics have similar theoretical occupations and imaginations regarding community and culture. To be sure, this is the view of sociocultural anthropology and folkloristics from the Americanist traditions as practiced and envisioned in institutions within the United States.

A longer history of the academic division of labor between the social sciences goes back to earlier idealizations of culture as natural phenomena that could be catalogued and observed as one does organic creatures in an ecosystem. Following contemporary understandings of evolution by natural selection in the mid-nineteenth century, early social scientists such as E.B. Tylor sought to adapt the Darwinian model to the cultural world.[ii] Cultural evolutionary theory was a unilinear model for documenting and exploring the social world as moving through three distinct phases of evolution: savage to barbarian to civilized. It was an attractive idea at the time, and one that has still not fully fallen out of popular conceptions of different cultural groups. You see, the idea was that all peoples went through these distinct stages and that because they traveled up from savage to civilized, we could learn much about ourselves (rather, our previous selves) by studying those peoples that were still at previous stages. To be clear, this was an insidious conception of culture and society that based intelligence and ultimately humanity on racial and colonial histories. Yet, this school of thought pushed anthropologists to study the “the savages” at the edges of the empires in Africa, Asia, and North America. Folklorists studied the “the barbarians” in the backyard of the empires, mostly in Europe. And sociologists studied “the civilized” in cities in the heart of the empires.

This is a rather basic distillation of cultural evolutionary theory, but it helps to situate folklore and anthropology in an earlier ecology of academic disciplines. In large part, these disciplines divided the academic work to more fully document all aspects of culture and society. So, from that reading, anthropologists moved to study the “other” who—more often than not­ meant racially othered—in foreign lands. (Here, it is important to note that the ethnographer was complicit and strategic in the process of othering their subjects, as are all ethnographers to an extent.) And folklorists would move to study the economically othered in their own nations. From the beginning, folklorists moved across class lines to understand contemporary societies by way of “past” societies, or, rather, segments of society that exemplified an idealized version of our past selves (i.e., peasants who are our country people but retain our true culture due to their place in that cultural evolutionary timeline). Anthropologists sought to understand contemporary societies by way of the racialized others. The idea was that the civilized West was once at the same position on the cultural evolutionary model as those others, and by studying them, the West could more fully understand themselves. 

We now reject the basic premise of this model that culture is organic in the way that birds are organic; as such, culture is not subject to the natural laws of physics and biology. Culture, whatever it may be, is informed and inflected by historical circumstances as well as by ideology and materiality. But where does that get us now? The lines are blurring between these disciplines, I would argue for the better, but they have not vanished completely.

Contemporary folkloristics and sociocultural anthropology are engaged in the common endeavor of documenting, examining, and saying something about contemporary societies, in whatever way they have been fashioned by their residents. The focus of folklore has shifted from survivals from an older way of thinking and living (e.g., old wives tales) to emergent forms of unofficial culture (for example, pink pussy hats and memes about COVID-19) and sociocultural anthropologists are now filling in the gaps of previous ethnographic thinking and generalization with the forms of culture that been previously thought to be too trivial to consider important objects of scientific study (ghost stories of colonialism in native North America[iii]). The examples here are few but point to the further cross-pollinating between anthropology and folkloristics (a topic that I will take up in future blog posts).

As they are practiced and envisioned now, both anthropology and folklore pull from the social sciences and humanities to better understand the population and group in question. Folklorists may begin with a study of traditional stories or pottery but use those as the entry point into understanding the cultural and social configurations of the community. Anthropologists may start with a different entry point—say, environmental policies or practices—but they too move beyond that point of entry and trace the network of knowledge and behavior as it moves throughout that community and neighboring ones. If anthropology, as envisioned and practiced in the Americanist tradition, is the holistic study of humanity in past and present manifestations of culture and society, then cultural expressions (i.e., folklore) fits within the purview of that domain. But since no discipline can completely cover all aspects of human life, folklorists have taken the subject of folklore, with a unifying thread of tradition, as their central object of study.

The disciplines are different because their histories are different; parallel, but different.

So, the difference between the two, as they are configured now, has mostly to do with the point of entry. Anthropologists enter the society and culture that they study with a broad view and then turn to a narrower focus. Folklorists, then, enter via a narrow entry point (often through an expressive form) and follow it to the broader connections it has within society. This reading is not perfect, as no reading of the disciplinary boundaries will be, but this serves as a starting point for drawing the contours of these sister disciplines both in past and present forms.

Further Readings

Bascom, William R. “Folklore and Anthropology.” Journal of American Folklore 66 (262): 283–290.

Darnell, Regna. 1973. “American Anthropology and the Development of Folklore Scholarship—1890–1920.” Journal of the Folklore Institute 10 (1/2): 23–39.

Lévy-Zumwalt, Rosemary. 1988. American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialogue of Dissent. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.  

[i] Warner, W. Lloyd. [1940]1968. “Preface.” In Family and Community in Ireland by Conrad M. Arensberg and Solon T. Kimball, second edition. Pp. xi–xiv. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[ii] Cf. Opler, Morris E. 1964. “Cause, Process, and Dynamics in the Evolutionism of E. B. Tylor.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 20 (2): 123–144.

[iii] See Boyd, Colleen E. and Coll Thrush, eds. 2011. Phantom Past, Indigenous Presence: Native Ghosts in North American Culture and History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.  

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