Chapter 2: What Do Folklorists Do?
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20 DOI: 10.7330/9780874219067.c002 Chapter 2 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 parties 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!” scenario , 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 analogy , 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 folklorists 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 psychological 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, folklore 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 community (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...