restricted access 6. Approaches to Interpreting Folklore
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180 CHAPTER 6 Approaches to Interpreting Folklore As we have emphasized, folklore communicates: it is an ongoing process of expressing information and beliefs within folk groups. As folklorists, we examine the verbal, customary, and material texts of folk groups to discover why and how they are important to the people sharing them. In the earlier days of the discipline, scholars began to seek deeper ways to interpret, rather than simply collect and describe, folklore. Our understanding of groups, tradition, ritual, performance, and the whole broad concept of text that underpins our discussions in this book grew from those deeper explorations. As the discipline grew and the kinds of texts folklorists studied broadened, scholars developed theoretical and analytical frameworks that reflected prevailing concerns and interests. Many theoretical and analytical frameworks exist, and as with other aspects of the history and study of folklore, interpretive approaches may overlap and change in line with our ongoing explorations in the field. Some of these approaches have become limiting in that they reduced the potential interpretations of folklore to narrow, essential meanings. Current scholarship involves a multifaceted approach that draws on past theories in innovative, dynamic ways but also considers multiple levels of understanding and recognition of the interplay of texts, groups, performances, contexts, society, and culture. Folklorists may explore dimensions of function, structure, psychological or sociological influences, and theories related to gender, race, social position, and power. To continue to develop your understanding of the history of the field and to provide a map of the path folklorists have traveled, we offer here a fairly detailed overview of several approaches taken by scholars in the last century and a half of folklore study. We’ll discuss how folklorists have applied such 181 Approaches to Interpreting Folklore approaches and look at ways in which they have contributed to and continue to inform the study of folklore.42 Functions: Purposes, Roles, and Meanings Folklorists have always been interested in understanding meanings of folklore texts,and in the earlier days of folklore study,that meant looking at how the folklore functioned within the community of which it was a part. This approach was valuable in that it was one of the first to firmly attach interpretation of folklore to the very people who were using it to express their beliefs and values. One of the early proponents of functionalism was William R. Bascom, who identified what he called the “four functions of folklore” (1965). The four functions Bascom suggests folklore provides—informally teaching cultural attitudes (often to younger group members); escaping accepted limitations of our culture ; maintaining cultural identity; and validating existing cultural norms— essentially boil down to one function, as Bascom himself claims: “Folklore is an important mechanism for maintaining the stability of culture” (1965, 298). Bascom’s approach established a framework to help folklorists consider the meaning of folklore and make sense of how folk groups employ it and what it might mean to them. It was a jumping-off point for people to think more concretely about what folklore does and means, rather than what it is. One value of Bascom’s approach is that it does consider the folk group and acknowledges that folklore has meaning within the group. His approach looks at folklore as a way of communicating values and information among members of the group. This early, functionalist approach appealed to folklorists at the time. Many of them picked up on the work of anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown who looked at culture and society as an organic whole. Folklorists found this holistic model appealing because it suggested the natural or organic connection between people and their expressive culture. But major problems with this organic view emerged as folklorists began to use it in more and more contexts and to analyze more kinds of performances. It became clear the functionalist approach was just too broad. Bascom claimed folklore acted as a mechanism to maintain cultural stability. Yet, if we assume that folklore only serves to reinforce the norm, there is no room for it to accommodate changes in beliefs and attitudes or for new forms of folklore to emerge. One obvious problem is that Bascom’s system ignores “the way folklore questions , critiques, protests, and sometimes undermines stability” (Mullen 2003). For example, as we mentioned before, tall tales allow tellers to express humor LIVING FOLKLORE 182 and play with the idea of deceitfulness in order to entertain and challenge listeners .As another example, children’s parodies...


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