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Policy Legends and Folklists: Traditional Beliefs in the Public Sphere

From: Journal of American Folklore
Volume 123, Number 488, Spring 2010
pp. 150-178 | 10.1353/jaf.0.0133



Although folklorists have seldom concentrated on politics, folklore thrives among decision-making elites and the politically aware citizenry. One genre is the "policy legend," a traditional text that describes institutions or social conditions, often in a historical frame, to call for governmental or collective action. Even though policy legends are typically transmitted in written form, they change continually, adapting to their political contexts and the concerns of their communicators and audiences. They frequently take the form of lists, which we call folklists, and survive through autopoiesis, the propensity of a system to repair and maintain its internal elements and boundaries. This article analyzes three policy legends: the list of historical statistics on the prevalence of war, then-and-now lists of the worst school discipline problems, and an alleged, wordy federal regulation on the price of cabbages.