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Radical History Review 84 (2002) 110-114

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The Uses of Disciplinary History

Regina Bendix

Many folklorists were rather perplexed when the first call for papers for a special issue on "The Uses of the Folk" circulated on-line. "Haven't we worked on this topic since the 1960s?" they asked, and they followed that query up with a sardonic observation that, once again, the labors and insights of the small discipline of folklore had gone unnoticed by the giant field of history. 1 A similar mixture of unease and amazement pervaded in the early 1980s when two books dealing with tradition, a core term in folklore, stirred wide debate. One was by the sociologist Edward Shils, and the other, which brought the idea of "invented tradition" into the academic limelight, had been edited by the historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger. 2 Neither book acknowledged folklorists' extensive work on, or perhaps more accurately, with the concept of "tradition." Folklorists in turn may have embraced invented tradition a little too hastily, as they adopted it as a label for various sociopolitical and economic phenomena, most notably "fakelore" and "folklorismus," that had long been debated in folklore studies internationally. 3 These discussions among folklorists, which lasted roughly from the 1960s to the 1980s, acknowledged the inherent entanglement of the folk construct with both political and economic forces. They presaged the movement toward a broad intellectual interest in the politics of culture in which collected, exhibited, and performed folk treasures have figured very prominently. 4

The question of "invention," crucial for historical practice concerned with the reliability of primary sources, turns the investigator's gaze to the agents and to those who perform as much as to those who collect and publish folklore. The questions to be asked, and indeed the entire focus of research, are likely to change from simply deciding whether a given collection is trustworthy as a source document. There is the [End Page 110] ethnographically inspired avenue that wants to know how, when, and why agents within given cultural contexts knew and performed the expressive forms recorded in the collection. There is the historiographic avenue that seeks to understand the collector and the ideological choices he or she made. And the collecting of folklore itself is ultimately a reflexive practice, as it implies that expressive culture is being culled from the flow of everyday life. These are the preeminent ways in which folklorists work with collected materials today, and ideally these kinds of reflections inform ongoing or new collection efforts. When collecting folklore, neither new technologies nor new exhibition and publication practices change the preeminent roles of agency and ideology.

The disciplinary culture of folklore studies differs quite markedly from that of history. In history, the subfields of oral history and social history took a long time to gain canonical prestige, and the subfield of public history, like many applied social sciences, remains rarely taught while amply practiced. To engage in social history means to contribute to disciplinary reflexivity, to question how one's habits of thought and interest shape the knowledge created and how that knowledge in turn impacts the society one lives in—sentiments which arguably brought forth Radical History Review. It is among social historians like Peter Burke, Natalie Davis, Carlo Ginzberg, or E. P. Thompson, albeit in very different ways, that interest in folklore materials becomes most evident, though the authors rarely take note of current folkloristic methodology. 5

Folklore studies, in the two hundred years they have existed, have always been sociopolitically engaged. To a greater or lesser extent, this engagement has carried with it an attendant reflexivity examining the outcome of such engagement and its impact on collection and analysis. Many of the first large folklore collections were the result of sociopolitical aspirations, with antiquarians, for example, collecting specimens of "otherness," whether of other times or other cultures. 6 This desire, or even lust, to surround oneself with "curiosities," to render simultaneous that which is nonsimultaneous (as the German scholar Konrad Köstlin puts it), was and remains a crucial component in the curatorial attention afforded to...


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pp. 110-114
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Archived 2004
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