Anthropology and Folklore: Bridging Gaps

         Я—антрополог. A mundane statement that always begins a long discussion as to what anthropology really is and what it is that I do as a profession. Whereas in North America, anthropology can be defined as the study of humanity, with the prerequisite clarification that anthropology includes archaeology and the study of cultures, in Russia the term is associated with the measuring of skulls, the domain of physical anthropology. To explain what I really do, I have to expand, specify that I am closer to an ethnographer, but that in Russia is also imbued with other meanings. The ethnographer in Russia is the folklorist in Canada. Thus, for over a decade, I have been explaining to Russians anthropology, while invariably being paired with folklorists in the field as we seek to understand human behavior. This presentation, thus, will seek once more to bridge the gaps between disciplines, between countries, between old ideologies in order to analyze how we can create a useful syncretism that will bring us closer together in terms of theory, overlapping already in terms of methodology, while demonstrating that folklore should be concerned with the present and that anthropology should have recourse to folklore to better understand contemporary cultures. I will argue that like an odd couple, North American anthropology and Russian folklore can complete each other, though as any loving couple each will certainly insist on doing it as they see best, pulling at the social blanket of discursive practices to define cultures past and present. One useful avenue is the emergence and growing status of oral history in Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada has legitimized Oral History as a form of history and oral history traditions can be presented to Canadian courts as evidence. Oral history is de facto folklore as it seeks to interview elders to record their memories and traditions, while clearly building upon an anthropological tradition of gathering life histories to better understand how cultures have changed over time. Oral history can serve as a useful testament as to how anthropology and folklore can reconcile their differences and work productively together in studying what it means to be human.

For many years, I have been organizing ethnographic, anthropologically ethnographic, field school in Russia, and quite often the work that was being done would overlap with Russian field schools. Together, Canadian and American students would conduct research in villages, while their peers from Russia would scour the countryside. There were differences, methodological and theoretical. There was a greater emphasis on finding the “babushki” and “dedushki” that is to find the elders to collect from them their memories and accounts of the traditions that had largely disappeared. I admired their zeal: the Russian students would quickly scour the villages finding each and every possible informant and were extremely adept at soliciting from their songs and oral traditions, recording the minutiae of folklore. There were adept at finding the songs that graced weddings, those that were sung at funerals, and the beliefs surrounding a variety of life rituals. I have to confess that the narratives that can be collected intrigued me. In the case of the Komi Republic, there had been a rich belief in a spiritual world that coexisted with the material, with the forests inhabited by “leshy” the forest spirits and waterways occupied by “vaussa” or malevolent mermaids among the other spiritual forces and creatures that coexisted with humans. My regret is that contemporary anthropology had little interest in folklore. I will examine the rupture, how the two disciplines diverged and will propose how they could be reunited, in Russia at least.

Though anthropology and folklore are now seen as distinct disciplines, this was not always the case. Regna Darnell provides an intriguing history of the emergence of the modern disciplines of anthropology and folklore in the United States. In her review of the history of anthropology and folklore, she reviews the influence of Franz Boas, one of the leading figures who shaped the emergence of four-field anthropology in North America, in the history of folklore between 1890 and 1920. She chronicles how anthropologists were publishing in the Darnell affirms that for Boas “folklore was also a part of anthropology” (1973:26) There were nonetheless differences. In these early years, the discipline of anthropology was preoccupied with the exotic other and the folklore being collected by Boas and others focused on the myths of the indigenous peoples of North America, whereas the folklorists wanted to collect the folklore of all the peoples of the continent, including that of the “Old English, Negro, American Indian, French-Canadian and Mexican cultures” (Darnell 1973:26). The early folklorists respected Boas and his students for their thorough methods and even their goals were similar. Boas and other anthropologists believed that that the cultures and aboriginal peoples were disappearing and the goal was to salvage what could be collected before developing overarching theories. In turn, folklorists were striving for the accurate collection of materials, for later study, and they too were seeking to record the folklore of rural populations that were quickly becoming urban. The development of American folklore then was guided by Franz Boas who sought to impose professional standards to the study of folklore and prioritized the recording of first-hand material. Simply put, Boas encouraged the application of anthropological fieldwork to the study of folklore and even encouraged greater theorizing in the Journal of American Folklore he edited than the corresponding journal American Anthropologist. Great importance was accorded to recording the myths of indigenous peoples, and more importantly developing overarching theories to explain the diffusion of myths. “Boas was concerned with the general implication of myth themes, their diffusion, psychological reality, and functional integration within cultures—all of these being questions not raised by the earlier, Washington-dominated efforts towards myth concordance”(Darnell 1973:37). The Washington dominated efforts were those of the Bureau of American Ethnology that was the rival to the growing influence of the Boasian school centered at Columbia University in New York City and would be overtaken by the Boston school that would push folklore towards the realm of literature.

The early pioneering work of Boas nonetheless highlighted the necessity to strive towards theories that would seek to bring together the disparate strands of folklore data, while integrating it into a larger cultural context. The challenge remains as to how to define folklore and position it in the larger humanities and social sciences. Where does folklore fit? As Dan Ben-Amos noted, anthropologists tend to lump folklore with literature, while scholars of literature see it as culture (Ben-Amos 1971). Yet, the problem remains: how to integrate the eclectic folklore that is collected into a larger cultural whole, or how or how to address the unresolved issue of tying together what could be merely trivia into a larger understanding of culture. Or, as Ben-Amos writes, folklorists “circumvented the main issue, namely the isolation of the unifying thread that joins jokes and myths, gestures and legends, costumes and music into a single category of knowledge” (1971:3).

Existential Crisis

         The study of folklore nonetheless never established a strong niche as an independent discipline in United States and Canada. The first university to add a department devoted to the study of Folklore was the University of Indiana in 1949 (Ben-Amos 1973:122). Whereas departments of anthropology gained a toehold in even the smallest universities, department devoted to the study of folklore were far and few between. The American Folklore Society lists 17 universities where one can major or minor in anthropology, 20 where one can get a master’s degree and 16 where one can complete a doctoral degree. Keep in mind that there are close to one hundred universities in Canada alone and over two thousand six hundred colleges and universities offering 4-year degrees in the United States. Given the slow development of folklore as an academic field of study, it is not surprising that the field of folklore studies underwent somewhat of an existential crisis in the 1970s. One of the leading scholars of the field, Dan Ben-Amos (1973:114) published a critical history of folklore studies and he notes “folklore scholarship did not succeed, in many respects, in avoiding the pitfalls of method that are analogous to mere chronicling.” In other words, it successfully collected the data, but did not succeed in developing a larger conceptual framework to analyze the date. In other words, it had not succeeded where Boas had left off close to half-a-century earlier, and the theories that predominated in folklore research had been borrowed from other disciplines from anthropology to psychology (Ben-Amos 1973:116). By the 1970s, folklore studies had become interdisciplinary before inter-disciplinary became a buzzword, but this reflected in large part the low status of the discipline. As Ben-Amos notes, folklore scholarship cited extensively scholars from other disciplines, while they were in turn largely ignored by other scholars (1973:117). All told, folklore scholarship was quickly becoming obsolete.

If the study of folklore in North America maintained any kind of prominence, it is due to the work of one scholar who shifted the emphasis of the discipline from the ballads of the cowboys and Appalachian miners to the tales of contemporary culture. The field was saved from complete obscurity in part through the success of the smash hit Roots in the late 1970s that revived a continent-wide interest in genealogy as well the work of a folklorist who published a best-selling study of urban legends. In 1981, Jan Harold Brunvald (1981) published The Vanishing Hitchhiker, an analysis of urban legends, one of many books that he would publish on the topic (Brunvand 1986; 1988; 1990; 1993; 2001; 2012). He used the tools of folklore studies developed earlier in his career to analyze the modern folklore that was in circulation (Brunvand and Inge 1976) and his previous research included a study of shaggy dog jokes of an earlier epoch (Brunvand 1963). As traditional tales, urban legends were oral stories and legends, transmitted from person to person, and occasionally published in newspaper. Simply put, Brunvand recognized that urban legends were modern folklore. Fantastic legends, they were taken to be real, had no author and were shared across continents. They were also reputed to have happened to the friend of a friend of a friend. Invariably, they had a hidden moral lesson that was being taught, warning the unwary of the dangers that lurked. These were not “leshy” and “vaussa” but they were thought to be just as real and they lurked in urban environments, in suburban homes, or on vacation.

The popularity of the study of urban legends, and their continuing appeal as new urban legends are being created and distributed with greater speed thanks to the Internet, certainly provoked new avenues of research in folklore and this is evident in the publications of the Journal of American Folklore. Here, we see three distinct trends in the articles presented. One is quite anthropological and involves the study of folklore in other countries, other cultures either outside North America or immigrant populations in the United States. An example of such an article would be the study of a bridal lament in rural China (Liu 2012), the curses of a Greek island (Avdikos 2011) or the ways Igbo parents can teach their heritage culture to their children (Njoku 2012) The second is tied to a more traditional folklore: the folklore of the earlier American folk. Such articles will analyze the origins of folk heroes such as the cowboy of yore (Stoeltje 2012), will examine the recorded folk music of the past such as yodeling (Wise 2013) and other research will look at the origins and content of recorded folk tales such as the study of the transmission of Yoruba divination verses to African American folktales (Washington 2012). The third stream of folklore study involves the study of contemporary narratives shared both orally and via the online social networks. Examples of this stream of research include the study of vernacular martial arts developed by African Americans as a means of self defense in prison setting (Green 2012), “Talking Shit” in Louisiana (Laudun 2012), the legends of Hurricane Katrina (Lindahl 2012), scrap-booking as (auto)ethnography (Christensen 2011) and even Harry Potter (Haas 2011). Drawing upon Anthropology and the study of literature, these new folklore studies are a mix of ethnography and culture studies, and would barely be recognizable to traditional folklorists. Nonetheless, they do provide an interesting avenue of research for anthropologists and applied to Russia could prove to be a fertile field of study.

The contribution that anthropology can make to the study of folklore is to highlight the social nature of folklore. It exists in a social context, is performed in social contexts and is understood because it is found in larger social and cultural narratives. Also, anthropology should highlight the necessity to seek out the ways in which past folklore melds into contemporary folk beliefs and tales and should acknowledge that folklore was never static, there was diffusion and there was innovation. Where anthropologists can also provide guidance is in highlighting the futility of seeking “purity” in folklore past and present. Folklore was always influenced by literature and in turn literature and other media drew upon folklore. If folklore can still be said to exist, it will certainly exist in interaction with television and other forms of media, and communities will be formed not only by face-to-face storytelling, but also in the sharing of tales via email and the Internet. Where anthropology and folklore studies could and do find common ground is in applying the methods and theory of both disciplines to the study of contemporary culture and folklore past and present. The new folklore thus will be one part ethnography and one part “netography” (Maria, et al. 2012) as it will be ethnography conducted in both live and online communities.

A recent article in The Journal of American Folklore highlights an innovative approach to the contemporary study of folklore. Margaret Duffy, Janis Teruggi Page and Rachel Young provide an insightful analysis of e-mails being forwarded and the ways in which they served to define conservative social identity in the United States, and they described these forwarded e-mails as “political digital folklore” with the e-mails being sent generally having visual images presenting President Barack Obama as being Anti-American. This visual “folklore” is thus “a kind of digital folklore that is politically motivated, showing how their political dynamics may contribute to constructing not only group identity but also the individuals’ social identity within their e-mail group” (2012:177). The images attached to the email demonize Obama and thus serve to amplify the believability of the message being conveyed. This article begs the question, how is this any different than the tales told in traditional folklore? The folk tales that I will be discussing in another paper were also widely shared and were founded upon folk evidence that demonstrated that they were true. The loup-garou or the French werewolf was not just a story, but presented as a real threat and beneath the tale was a morality lesson being taught. Likewise, the forwarded e-mails in turn present the shared angsts of a group, distributing their “proof” of the hidden evils while communicating a latent moral message that call upon the true believers to take action to protect the community from the masked danger. The men and women distributing their e-mails are much like the old woman in the French-Canadian folktale whereby the Devil is dancing at a local gathering. The Devil is a fine dancer, a true gentleman that is admired, until the old woman realizes his mischief and reveals his true nature by throwing some holy water on him. The e-mail and attachments are meant to be the holy water that are to serve to reveal the Devil that Obama is believe to be. The strength of the folklore comes from its continual telling, or more appropriately its constant forwarding.

The anthropologist and the folklorist seeking contemporary folklore in Russia would thus be counseled to look to sites such as vkontakte and odnoklassniki as here tales are told and retold. Songs are shared, funny video clips distributed, photos liked and the occasional urban legend distributed far and wide. On Facebook, the site truly serves to distribute contemporary folklore across the planet. There are the memes that quickly emerge and crisscross the world. Memes, like traditional folklore, often lacks in authorship. They are passed from one Internet user to another and like folk tales, the original author or authors is forgotten, with authorship being secondary to the telling of the tale. The tale is often subtly changed new versions arise, though the underlying matrix remains. One popular meme was the “Downfall” or “Hitler finds out” meme whereby a clip is taken from the German film Der Untergang and new subtitles are added to the same clip whereby Hitler reacts to a variety of modern events such as Twitter being down, or Hitler being banned from a web forum of social network site. Such memes are not even constrained by language or national barriers, as the “Hitler finds out” meme even crossed into Russia, with one version entitled “Гитлер узнал о запрете Skype в России”[1] and yet another “Гитлер Вконтакте.”[2]

Though new folklore is still being created and distributed, old folklore need not be discarded. A study of the folklore collected in the past can shed light on contemporary communities and present practices. Though Russia is a modern, largely urban country, one should not underestimate the continued vitality of folk beliefs. I must confess, I have had to talk to a mirror more than once because I had forgotten something at home and had to placate the spirits of the house. Then there are all the folk beliefs tied to health. I have certainly been scolded more than a few times for walking around in my bare feet and not sufficiently covering my throat in the winter. We certainly won’t go down the rocky path of eating ice cream should your throat even have the slightest itch that could potentially be a sore throat or certain death. Where these originated, I do not know, but they live one. Attention should be paid to such folk beliefs, beliefs that are tied to an implicit spiritual understanding of the world, and implicit ethno-scientific classification of the larger universe. Though I do enjoy the old women in the villages describing the “domovoi” and other folk beings, I am also intrigued by folk beliefs that are still prevalent to this day, the gifts that must not be giver over the doorsill, nor the hands that must not be shook over this same liminal space. These beliefs continue to guide individuals and their behavior. Likewise, there is the continued folk psychology and divination that occurs in the realm of dreams. Now, it is possible to go Russian websites and share dreams where they will be collectively analyzed online. Is this not folklore? Is this not calling upon collective beliefs to interpret the events of the present? Is there not some continuity between the folklore of the past and the beliefs of the present? Folklore as I have observed in Russia tend to seek the beliefs and folk knowledge of the past, but I did not see any attempts to tie it to the present. Anthropology described communities in ethnographies that were in the unchanging present, while folklorists seek to document an unchanging past. It would be to our common benefit to tie past and present together using critical analysis to better understand the longue durée.

Finally, the study of folklore is a means of fleshing out our understanding of history. In my main field of research, the study of nation and nationalism, the peasant are largely presented as a people without past. They are the simple folk, and they are manipulated and beguiled by the elites who drum words and ideas into their heads. This is seen in the modernist accounts explaining the rise of nation and nationalism. The folk are presented as unaware of the existence of nations until the elites and states inculcate in them a sense of belonging to a nation. Nations are thus seen as being constructed by states and elites and the folk are seen as passively adopting what is drummed into their heads. However, such theories of nation and nationalism do not take into account folklore and preserved oral history. A cursory review of some of Russia’s folklore highlights knowledge of past events. History was recorded in oral history passed down from generation ot generation, and I am convinced that a closer analysis of folklore would demonstrate that the Russian peasantry did see itself as Russian, not merely Orthodox, and that the folk did have greater political acumen than what is generally acknowledged by researchers. Folklore, thus, would serve to complement, and occasionally challenge, the notions put forward by theorists and historians. Folklore is a means whereby we can provide a history to the peoples or folk that were without history, allowing us to provide a more nuanced understanding of the history of the folk and the ways in which the folk understood themselves and their lives.

In Canada, there is a resurgence of research that approximates folklore in indigenous communities, but rather it is oral history. Yet, if we look at oral history, it has many of the same tenets and methods of traditional folklore study or anthropology. Interviews are conducted with elders to record how life was lived in the past. This research is guided by political concerns: oral history is conducted to provide peoples that had been colonized and denied history by Europeans, a process described by Eric Wolf (1982), oral history is collected to provide the legitimacy needed to challenge the existing colonial structures that are a legacy of the past. A turning point in Canada’s judicial system was the 1997 Delgamuukw judgement of the Canadian Supreme Court that affirmed that First Nations peoples may use oral history to prove claims to the land and the aboriginal title to the territory while affirming their right to use the land for a variety of purposes and not solely traditional or subsistence activities (Wyatt 2008:173). Given the relevance and importance of oral history in court, oral history is prioritized in First Nation communities.

In conclusion, folklore has largely waned in Canada and North America in the last century, largely resurgent in academia in the study of contemporary folklore, whether as urban legends or Internet folklore, while it is ethnography in Russia that has become largely folkloric, collecting the songs, legends and other cultural survivals of the past. This gap could be bridged and could even lead to fertile new fields of study. The seeds are there. In 2009, the State Republican Center for Russian Folklore published a volume entitled Internet and Folklore that explores themes that would fit in quite nicely with what is being published in the Journal of American Folklore. However, as Kargin and Kostina (2009:5) highlight, the study of internet folklore is still not fully accepted by established academics, marginalized as the preserve of the young and the “lovers of extreme academic-folklore sensations.” By bridging folklore and anthropology, Russian and Canada, we could provide new venues to understand folk culture, old and new, as well as expanding our understanding of the history of both countries.



Avdikos, E.G.

2011   ” May the Devil Take Your Head and Brain”: The Curses of Karpathos, Greece, Social Counterstructures, and the Management of Social Relations. Journal of American Folklore 124(492):88-117.

Ben-Amos, D.

1971   Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context. Journal of American folklore:3-15.

1973   A History of Folklore Studies: Why Do We Need It? Journal of the Folklore Institute:113-124.

Brunvand, J.H.

1963   A Classification for Shaggy Dog Stories. The Journal of American Folklore 76(299):42-68.

1981   The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings: WW Norton & Company.

1986   The Choking Doberman and Other” New” Urban Legends: WW Norton & Company.

1988   The Mexican Pet: More” New” Urban Legends and Some Old Favorites: WW Norton & Company Incorporated.

1990   Curses! Broiled Again!: The Hottest Urban Legends Going: WW Norton & Company.

1993   The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends: WW Norton & Company.

2001   Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends: WW Norton.

2012   Encyclopedia of Urban Legends: Abc-Clio Incorporated.

Brunvand, J.H., and M.T. Inge

1976   Folklore: A Study and Research Guide: St. Martin’s Press.

Christensen, D.E.

2011   ” Look at Us Now!”: Scrapbooking, Regimes of Value, and the Risks of (Auto) Ethnography. Journal of American Folklore 124(493):175-210.

Darnell, R.

1973   American Anthropology and the Development of Folklore Scholarship: 1890-1920. Journal of the Folklore Institute:23-39.

Duffy, M., J.T. Page, and R. Young

2012   Obama as Anti-American: Visual Folklore in Right-Wing Forwarded E-Mails and Construction of Conservative Social Identity. Journal of American Folklore 125(496):177-203.

Green, T.A.

2012   Sick Hands and Sweet Moves: Aesthetic Dimensions of a Vernacular Martial Art. The Journal of American Folklore 125(497):286-303.

Haas, H.A.

2011   The Wisdom of Wizards—and Muggles and Squibs: Proverb Use in the World of< I> Harry Potter</I>. Journal of American Folklore 124(492):29-54.

Kargin, A.S., and A.V. Kostina

2009   Nauchnoe Osmyslenie Internet-Folklora: Aktual’nye Problemy I Opyt Issledovaniya. In Internet I Fol’klor: Sbornik Nauchnykh Statey. Pp. 5-18. Moscow: Gosudarstvennomy respublikanskomy tsentry russkogo folk’lora.

Laudun, J.

2012   ” Talking Shit” in Rayne: How Aesthetic Features Reveal Ethical Structures. The Journal of American Folklore 125(497):304-326.

Lindahl, C.

2012   Legends of Hurricane Katrina: The Right to Be Wrong, Survivor-to-Survivor Storytelling, and Healing. Journal of American Folklore 125(496):139-176.

Liu, F.W.

2012   Expressive Depths: Dialogic Performance of Bridal Lamentation in Rural South China. Journal of American Folklore 125(496):204-225.

Maria, G., et al.

2012   Folklore Research and Its New Challenges: From the Ethnography to Netografy. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences:111.

Njoku, J.A.K.

2012   Establishing Igbo Community Tradition in the United States: Lessons from Folkloristics. The Journal of American Folklore 125(497):327-342.

Stoeltje, B.J.

2012   Paredes and the Hero: The North American Cowboy Revisited. Journal of American Folklore 125(1):45-68.

Washington, T.N.

2012   Mules and Men and Messiahs: Continuity in Yoruba Divination Verses and African American Folktales. The Journal of American Folklore 125(497):263-285.

Wise, T.

2013   From the Mountains to the Prairies and Beyond the Pale: American Yodeling on Early Recordings. Journal of American Folklore.

Wolf, E.R.

1982   Europe and the People without History: University of California Press.

Wyatt, S.W.S.

2008   First Nations, Forest Lands, and “Aboriginal Forestry” in Canada: From Exclusion to Comanagement and Beyond. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 38(2):171-180.