Research in Folklore Studies

tunebook paintingWhat is folklore?

Narrowly, the term “folklore” has been traditionally considered the oral tales of a society. More broadly, the term refers to all aspects of a culture – beliefs, traditions, norms, behaviors, language, literature, jokes, music, art, foodways, tools, objects, etc.

Folklore is, in essence, anything and everything in life.

What is Folklore Studies?

Folklore Studies, also known as Folkloristics, is the study of all aspects of culture, particularly material culture or the products of a society. It developed as a discipline in the nineteenth-century in tandem with a number of other disciplines, including Literary Studies, History, Anthropology, Sociology, and Psychology; and has followed similar theoretical trends.

In the early 19th century, with the nostalgic wistfulness of the Romantic movement and burgeoning nationalism in Europe and North America, scholars grew increasingly interested in collecting and cataloging material culture, particularly folklore. This time period produced a large number of folklore and fairytale collections and preserved a portion of oral culture. The term “folklore” was first used in 1846 by William Thoms. Originally, it was limited solely to oral peasant tales. It was not until the 20th century that Folklore Studies was recognized as both cultural studies and as a discipline.

Why study folklore?

Folklore helps us understand society, cultures, communities, groups, and individuals. Studying folklore develops analytical skills and cultural sensitivity. Most importantly, it engenders understanding of and respect for others, as well as better understanding of ourselves.

Folklorists are rarely ever just folklorists. A degree in Folklore Studies teaches a range of transferable skills which can be used in any career. Some folklorists continue in academia as teachers and researchers, often in literature, history, or anthropology departments. Most folklorists apply their cultural knowledge and analytical skills to the public field and work as mediators between institutions and society. Many folklorists work directly with communities in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Educators
  • Ethnographers
  • Researchers
  • Anthropologists
  • Writers
  • Editors
  • Curators
  • Librarians
  • Conservators
  • Doctors
  • Social Workers
  • Lawyers
  • Social Activists
  • Entrepreneurs
  • Film Producers
  • Journalists
  • Non-Profit Organizers 

Image: American School. Fraktur art: Ephrata Cloister tunebook, 1745. Watercolor and ink on paper, with cloth and leather binding. Harvard Fine Arts Library, Digital Images & Slides Collection.

Folklore Studies at Harvard

Founded in 1967, the degree concentration in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University is the oldest undergraduate Folklore degree program in the United States. At Harvard, students can study both past and present society through their cultural documents and artifacts, using a range of methodologies drawn from the humanities and social sciences.

The program at Harvard

The concentration in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard provides students with a general knowledge of the materials of folklore and mythology, its genres and divisions, and the various kinds of intellectual approaches to the materials that have been, and still are, used to understand and interpret them. Additionally, students apply the various anthropological methods and analytical theories taught through field and ethnography work. Students in the concentration develop and practice folkloristic methods -- deep listening, observant participation, cross-cultural comparison, historical contextualization, collaborative interpretation, cultural documentation, empathetic engagement, and good storytelling. Moreover, each student chooses a special field to research in order to acquire an in-depth knowledge of folklore and mythology in one given area. 

Beck-Warren House

Since 1997, the Committee on Degrees in Folklore & Mythology has resided in the Beck-Warren House (also known as just the Warren House), a historic building near Harvard Yard, built in 1833 for Harvard Latin professor Charles Beck and owned from 1891 to 1899 by Sanskrit scholar Henry Clarke Warren. Offices for the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures and the Humanities Center are also located in the building.

Harvard and Folklore Studies research

Students at Harvard who pursue a concentration in Folklore and Mythology conduct independent research on a particular aspect or field of folklore. These areas of study can be generic, cultural, or disciplinary. Some students research a genre of folklore, for example epics, music, folktales, legends, dramas, dance, rituals, beliefs, proverbs, customs, law codes, festival celebrations, wisdom literature, or one of the many other forms of expressive culture. Others research the various elements of folklore of a specific culture or language, including Yoruba, Celtic, African, Greek, Scandinavian, English, American, Japanese, Slavic, German, Brazilian, Near Eastern, Chinese, Indian, Maori. Still others examine folklore through the lens of specific disciplines or theories, such as Anthropology; Women and Gender Studies; Linguistics; Sociology; Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights; Ethnomusicology; Performance Studies; Folk Narrative; Internet Culture; or International Law.

Image: Harvard University, Beck-Warren House, Cambridge, Middlesex County, Massachusetts.
Image Source: The Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology website