Folklore is the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice that is disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioral example. Every group with a sense of its own identity shares, as a central part of that identity, folk traditions–the things that people traditionally believe (planting practices, family traditions, and other elements of worldview), do (dance, make music, sew clothing), know (how to build an irrigation dam, how to nurse an ailment, how to prepare barbecue), make (architecture, art, craft), and say (personal experience stories, riddles, song lyrics). As these examples indicate, in most instances there is no hard-and-fast separation of these categories, whether in everyday life or in folklorists’ work.
The word “folklore” names an enormous and deeply significant dimension of culture. Considering how large and complex this subject is, it is no wonder that folklorists define and describe folklore in so many different ways. Try asking dance historians for a definition of “dance,” for instance, or anthropologists for a definition of “culture.” No one definition will suffice–nor should it.
In part, this is also because particular folklorists emphasize particular parts or characteristics of the world of folklore as a result of their own work, their own interests, or the particular audience they’re trying to reach. And for folklorists, as for the members of any group who share a strong interest, disagreeing with one another is part of the work–and the enjoyment–of the field, and is one of the best ways to learn.
But to begin, below we have cited several folklorists’ definitions and descriptions of folklore, given in the order in which they were written and published. (One of them uses the word “folklife” instead, which American folklorists, following their European colleagues, have used more frequently of late.) None of these definitions answers every question by itself, and certainly none of them is the American Folklore Society’s official definition (we don’t have one), but each offers a good place to start. From time to time we’ll add the views of other folklorists to this page.
One thing you’ll note about these definitions and descriptions is that they challenge the notion of folklore as something that is simply “old,” “old-fashioned,” “exotic,” “rural,” “peasant,” “uneducated,” “untrue,” or “dying out.” Though folklore connects people to their past, it is a central part of life in the present, and is at the heart of all cultures–including our own–throughout the world.
- From the American Folklore Society’s Website
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