Folklore and Contagion: Legends and Vernacular Risk Perception

Professor of Practice / Director of Arkansas Folk and Traditional Arts

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Virginia Siegel
Subjects: Folklore

Finding and Assessing Folklore Texts

Folklore is an incredibly broad and encompassing topic; it is likely you will encounter folklore and folklore-related topics within books spanning a variety of fields and written by authors from a variety of educational backgrounds. There are several rules of thumb to keep in mind when finding and evaluating books on folklore-related topics:

  1. Author: It is important to keep in mind that authors from different backgrounds may define folklore and folklife differently. When researching folklore and folklife-related topics, it is especially important to read the author's biography and understand the background (and perspective) the author is bringing to folklore studies. Some authors may call themselves a folklorist without a formal academic background in folklore. Formal academic folklorists hold degrees in folklore, folk studies, anthropology, and comparative studies. No one background is inherently better than the others, but the author's background will inform their definitions and understanding of folklore.
  2. Audience: Some folklore books are written for popular audiences (such as collections of fairy tales or ghost stories) and others are written by scholars with special emphasis on theory, nuance, and context. The history of the discipline of folklore has included periods of time where some scholars were at odds with non-folklorist collectors who sought to compile books for popular audiences. Scholars worried, sometimes justifiably, that books written for popular audiences would trivialize folklore and/or cement traditions by removing the folklore traditions from their organic contexts (see source material below).
  3. Source Material: Did the author conduct original research and interview community members? Where did they get their information? Many anthologies of folklore, especially volumes of folk narratives like fairy tales and legends, present static versions of material without contextualizing the history of variation of the content. For instance, there is rarely one, single "pure" version of a folk song or story, nor is there usually one author. The nature of folklore centers on the practice of passing traditions and material on amongst community members over generations. This means folklore often changes and evolves to fit the teller, the audiences they share it with, and the social issues and mores of the time. As such, the folklore presented in the texts you find are often just one version of many.
  4. Date of Publication: Who is included, who is not included, and how folklore is presented and contextualized is often tied to the social issues and mores of the time of publication. Folklore is tradition, and not all traditions are good, appropriate, sensitive, or inclusive. Keep the date of publication in mind when assessing how folklore and tradition is presented in each publication.

Book recommendations may be found on the Folklore Books page, divided into the following categories or genres:

  • General: Encyclopedias; History of Folklore Studies; General Folklore; Arkansas Folklore; Regional Folklore Readers
  • Folklore Research Methods: Ethnography and Fieldwork; History of Ethnography
  • Material Culture: Folk Art; Vernacular Architecture; Foodways; and Clothing and Adornment
  • Performance-based Folklore: Narrative/Stories and Music/Ballads
  • Folk Belief: Supernatural Belief; Health, Medicine, Trauma, Stigma; and Religion and Ritual
  • Applied and Public Sector Folklife-Work: Applied and Public Folklore; Festivals; Tourism; Museums; Policy and Cultural Conservation
  • Special Topics: Gender; Media and Internet Folklore; Folklore and Animals; Occupational Folklife; Popular Culture; School and Children's Folklore; Native American Folklore, African American Folklore

Additional Advice for Book Searches:

  • The American Folklore Society has created subject area bibliographies on topics ranging from Women's Folklore to Folk Narrative.
  • The American Folklore Society also offers an Ethnographic Thesaurus that can help you narrow down search terms. The AFS Ethnographic Thesaurus is a searchable online vocabulary that can be used to improve access to information about folklore, ethnomusicology, cultural anthropology, and related fields.
  • You can also get ideas for search terms by browsing the different membership sections within the American Folklore Society. These interest groups will give you ideas about the research interests of folklorists in the field.
  • If you are searching for additional books on narrative, consider searching specifically for legend, urban/contemporary legend, myth, folk tale, fairy tale, rumor, and joke. Folk narratives can also be researched by tale type or motif.
  • When searching for applied and public sector work, consider also researching historic preservation, intangible cultural heritage, intangible cultural properties/places, and critical heritage studies.
  • For more performance-based or belief-related terms, consider searching for: holidays, performance, rites/rites of passage, tradition.
  • Keep in mind, folk art may be referred to as "traditional art," and vernacular architecture might be called "folk architecture."

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