Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions, Second Edition

By Martha Sims and Martine Stephens. 2011. Logan: Utah State University Press. 344 pages. ISBN: 978-0-87421-844-2 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Paul Cowdell

[Review length: 906 words • Review posted on October 10, 2012]

The life of folklore studies in academia is a sensitive question. I am writing from England, for example, where there are currently no dedicated folklore programs. (Related modules, however, are available in other disciplines, and the situation is somewhat healthier across the rest of the British Isles.) Elsewhere established programs are facing budget cuts and departmental shrinkage, suggesting that many students will in future find their initial entry point to our discipline in elective modules.

This poses direct challenges when assembling student teaching materials, and addressing these challenges has clearly been a concern for the authors of this volume. Living Folklore is intended as an introductory course book that can be used both in dedicated folklore programs and as background reading for other fields. It may, in fact, be more successful for the latter than the former, and there are occasional lapses into a tone almost of special pleading aimed at students from other subjects.

The book aims to reflect current approaches to the subject, so it begins with a working definition of folklore and uses this as a route into exploring scholarly definitions and considerations. This gives a rather uneven structure over the course of the book as a whole when compared to the rather straightforward (if problematic) organization by genre of some earlier textbooks. This is matched by an unevenness of tone across the book, between sections clearly pitched at students coming to the subject for the first time and passages requiring greater background knowledge. The uneven use of endnotes speaks to similar problems: in some cases endnotes are used, sensibly, to introduce controversies that could be pursued in further study, but in others they simply expand details within the text, where they should really have been included to make sense of the student’s immediate reading. Even where endnotes point to controversies they do not always enable the reader to find further material: we read, for example, that Bruno Bettelheim’s work “has been questioned,” but not by whom, where, or on what grounds.

The authors, however, do use their approach to introduce early an assessment of the history of the discipline and the ways it has changed. This remains welcome, because there persists a tendency in some other disciplines to treat folklore as if it had never developed beyond the preoccupations and approaches of its pioneers. The authors thus move swiftly from a summary of genre definitions to a more performance-oriented approach. This is in line with their determined presentation of contemporary examples throughout, but it does place their reading of the subject within one specific theoretical framework. There is a rather idiosyncratic thematic chapter organization (Folklore; Groups; Tradition; Ritual; Performance; Approaches to Interpreting Folklore; Fieldwork and Ethnography; Examples of Folklore Projects; and Suggestions for Activities and Projects), with the longest theoretical chapter by far being that devoted to performance. It lends a slightly breathless air to some of the other theoretical approaches discussed. Oral formulaic theory, for example, warrants one paragraph, and there is no mention of any work in that field after 1960: this seems something of a disservice to an area that has been developed extensively in the recent period, whatever one’s intellectual preferences. The structure also serves to dehistoricize theoretical approaches: Propp’s Morphology may have finally appeared in a standardized English version in 1968, but simply giving this date without further comment could be somewhat misleading for a student new to the area.

Chapters are illustrated throughout both with inline text examples tackling the issues raised in the chapter and with boxed inserts providing discrete research items. These are consistent with the book’s intention to demonstrate that folklore is broad and interesting, and interesting to research, but they do sometimes disrupt the layout and its ease of use. (I welcomed the decision to use fieldwork examples from the authors’ family backgrounds, as these illustrate well the scope of folklore.) Indeed, the most useful parts of the book are those chapters dealing with fieldwork and research projects, where the authors introduce technical and ethical questions quite comprehensively. Again, however, these chapters would also seem to serve best students coming to folklore from without. The chapter of examples of fieldwork has work by undergraduate, graduate, and teaching folklorists, but also contains pieces by literature and writing students. The presentation of the results varies widely in quality and style, and the chapter as a whole seems more of an encouragement to students than any kind of suggestion of models of presentation.

The book is a useful addition to student textbooks, but seems unlikely to establish itself as a standard work. Where the genre-themed introductory works of Elliott Oring and Jan Brunvand have the edge is in their laying out of the available background material. Genre approaches are problematic, as is rightly noted, but in those earlier works we find systematic and comprehensive lists of the references available at the time of publication fitted to those existing generic structures. Those reference lists are now badly out of date, of course, but Living Folklore seems only partially to update them. There are gaps in the references to recent scholarship on some widely researched areas like oral poetry and, even more surprisingly, contemporary legend: neither Linda Degh’s Legend and Belief nor Bill Ellis’s Aliens, Ghosts and Cults (both 2002) is in the list of references. This is a useful book for highlighting the possibilities of folklore research, but will need some careful supplementing in the classroom.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.