Funktional-strukturale Ethnographie in Europa

Edited by Klaas-Hinrich Ehlers and Marek Nekula. 2011. Heidelberg: University of Heidelberg (Universitätsverlag Winter GmbH Heidelberg). ISBN: 978-3-8253-5883-9 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Jessica Merrill, University of California, Berkeley

[Review length: 1137 words • Review posted on September 26, 2012]


Funktional-strukturale Ethnographie in Europa presents, for the first time in a Western European language, a comprehensive selection of the writings of the Russian ethnographer Petr G. Bogatyrev (1893-1971). The book includes two excellent introductory chapters by Karl Braun and Klaas-Hinrich Ehlers followed by twenty-five essays by Bogatyrev, originally published in Czech, German, Russian, or Slovak between 1923 and 1939. Funktional-strukturale Ethnographie will be a valuable resource for Slavists already familiar with Bogatyrev’s work in that it presents new material regarding his intellectual biography (particularly his relationship to German folkloristics) and republishes several works retrieved from now-obscure periodicals. It is, however, scholars without a reading knowledge of Slavic languages who stand to benefit most profoundly from this long-overdue publication. While edited collections of Bogatyrev’s work are available in Czech, Polish, and Russian, until now only scattered publications could be read in German, French, or English. Folklorists are familiar with Bogatyrev’s now-canonical “Folklore as a Special Form of Creativity,” coauthored with Roman Jakobson in 1929, as well as Bogatyrev’s Functions of Folk Costume in Moravian Slovakia--a foundational text for the study of costume. This new collection of Bogatyrev’s writings allows non-Slavists to appreciate that these works are products of an extensively researched reconceptualization of the fields of folkloristics and ethnography.

The editors, Klaas-Hinrich Ehlers and Marek Nekula, have chosen to focus on Bogatyrev’s Czechoslovak years (1921-1939), widely acknowledged to have been his most scholarly productive and interesting period. (Bogatyrev was originally trained at Moscow University and returned to teach as a professor there in the 1940s.) Within this timeframe, the editors’ selection of texts was guided by the desire to include all of Bogatyrev’s important methodological statements, to demonstrate the breadth of his interests, and to highlight Bogatyrev’s connections to contemporary European scholarship in ethnography, folkloristics, and linguistics.

Methodologically, Bogatyrev was a pioneer in the development of a “synchronic,” functional approach to ethnography. He advocated the methodological reformation of ethnography after the model of structural linguistics (120). Ehlers provides a good treatment of Bogatyrev’s use of concepts from structural linguistics in his thoroughly researched introduction (34-40). Two of Bogatyrev’s most detailed methodological statements, “Zur Frage der ethnologischen Geographie” and “Die funktional-strukturale Methode und andere Methoden der Ethnographie und der Folkloreforschung,” are made available here in a Western European language for the first time. The analogy between Ferdinand de Saussure’s langue and the collective creation of folklore may be familiar to readers from Bogatyrev’s article coauthored with Jakobson. These essays reveal how Bogatyrev explored this analogy in further detail. He posited that the functions (i.e., meanings) a cultural artifact obtains in within a collectivity create a complex structure (162). This structure of functions, the object of Bogatyrev’s ethnographic research, is understood to create a group’s cultural identity.

The inclusion of Bogatyrev’s articles on film and the semiotics of theater highlight one of the most interesting aspects of his work. This is the fact that Bogatyrev’s approach to art and culture can be said to focus on a cluster of interests that cut across existing disciplinary boundaries. One of the dominant themes in his work was the concept of collective creativity. Bogatyrev was interested in how collectives create (aesthetic, magical, religious) codes of meaning, and how these codes are structured and evolve. Bogatyrev saw that collective creativity was a fact of human life everywhere, but that collectively-held knowledge and beliefs exerted greater pressure on individuals in rural communities than they do in urban settings. Much of Bogatyrev’s field work was conducted in the economically backward and ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse region of Carpathian Ruthenia--see “Aufgaben des Ethnographen in Karpatorussland und in der Ostslowakei” (146-150). Bogatyrev was interested in how the cultural codes in various villages differed, and how foreign borrowings were transformed by these codes.

Bogatyrev’s approach to these questions was informed by linguistics and his long-standing interest in theater. The juxtaposition of Bogatyrev’s writings on ethnography and on the semiotics of theater and film in Funktional-strukturale Ethnographie allows common themes to stand out. The semiotic code that a collectivity creates, which underlies its behavior and beliefs, is described in a manner analogous to theatrical performance. Bogatyrev’s view of the close relationship between role play, semiotics, and collective creativity is articulated in “Das Volkstheater.” The semiotic collective is described as a type of theater in which audience and actors collaborate in establishing meanings that exist only within this space. Reading chapters such as “Die Tracht als Zeichen,” “Ein Beitrag zur Erforschung der Zeichen des Theaters” and “Theaterzeichen” in succession, reveals a clear parallel between the “transformation” of a stone, for example, into an indication of a property line and the collective agreement that allows schematic props such as a poker to be transformed into a “horse” on stage (164, 205).

The editors’ focus on the connections between Bogatyrev’s work and that of his contemporaries allows us to appreciate the extent to which his ideas were ahead of their time. In “Zur Frage der vergleichenden historischen Ethnographie” and “Was ist Folklore?”—republished for the first time—Bogatyrev responds to folklorists in Czechoslovakia and the USSR, arguing against prevailing views that folklore is to be approached as a survival from a previous era. Rather than focus on the history of folkloric “relics” themselves, Bogatyrev argues that folkloristics is the study of a special form of (collective) creativity (138). He points out that the researcher committed to studying a specific manifestation of folk culture is condemned to eventually work only from museum collections. The functional method, in contrast, allows the ethnographer to continually study the living culture that surrounds him or her (167).

In keeping with this approach, Bogatyrev’s writings eschew divisions between “high” and “low” art or “urban” as opposed to “rural” customs. The selection of essays in Funktional-strukturale Ethnographie highlights this, including “Aberglaube bei Schauspielern” in which Bogatyrev argues that the superstitions held by actors and those found in villages in Carpathian Ruthenia may represent a similar response to analogous situations. Bogatyrev finds the principles of a popular aesthetic in not only folk theater and religious mystery plays, but also in the films of Charlie Chaplin. See, in particular, “Chaplin und The Kid,” and “Zur Frage der gemeinsamen Kunstgriffe im alttschechischen und im volkstümlichen Theater.”

In the introductory chapters of Funktional-strukturale Ethnographie, Braun and Ehlers describe the German lack of interest in Bogatyrev’s work in the 1930s as a symptom of the political radicalization of the field. In contrast to a narrowly nationalistic understanding of folklore, Bogatyrev’s methodological reconceptualization of his field was based on an interest in the relationship between collective identity and “foreign” contacts—whether with urban culture or different ethnic groups. Rethinking folkloristics and ethnography in an era of globalization raises questions that can benefit from the inclusion of Bogatyrev’s voice in this ongoing discussion. Funktional-strukturale Ethnographie deserves to be read widely within the international scholarly community.

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