Just Folklore: Analysis, Interpretation, Critique

By Elliott Oring. 2012. Los Angeles: Cantilever Press. 388 pages. ISBN: 978-0-9855214-1-7 (hard cover), 978-0-9855214-0-0 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Jay Mechling, University of California, Davis

[Review length: 1272 words • Review posted on March 27, 2013]


Elliott Oring likes to argue. The essay as a genre suits his scholarly style perfectly, as the tight, disciplined writing the essay requires permits him to pose and answer an interesting question, leading us through his logical analysis and taking us down roads to other disciplines when they help solve a puzzle. Reading an Oring essay sometimes reminds me of reading a legal brief. The writing is clear, jargon-free, and (I find) persuasive. Like Alan Dundes, who also preferred the essay format to the monograph, Oring does the reader the favor of occasionally gathering his previously published essays into collections.

The current collection of eighteen essays, the earliest from 1971 and the most recent from 2006, demonstrates the range and depth of Oring’s scholarship. Oring loves to write and argue about theory, and part of the pleasure of reading Oring’s essays is the sight of his challenging ideas taken-for-granted in the field. And he is just as comfortable writing the sort of folklore scholarship we expect—that is, taking something seemingly trivial and showing the reader how important (really) is the text or performance. Moreover, Oring brings to both the theory talk and the textual/contextual analysis a truly interdisciplinary set of ideas and approaches. You won’t find a more learned scholar when it comes to the canon in folklore and anthropology, but Oring adds psychology and rhetorical criticism to that repertoire.

Rather than try to summarize briefly each of the eighteen essays in this collection, I would rather use the space of this review to recommend to the reader four different essays that seem to me very important in thinking about folklore. Every essay in the collection has something to offer, but here are my top four.

First I recommend my longtime favorite, “Dyadic Traditions,” first published in 1984. This is the essay I often fell back on when I was teaching because it uses the folk culture of the dyad (two people) to show clearly what it means to build a high-context folk culture with dense, highly connotative communication. Everyone can relate to the experience of being in a dyadic culture with a sibling, close friend, or intimate partner. As is often the case, Oring uses real and sometimes amusing examples to demonstrate his points. If you wanted to point a colleague or friend to one essay that shows the general reader what folklorists study, this would be the essay.

I will cheat a bit in my list and count “Legend, Truth and News” (1990) and “Legendry and the Rhetoric of Truth” (2008) as one continuous essay, as they really should be read together (and one comes after the other in this collection). As someone who writes rhetorical criticism, I very much appreciate Oring’s bringing to the attention of folklorists what rhetorical theory and critical practice have to offer. The genre Oring takes on here—the legend—is perfect for this purpose, as rhetorical criticism aims to understand how the rhetors who communicate a message induce belief in the audience members. Folklorists have thrashed about so much around the issues of belief and “truth” in legend research that it is refreshing to see Oring cut through all the confusion and show how the tropes familiar to rhetorical critics from Aristotle to the present—the tropes of ethos, logos, and pathos—actually work to induce belief in the audience for a legend. The details of rhetorical concept and analysis here are precise, and he uses actual legends and legend fragments to demonstrate how a particular trope does its persuasive work.

In “Thinking Through Tradition,” the one new essay in the collection, Oring is able to find something new to say about a “keyword” in folklore studies that is used so matter-of-factly its meanings would seem to be obvious. Oring deftly takes some of the key statements about tradition, and he notes the mischief done when folklorists conflate tradition as “process” and tradition as “product.” After taking apart the sloppy usages of the concept, Oring concludes that tradition has not proven itself to be a useful analytical concept. He urges folklorists to stop taking tradition as a self-evident concept and begin making it problematic.

Picking the fourth essay to review here is difficult, as each of the essays in this collection is interesting in its own way, some focused on theory (e.g., “Missing Theory,” 2006, or “Definition and Devolution,” 1975) and one, “On the Tradition and Mathematics of Counting-Out” (1997), which begins with a simple question about the ability of children to manipulate the results of counting-out in a group of friends and leads eventually to Oring’s seeking an answer in mathematics. His mathematician friend immediately sees in Oring’s question a variant of the well-known “Josephus Problem” and its solutions in mathematics, and that gives Oring both the key to the mathematics of children’s counting-out games and a window into seeing the elements of folklore in the field of mathematics itself. Oring has no fear of crossing disciplinary boundaries, and this foray into mathematics is but one example of his willingness to look to the natural sciences, such as the still-emerging field of mind science.

With so many choices for my final example to review here, I was drawn to “Generating Lives: The Life History of a Life History,” originally published in 1987. This essay interests me for its reflexivity and its exploration of the epistemological issues embodied in the simple act of a fieldworker’s attempt to interrogate an informant for a “life history.” Oring’s “text” in this case is an unpublished paper and transcripts of his sessions with another Indiana University graduate student (not in folklore) created by Oring when he was a beginning graduate student in the fall of 1966. The folklore assignment was to write a “life history” of an informant, and Oring is refreshingly candid about his confusion in trying to fulfill this assignment. Oring did this exercise of interviewing and then coming to write what amounts to an ethnographic essay on the informant in the era before anthropology, sociology, and folklore took the reflexive turn and abandoned the notion that an ethnography could be objective. Oring returns to his graduate paper and transcriptions in the mid-1980s, during the postmodern turn in thinking about the subjectivity of the ethnographer, about the collaborative act of creating a narrative account of the informant’s life, and about the question of how to break ethnographic writing away from the model of scientific rhetoric.

The autobiographical details of Oring’s own struggles with these epistemological issues are fascinating and readers cannot help reflecting on their own past ethnographic practices to see in Oring’s experiences their own errors. One cannot go back in time and rewrite one’s own behavior or those graduate student papers or even publications when a young scholar (though Oring has “updated” some of these essays). But reading this essay would be a good idea for any student in folklore, anthropology, or qualitative sociology.

Lest the reader take my effusive appreciation of the essays in Oring’s latest collection as a sign that I have no differences with Oring, let me say that I am still puzzled by his seeming commitment to a “science” of folklore study. For me, the lessons of the essays on the rhetoric of truth and the reflexive essay on the creation of a written account of another person’s life point to an abandonment of Enlightenment epistemology. Perhaps, taken together, the essays in this collection amount to an argument Oring is having with himself. Whatever the case, there is much to be learned by watching Oring argue with others and with himself about ideas and methods in the study of folklore.

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