In This Article Folklore

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Study and Theory of Folklore
  • Applied and Public Folklore
  • History of Folklore Studies
  • Collections
  • Standard Indices
  • Journals
  • Oral Genres
  • Speech
  • Narrative
  • Folktale
  • Myth
  • Legend
  • Humor
  • Ballad and Song
  • Social Genres
  • Belief
  • Custom, Ritual, and Festival
  • Music and Dance
  • Games and Play
  • Material Genres
  • Art and Craft
  • Architecture
  • Food
  • Medicine
  • Dress, Body, and Costume
  • Groups, Identities, and Places
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Region and Locality
  • Occupation and Organization
  • Age
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Technologies
  • Themes and Symbols
  • Performers and Artists

Anthropology Folklore
Simon J. Bronner
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0131


Folklore as a scholarly term is used in a broad sense to refer to all forms of traditional knowledge: that is, culturally expressive material gained through word of mouth, imitation and demonstration, and custom. In the narrower sense of popular usage, it often refers to oral expressions such as legends, folktales, songs, and proverbs, while social and material traditions such as architecture, crafts, rituals, and festivals are relegated to folklife. One reason for this distinction is that oral expression is construed as “verbal art” that draws attention to itself because of its imaginative or performative features. Houses and crafts often are presented as tangible or subsistence parts of “everyday life”; further, the suffix of “life” more than “lore” is often attached to rituals and festivals as part of the “round of life.” Most university programs and public centers devoted to the subject connect the two approaches in a shared concern for vernacular or heritage practices and in North America often use a singular label of folklore studies, folk studies, or folkloristics for its study. In Europe, the commonly used rubrics of ethnology and ethnography typically include studies of folklore and folklife. The professionals who study folklore are called “folklorists.” The use of “folklore” to signify traditions and their study dates back to 1846, when the British editor William John Thoms inspired by the works of the Brothers Grimm on Volkspoesie (literature of the common folk) in the early 19th century coined the term “folklore” for what had previously been referred to in English as “popular antiquities” or “popular literature” and the term caught on in the press. In the Victorian period, “folk” represented the common people (often construed as peasants or isolated, uneducated, or lower-class groups), whereas “lore” referred to their inherited wisdom and expressions. In the 20th century, scholars revised this view with a more elastic definition emphasizing the emergence and agency of folklore by pointing to the use of expressive traditions or “artistic communication” by anyone interacting in groups. Folk culture was differentiated from popular culture because of its frequent localization, as well as participatory and variable nature. Scholars found folklore active and significant enough in modern life to assign social identity, negotiate collective memory, deal with cultural anxieties, and legislate social behavior. In the 21st century, folklorists further revised concepts of folklore as face-to-face communication in light of the rise of vernacular practices and global transmission on the Internet and digital culture. Scholars investigated ways that technology gave rise to traditions and the way these traditions differed from other social contexts.

General Overviews

A place to start with folklore scholarship is with a number of textbooks and sites that cover folklore globally or broadly within national boundaries. These summative texts typically make an effort to show “folklore” as an umbrella term for social and material traditions in addition to oral genres. They also strive to show a range of groups for which folklore is frequently used to mark identity: including ethnicity, religion, region, occupation, age, gender, and sexuality. Brunvand 1998 has gone through several editions and emphasizes definitions of different forms of folklore. Oring 1986 contains essays on prominent genres and groups and includes a section on documenting folklore. Toelken 1996 and Sims and Stephens 2011 emphasize performance-centered approaches to modern folklore, whereas Georges and Jones 1995 is organized according to different perspectives, including historical uses of folklore. Materials issued by the American Folklife Center survey a diversity of cultures in the United States and encourage localized fieldwork on everyday life and folk arts in community contexts.

  • American Folklife Center.

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    Website of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress containing free publications giving an overview of folklife, including “American Folklife: A Commonwealth of Cultures” by Mary Hufford and “Folklife and Fieldwork: A Layman’s Introduction to Field Techniques.”

  • Brunvand, Jan Harold. 1998. The study of American folklore: An introduction. 4th ed. New York: W. W. Norton.

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    A widely used textbook focusing on American folklore, although the introductory chapters on “The Field of Folklore” and “The Study of Folklore” cover the field globally. The organization of the work is by genres—oral, social, and material—with basic definitions of each folkloric form.

  • Georges, Robert A., and Michael Owen Jones. 1995. Folkloristics: An introduction. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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    A widely used textbook organized around scholarly approaches toward folklore: “Folklore as Historical Artifact,” “Folklore as Describable and Transmissible Entity,” “Folklore as Culture,” and “Folklore as Behavior.” Approaches are illustrated with sidebar “boxes” that contain examples of folklore documentation.

  • Oring, Elliott, ed. 1986. Folk groups and folklore genres: An introduction. Logan: Utah State Univ. Press.

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    Introductory essays aimed at college students. After an overview chapter discussing various definitions of folklore, essays discuss the major ideas in work on ethnic, religious, occupational, and children’s groups followed by sections on narratives, ballads and folksongs, riddles and proverbs, folk objects, and documenting folklore (in a pre-Internet age).

  • Sims, Martha, and Martine Stephens. 2011. Living folklore, second edition: An introduction to the study of people and their traditions. 2d ed. Logan: Utah State Univ. Press.

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    The latest of the textbooks of folklore, this overview emphasizes the social interactive basis of folklore with sections on “groups,” “ritual,” and “performance.” Includes sections on the documentation of folklore through fieldwork and provides examples of student papers.

  • Toelken, Barre. 1996. The dynamics of folklore. Rev. ed. Logan: Utah State Univ. Press.

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    The first general textbook to emphasize the performative aspects of folklore and its social interactive basis. Examples are primarily from North America but discussion of folklore research and applications range globally. Toelken’s work stands out among the textbooks for its explication of aesthetics and cultural worldview in relation to folklore.

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