On the concept of folklore

The origin of the term and its uses

According to the encyclopaedic definition, folk is ‘a social group whose members share a traditional culture’ (Green, 1997). The term ‘folklore’ first appeared in William John Thoms letter, a Victorian ‘editor of old tales’ and ‘scholar of customs and superstitions’, who wrote in 1846:

Your pages have so often given evidence of the interest which you take in what we in England designate as Popular Antiquities, or Popular Literature (though by-the-by it is more a Lore than a literature, and would be most aptly described by a good Saxon compound, Folklore,—the Lore of the People)”.

(Liberman, http://blog.oup.com/2008/07/folklore/)

Looking back at the roots of the concept, the notion of ‘popular antiquity’ and ‘the lore of the people’ evoked explorations embedded in Enlightenment discourse. In that sense, the study ‘folklore’ involved collection of linguistic forms produced by the part of one’s own society untouched by the civilization. In similar spirit of the ‘original community’, the term was appropriated by German ethnologists of the Romantic period who investigated Volksleben (Folklife), Volksglaube (folk-belief) and Volkslied (folksong) of the countryside and collect vanishing expression of rural communities unspoilt by the urban ways.

According to Ake Hultkranz, throughout history the term folk acquired the following connotations:

‘1. Folk refers to the nation. This definition is quite adequate in certain languages, such as German (Volk), French (pueblo), Spanish (pueblo) and Arabic (sha’b). However, it is impossible in English.

2. Folk designates the lower stratum. This interpretation (…) played a major role in Volkskunde. It designated social masses that were unsophisticated and unanalytic. Since the 1920s, this distinction between ‘the elite’ and ‘folk’ has been heavily criticized.

3. Folk refers to an old fashion segment within a complex civilization (…). In Europe and Latin America, the lower stratum was considered identical with peasant society and rural social groups. Robert Redfield described the folk as including “peasants and rustic people who are not wholly independent of cities. In this context, reference is to the concept of ‘dependent society’ or ‘half society’ (…)

4. Folk denotes the basic culture-carrying social stratum within a complex society. (…) ‘One’ culture is perceived as the basic one, the others are not.

5. Folk denotes a social group connected by a common tradition and a peculiar feeling of communion, the basis of which is a common historical background. The mystical definition is based on a group’s spirit de corps; it allows for a very flexible view of the criteria according to which a primary group is reckoned, with an individual’s sense of belonging playing the decisive role. (Green, 321)

The ‘folk concept’ and folklore studies in Romania – a historical overview


Octavian Bubociu, reviewing the history of Romanian folklore studies, exposed its persistent entanglement with politics and ideological debates. According to Bubociu, in the founding texts of the discipline after the unification of Romanian Principalities in 1859, folklore was used to support ideas of one language; political unity; and the origin of the Romanian ‘people’ (Bubociu, 297). In the process of building national consciousness, folklore studies were part of theories concerning the origin and development of South Eastern European communities and related debates on the Slavic, Latin or Dacian ‘substance of Romanian nationality’.

In the interwar period, the focus of folkloristics shifted to interpretation of mostly oral ‘folkloric production’, such as ballads and local myths. Dialectological research, Bubociu argued,  aimed at redefinition of pastoral studies by linguistics tools, by emphasizing psychological explanations of folk creation that mirrored Romanian ‘soul’ and culture. Folklore, as seen by Densusianu, denoted ‘manifestations of life, how the people feel and think, either under the influence of an idea, of beliefs, of superstitions inherited from the past, or under the impressions which daily awaken in them.” (Bubociu, 300). Ethnology was thus paired with ethnopsychology and interlinked with Nationalism as a project of investigation of Romanian national ‘essence’ and character (Verdery 1991, 57). Although the majority of folkloric material was collected before World War I, it was in the 1920s that marked the creation of independent discipline of ethnography, with foundations at the University of Cluj and affiliated Museum of Ethnography and Archives of Folklore. Folkloristic and dialectological studies were published in Romanian and foreign languages in the Cluj publishing section (mostly bibliographical work, philological and ethno-musicological work and studies of pastoral life).  Activities of other Romanian universities (Bucharest, Iasi, Cernauti) soon also incorporated folklore and ethnography in their publishing activities.

Interwar Romanian ethnology flourished also in sociological departments, sharing its field of investigation with research of the Gusti school. Dimitrie Gusti, creator of the Institute of Sociology of Bucharest, designed a system of ‘monographs’ for group expeditions in rural fieldwork. Sociological monograph school was a comprehensive initiative, covering the period between 1927 and 1944, based on the notion of specialized study of small-family, village, or provincial groups. Monographs were based on the empirical premises of Durheimian social theory covering four principal subjects (cosmology, biology, history, and religious manifestations). In a positivistic spirit Gusti argued that his ‘doctrine is based on the need to study social reality by direct research through sociological monography, as well as on the right to understanding of human character and the choice of educational measures capable of transforming a social unit into a single creative will (Gusti, 7). Gusti’s school was a combined project of a ‘science of society’, ‘science of the village’ (promoting knowledge about ‘traditional’ peasantry) and  ‘science of the nation’ determining ‘the ethics and politics through which the people will find its true road to self-realization (Verdery, 64) and mediating the ‘transition of Romanian society to a modern nation’ (Mihailescu 1998, 49). According to Mihailescu, in that period there were thousands of students and scholars undertaking collective fieldwork, social work and ‘community development’[1] in countryside, with culmination point in 1938 when Gusti became a minister of education and the scientific network gained legal framework and became institutionalized through the ‘Law of Social Service’[2] (Mihailescu 1998, 47).

General reforms of the new communist government in 1948 had a significant impact on both institutional setup and the intellectual activities in Romanian folklore research. Archival materials from a number of interwar centres have been gathered in the Institute of Folklore of Bucharest[3]. The Institute associated with the folkloristic section of the Romanian Academy played key role in the creation of new agenda for the discipline. According to Bubociu these centres were set up to develop national manual of the Romanian folklore, history of the discipline and  a ‘”scientific” anthology of folklore’ (Bubociu, 302). Centralization of academic life was accompanied by clear definition of research activities, as defined by Fochi in 1963:

a) to continue to gather every sort of oral folklore, music, dances, rites, popular art, etc., principally by means of tape recordings and films;

b) to organize and plan the folkloric education of the whole nation by the most modern means, e.g., the press, the radio, the reprinting of ancient volumes of folklore, the creation of so-called popular (tarafuri) orchestras, choirs, groups of dancers, regional museums, popular libraries, etc.; c) to conduct “scientific” research in folklore in order to arrive once more at a corpus of folklore which includes productions of value, so much dreamed of since the first Rumanian folklorists.

(Bubociu, 302)

As sociological departments across the country were closed since 1948, fundamental ideas of the Gusti ‘monographic school’ were adopted by the Institute of Folklore with a new purpose of ‘enrichment of the general Marxist folkloric theory by the Rumanian experience’ (Bubociu, 303). Research activities under the umbrella of the Institute included regional monographs of oral folklore, music and dance and material elements, including architecture, costumes, pottery, architecture, and popular art in general (rom. arta populara).

Recent studies of that period emphasized communist propaganda in the framework of those research activities.

It was argued that folklore studies in Romania became part of strong political project concerning peasant communities and related initiatives of the construction of a New Socialist Man. Constantin Eretrescu showed how Romanian Folk studies in the 1950s served as instruments of nomenklatura, from institutional cleansing (Bucharest’s Museum of Ethnography and National Art evicted for Communist Museum) to the construction of ‘New Folklore’, spreading  cultural activities ‘to acknowledge the popularity, among the masses, of the political actions taken by the authorities’ (Eretrescu, 47). Scholars were instructed to follow materialist principles in their research, translate articles on Stalin’s work on linguistics and ‘new popular poetry’ and create ‘new folk music’ praising the regime. In communist Romania, ‘people’ became the rural ‘working man collective’ and folklore:  

An artistic genre belonging to the social categories  and classes which have a progressive role in the social development.                  The social categories and classes that do not belong to the popular masses –  to the folk seen as a builder of history – have a distinct culture because they have a distinct ideology (Eretrescu, 49)

It was argued that new institutions, such as the Central House of Popular Creation, needs to fight those ‘distinct ideologies’ through oversight of amateur activity, state-commissioned folkloric creation and theoretical ‘affirmative’ writing as well as creative activities. Academics were working in the administration of the politicized ‘new folklore’ actions, such as dance groups performing during state administered national song contests (‘Cantarea Romanie’). Keeping these developments in mind, it is interesting to turn back to the Romanian version of the exhibition brochure:

The State has undertaken the action of promoting, directing and developing the assets of folk art, rightfully considering them the original and authentic expression of the people’s force of creation.

The large towns of the Rumanian People’s Republic, richly endowed museums have been opened and organized according to the most up-to-date methods, offering to the public the possibility of becoming aquatinted with large part of our inheritance of peasant art.

Numerous exhibitions organized at home and abroad popularize the treasures of Rumanian art.

The ‘Central Office of Popular Creation’ has been founded, in view of stimulating amateur work, which is highly developed in today Rumania. This institution, in order to study new phenomena of creation, organizes exhibitions, interchanges of experience, work in the field of collective groups of specialists, initiating amateur competitions, discovering new talents.

These multilateral initiatives taken by the State have led to an unprecedented development of popular art in Rumania. At the same time, they have widened the conception of popular art by creating new forms of production carried out in cooperatives, State workshops, art industries etc. The new curators guarantee the continuation of old tradition of folk art, grafting young and vigorous shoots upon the old, powerful tree trunk filled with the fife of centuries.

According to Mihăilescu, Iliev, Naumović socialism tried to devaluate the concept of the ‘folk’ developed in the tradition of Romanian ethnology through the notion of ‘proletarian people’ (Mihăilescu, Iliev, Naumović 11).              This redefinition was executed through strong through politics of heritage and emphasis on management of ‘folklore’.   At the same time, following its 19th century and interwar legacies, socialist ethnology continued the line of significant entanglement with national politics.  Throughout its modern history, as Mihăilescu  pointed out, ‘having traditional facts as its very object of concern, the Romanian national ethnology serves its nation-building goals, and is implicitly or explicitly rooted in the dominant autochthonist nation-building ideology. As already stated, autochthonism and tradition were mutually reinforcing each other (…) They have to be mutually questioned too in order to engage in a post-national critique of Romanian ethnology’ (Mihăilescu 2007, 24)

From the first section of this paper, it is apparent that the concept of ‘folklore’ and ‘popular art’ poses a challenge to the anthropological understanding of the collection.  From theoretical perspective, as shown in the introduction to the section, the folkloristic toolkit proves problematic both in its basic essentialist conceptualization of culture and the notion of the ‘basic people’ (‘autochtonist approach’ – Mihailescu) within complex society. Secondly, the folklore concept is challenging in its historical legacy, regarding the nationalistic practices of ethnological studies in Eastern Europe with its shifting political agendas in the changing intellectual landscape. The ‘folk art’ framework proves unacceptable also due to particular connotations in the Romanian setting and strong political entanglement.             In the second section, I turn to the potential use of ‘craft’ as a conceptual framework, in an attempt to gain different perspective on the collection beyond individual objects and provide with more nuanced matter of concern in its anthropological analysis…

[2] The main premises of the Social Service Act included the creation of the Institute of Social Research, the spread of cultural homes, the spread of peasant schools and obligatory social service for youth’ (Gusti, 1940, 1)

[3] Its significant organ was the publication of  Revista de Folclor

 Bubociu, Octavian, Folkloristics in Rumania, Current Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 3, June 1966, pp. 295-314.

Gusti, Dimitri, Rural life in Romania. 14th International Congress of Sociology, Bucharest, 1940.

Mihailescu, Vintila, Autochtonism and national ideology in Romania. In:  http://www.cas.bg/uploads/files/Sofia-Academic-Nexus-WP/Vintila%20Mihailescu.pdf

Hann Chris, Sárkány Mihály and Peter Skalník (eds.),Studying peoples in the people’s democracies : socialist era anthropology in East-Central Europe. Münster : Lit, 2005.

Mihailescu, Vintila, The monographic school of Dimitrie Gusti. How is a ‘Sociology of the Nation’ possible?. Ethnographica  Balkanica, vol.2, 1998, pp. 48 – 55.

Verdery, Katherine,  National ideology under socialism : identity and cultural politics in Ceaușescu’s Romania. Berkeley, Oxford : University of California Press, 1991.  

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