In the scholar world there are a lot of fields where not only new facts or some evidence are missing, but the entire methodology is highly disputed and even definitions are under consideration of a group of specialists. Folklore, or folklore literature refers to these number of fields where there is a lot to hesitate about and nothing is yet stated or determined for certain. As in any other scientific fields, there are several subdivisions in the folklore study, including, first of all, history and epistemology.
The first reason for controversies is that it is highly difficult to define the very term of folklore, as it is something not stable and constant. Further, it is hard to define the scope of content, in other words, hard to decide what to include into the denotation and what to exclude. Sometimes it is considered that everything is folklore if it is a purely oral culture, but the word “oral” is not accepted as the main characteristic to depart from by many specialists. By contrast, there are a lot of exclusions (customs and beliefs, crafts and languages) and specific inclusions (myths and legends firstly, then tales, proverbs and ballads, riddles and so on).Thus, there are several approaches, theoretical and authoritative in particular.
Hence, comparing these methods in search of operational definition, Francis Lee Utley makes a stress on the relevant point that within the process of collecting artifacts there should be certain restrictions. To make the argumentation more sound and clear, Utley narrows the term to folktale and ballad, leaving behind believes and crafts. This exclusion is justified by the aim to “concentrate on well-authenticated and circumscribed material which may lead to results of a certain clarity and acceptance” (Utley 201). The chosen examples are to be researched comparatively and historically, with much respect to the works of S. Bayard, D. K. Wilgus, H. Halpert, or R. Dorson. These components are supposed to be learnt first of all in their correlation with the written literature. Utley explains that while making an attempt to define the field, there is always a potential problem with the signature of authenticity. Most of all, restrictions are needed to set up the critical canon in further research. In general, the way to set the limits for the collection process supposed by Utley is to attract the fieldworker, whose fruits are united with the work of historians and synthesizers after all. At the same time the functions of historians and comparativists are often shared by collectors simultaneously. In fact, the fieldwork is always I tight relation with hypothesis, and it is hard to imagine without this basis. Utley concludes that “The primary materials of folklore must be certain categories of creative ideas which have become traditional among the people of any society and which may be recognized as their common property” (Utley 195).
Another aspect of oral culture (or “oral tradition”) is reviewed by David P. Henige. The problem he deals with is the chronological distortion. Henige underlines that while we try to determine what folklore is and what is the ultimate way to explore it, there is a great disadvantage for a scientist that from the point of today the length of the past is constantly changing. Therefore it is hard to be sure for the depth of time and especially it is true about the specific circumstances we have to rely on. The only more or less working method of measurement is based on studying king lists and genealogies. Consequently, in the far-gone past the entire epochs are often personified, that is to say associated with one leader introduced as “folk hero”. This association may sometimes turn out to be vague and uncertain and lead to certain misunderstanding of the length of this or that historical periods. If there were no outstanding data about some accessory rulers, it could be typical to attach a larger period to another, more vigorous ruler. “The implementation of indirect rule by the colonial powers apparently proved irresistibly tempting to many indigenous rulers, and long genealogies suddenly became prized,” Henige (385) points out. However, this method, despite the “exaggerated conception of the antiquity of the beginning of the genealogy” (Henige 389) is accepted and termed as stereotypical, bringing certain use to the scholar’s pocket.
Then, on the example of African dynasties, Henige shows suspiciously perfect rotational succession systems as a result.
In this way, these two authors, Francis L. Utley and David P. Henige analyze different aspects of folklore scrutiny, predominantly authorizing the anthropological approach in their studies and concepts. Through a couple of relevant points it is easy to see that each folklorist has a good deal of obstacles in his attempt to establish the issue and to know the historical truth, but at the same time the authors try to work out specific practical methods, not only scientific categories, to overcome those obstacles and to make the work of each researcher more effective and useful.
Henige, David P. “Oral tradition and chronology.” The Journal of African History 12.3 (1971): 371-389.
Georges, Robert A. and Jones, Michael Owens. Folkloristics: An introduction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Utley, Francis Lee. “Folk literature: An operational definition.” The Journal of American Folklore 74.293 (1961): 193-206.