Folklore, Oral Tradition and Culture Studies |

The University of Missouri-Columbia |

What is Folklore?
Print this page

Q: What is folklore?
A: Folklore is a broad field of study that concerns itself with the ways in which people make meaning in their lives. There are many definitions of folklore; one of the definitions we like here at Mizzou is Dan Ben Amos’s: Folklore is artistic communication in small groups.

A sampling of folklore definitions through the years:


"Folklore is the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice that is disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioral example. Every group with a sense of its own identity shares, as a central part of that identity, folk traditions-the things that people traditionally believe (planting practices, family traditions, and other elements of worldview), do (dance, make music, sew clothing), know (how to build an irrigation dam, how to nurse an ailment, how to prepare barbecue), make (architecture, art, craft), and say (personal experience stories, riddles, song lyrics). As these examples indicate, in most instances there is no hard-and-fast separation of these categories, whether in everyday life or in folklorists’ work."


"Folk traditions are practiced by groups sharing a common identity on the basis of such factors as ethnicity, region, occupation, age and religion. They include many kinds of cultural expression—performing traditions in music, dance and drama, traditional storytelling and other verbal arts, festivals, traditional crafts, visual arts, architecture, the adornment and transformation of the built environment and other forms of material folk culture."


"Folklore is the traditional, unofficial, noninstitutional part of culture that encompasses all knowledge, understandings, values, attitudes, assumptions, feelings, and beliefs transmitted in traditional forms by word of mouth or by customary examples."


"Although the word "folklore" is regularly employed in our everyday speech, its precise definition presents a problem. The term is clearly a compound made up of "folk," implying some group of people, who have something called "lore"... the eminent folklorist Alan Dundes attempts to simplify the issue for the introductory student: “‘Folk’ can refer to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor.”


"[Folklore is the] communicative processes [and] forms ... which evidence continuities and consistencies in human thought and behavior through time or space."


"Folklore is a word very much like culture; it represents a tremendous spectrum of human expression that can be studied in a number of ways and for a number of reasons. Its primary characteristic is that its ingredients seem to come directly from dynamic interactions among human beings in communal-traditional performance contexts rather than through the rigid lines and fossilized structures of technical instruction or bureaucratized education, or through the relatively stable channels of the classical traditions." (p.28-29)


"Folklore is artistic communication in small groups."

RICHARD DORSON, American Folklore:

"In the United States, folklore has customarily meant the spoken and sung traditions."


"Every group bound together or by common interests and purposes, whether educated or uneducated, rural or urban, possesses a body of traditions which may be called its folklore. Into these traditions enter many elements, individual, popular, and even "literary," but all are absorbed and assimilated through repetition and variation into a pattern which has value and continuity for the group as a whole."


"Folklore is but social anthropology as applied within the home circle. Thus there is no reason why some of those who today count as savages should not in course of time become well enough educated to study their own institutions in a scientific spirit."


"Folklore is anthropology dealing with primitive man."


"Folklore is the unwritten learnings of the people."

Q: Who are the folk?
A: We are the folk.
Everyone belongs to a folk group; most of us belong to many folk groups.

Alan DundesDan Ben Amos
Alan Dundes & Dan Ben-Amos

Q: What is a folk group?
A: According to folklorist Alan Dundes, a folk group is a group made up of two or more people with at least one thing in common. For example, there are religious folk groups, which are made up of people who belong to the same church or share the same beliefs; occupational folk groups are made up of people who do the same kind of work or work at the same place; and regional folk goups, who share an identity that is tied to place.

Rug making
Taking photo
Documenting Folklore

Q: What do we mean by communication?
A: Communication in small groups happens in many ways. For example, proverbs are a form of communication. We often learn them from those around us, and we use them in our daily life to express complicated ideas in a quick, efficient way. Similarly folk art, furniture-making, for example, is a form of artistic expression, and knowledge of this art is passed down from one person to another.

Q: Why are there so many definitions of folklore?
A: Folklore happens everywhere. Because everyone experiences and lives folklore differently, it is often difficult to confine the diversity and fluidity of folklore into a set, rigid definition. As the study of folklore evolves, so do the definitions.

Q: What do folklorists do?
A: Folklorists do a variety of things; check out the American Folklore Society's brochure on Folklore Studies, the AFS and opportunities for students here. On a basic level, folklorists try to understand the ways people make meaning in their lives. Folklorists do research, and often conduct fieldwork, in order to gain a better understanding of their subject matter. Folklorists teach in public schools, at universities, and in the public sector. They write books, make films, create radio programs, and organize performances. Some folklorists travel to work with folk groups that they are not members of; other folklorists study the folklore of their own folk groups. Some folklorists work in English and Anthropology departments, others work for folk arts programs. Some folklorists work in journalism, other folklorists work at government agencies that promote folklore education. Some folklorists free-lance, other folklorists work in schools and design folklore curriculum for children. Occupations within the field of folklore are as diverse as the field itself.

Prof. Lawless
Prof. Lawless
Prof. Prahlad
Prof. Prahlad
Prof. Foley
Prof. Foley (1947-2012)

Q: What are some areas that Mizzou Folklore Program faculty and students specialize in?
A: The faculty and students at Mizzou have a strong interest in theory. The emphasis on critical theory allows faculty and students to explore folklore in a variety of new ways, which makes our program truly interdisciplinary. Mizzou faculty members and graduate students specialize in a many traditional and non-traditional areas, including postcolonial theory, women’s folklore and feminist theory, folklore of the African Diaspora, oral tradition, Indigenous folklore, critical race, gender and queer theory, globalization, humor studies, occupational folklore, proverbs, folklore and film, foodways, religious folklore, folklore and fetish, ethnographic performance, and Medieval folklore.

Q: What are some examples of folklore?
A: Folklore is, according to Alan Dundes, all of these things and more, besides:

Myths, legends, folktales, jokes, proverbs, riddles, chants, charms, blessings, curses, oaths, insults, retorts, taunts, teases, toasts, tongue-twisters, and greeting and leave-taking formulas (e.g., See you later, alligator).

It also includes folk costume, folk dance, folk drama (and mime), folk art, folk belief (or superstition), folk medicine, folk instrumental music (e.g., fiddle tunes), folksongs (e.g., lullabies, ballads), folk speech (e.g., slang), folk similies (e.g., as blind as a bat), folk metaphors (e.g., to paint the town red), and names (e.g., nicknames and place names).

Folk poetry ranges from oral epics to autograph-book verse, epitaphs, latrinalia (writings on the walls of public bathrooms), limericks, ball-bouncing rhymes, jump-rope rhymes, finger and toe rhymes, dandling rhymes (to bounce the children on the knee), counting-out rhymes (to determine who will be "it" in games), and nursery rhymes.

Christmas photo

The list of folklore forms also contains games; gestures; symbols; prayers (e.g., graces); practical jokes; folk etymologies; food recipes; quilt and embroidery designs; house, barn and fence types; street vendors' cries; and even the traditional conventional sounds used to summon animals or to give them commands.

There are such minor forms as mnemonic devices (e.g., the name Roy G. Biv to remember the colors of the spectrum in order), envelope sealers (e.g., SWAK Sealed With A Kiss), and the traditional comments made after body emissions (e.g., after burps or sneezes). There are such major forms as festivals and special day (or holiday) customs (e.g., Christmas, Halloween, and birthday).

Alan Dundes, "What is Folklore?"in The Study of Folklore,
ed. Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965), 2.

Mizzou Folklore Logo
© 2007 University of Missouri-Columbia | Last updated: October 18, 2012| Site info