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What Is Folklore?

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.

The word "folklore” names an enormous and deeply significant dimension of culture. Considering how large and complex this subject is, it is no wonder that folklorists define and describe folklore in so many different ways. Try asking dance historians for a definition of "dance,” for instance, or anthropologists for a definition of "culture.” No one definition will suffice–nor should it.

In part, this is also because particular folklorists emphasize particular parts or characteristics of the world of folklore as a result of their own work, their own interests, or the particular audience they’re trying to reach. And for folklorists, as for the members of any group who share a strong interest, disagreeing with one another is part of the work–and the enjoyment–of the field, and is one of the best ways to learn.

But to begin, below we have cited several folklorists’ definitions and descriptions of folklore, given in the order in which they were written and published. (One of them uses the word "folklife” instead, which American folklorists, following their European colleagues, have used more frequently of late.) None of these definitions answers every question by itself, and certainly none of them is the American Folklore Society’s official definition (we don’t have one), but each offers a good place to start. From time to time we’ll add the views of other folklorists to this page.

One thing you’ll note about these definitions and descriptions is that they challenge the notion of folklore as something that is simply "old,” "old-fashioned,” "exotic,” "rural,” "peasant,” "uneducated,” "untrue,” or "dying out.” Though folklore connects people to their past, it is a central part of life in the present, and is at the heart of all cultures–including our own–throughout the world.

For more information about folklore and about what folklorists do, please see the other sections of this "About Folklore” chapter, as well as the other chapters of this AFSNet web site.

And if you have further questions about folklore or folklorists’ work, we invite you to contact the university folklore program or public folklore organization closest to you, or the American Folklore Society’s office.


Martha C. Sims and Martine Stephens. Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and their Traditions. Pp. 1-2. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2005.

Folklore is many things, and it’s almost impossible to define succinctly. It’s both what folklorists study and the name of the discipline they work within. Yes, folklore is folk songs and legends. It’s also quilts, Boy Scout badges, high school marching band initiations, jokes, chian letters, nicknames, holiday food… and many other things you might or might not expect. Folklore exists in cities, suburbs and rural villages, in families, work groups and dormitories. Folklore is present in many kinds of informal communication, whether verbal (oral and written texts), customary (behaviors, rituals) or material (physical objects). It involves values, traditions, ways of thinking and behaving. It’s about art. It’s about people and the way people learn. It helps us learn who we are and how to make meaning in the world around us. [Pages 1-2]


Dorothy Noyes.  Folklore. In
The Social Science Encyclopedia. 3rd edition. Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper, eds. Pp. 375-378. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Folklore is a metacultural category used to mark certain genres and practices within modern societies as being not modern. By extension, the word refers to the study of such materials. More specific definitions place folklore on the far side of the various epistemological, aesthetic and technological binary oppositions that distinguish the modern from its presumptive contraries. Folklore therefore typically evokes both repudiation and nostalgia. [Page 375]


Barbro Klein. Folklore. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Volume 8. Pp. 5711-5715. New York: Elsevier, 2001.

'Folklore' has four basic meanings. First, it denotes oral narration, rituals, crafts, and other forms of vernacular expressive culture. Second, folklore, or ‘folkloristics,’ names an academic discipline devoted to the study of such phenomena. Third, in everyday usage, folklore sometimes describes colorful ‘folkloric’ phenomena linked to the music, tourist, and fashion industries. Fourth, like myth, folklore can mean falsehood. [P. 5711]

Mary Hufford. American Folklife: A Commonwealth of Cultures. Washington: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 1991.

What is folklife? Like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter, folklife is often hidden in full view, lodged in the various ways we have of discovering and expressing who we are and how we fit into the world. Folklife is reflected in the names we bear from birth, invoking affinities with saints, ancestors, or cultural heroes. Folklife is the secret languages of children, the codenames of CB operators, and the working slang of watermen and doctors. It is the shaping of everyday experiences in stories swapped around kitchen tables or parables told from pulpits. It is the African American rhythms embedded in gospel hymns, bluegrass music, and hip hop, and the Lakota flutist rendering anew his people’s ancient courtship songs.

Folklife is the sung parodies of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the variety of ways there are to skin a muskrat, preserve string beans, or join two pieces of wood. Folklife is the society welcoming new members at bris and christening, and keeping the dead incorporated on All Saints Day. It is the marking of the Jewish New Year at Rosh Hashanah and the Persian New Year at Noruz. It is the evolution of vaqueros into buckaroos, and the riderless horse, its stirrups backward, in the funeral processions of high military commanders.

Folklife is the thundering of foxhunters across the rolling Rappahannock countryside and the listening of hilltoppers to hounds crying fox in the Tennessee mountains. It is the twirling of lariats at western rodeos, and the spinning of double-dutch jumpropes in West Philadelphia. It is scattered across the landscape in Finnish saunas and Italian vineyards; engraved in the split-rail boundaries of Appalachian "hollers” and the stone fences around Catskill "cloves”; scrawled on urban streetscapes by graffiti artists; and projected onto skylines by the tapering steeples of churches, mosques, and temples.

Folklife is community life and values, artfully expressed in myriad forms and interactions. Universal, diverse, and enduring, it enriches the nation and makes us a commonwealth of cultures.


Henry Glassie. The Spirit of Folk Art. New York: Abrams, 1989.

"Folklore,” though coined as recently as 1846, is the old word, the parental concept to the adjective "folk.” Customarily folklorists refer to the host of published definitions, add their own, and then get on with their work, leaving the impression that definitions of folklore are as numberless as insects. But all the definitions bring into dynamic association the ideas of individual creativity and collective order.

Folklore is traditional. Its center holds. Changes are slow and steady. Folklore is variable. The tradition remains wholly within the control of its practitioners. It is theirs to remember, change, or forget. Answering the needs of the collective for continuity and of the individual for active participation, folklore…is that which is at once traditional and variable.


William A. Wilson. The Deeper Necessity: Folklore and the Humanities. Journal of American Folklore 101:400, 1988.

Surely no other discipline is more concerned with linking us to the cultural heritage from the past than is folklore; no other discipline is more concerned with revealing the interrelationships of different cultural expressions than is folklore; and no other discipline is so concerned …with discovering what it is to be human. It is this attempt to discover the basis of our common humanity, the imperatives of our human existence, that puts folklore study at the very center of humanistic study.


Barre Toelken. The Dynamics of Folklore. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Tradition [means] not some static, immutable force from the past, but those pre-existing culture-specific materials and options that bear upon the performer more heavily than do his or her own personal tastes and talents. We recognize in the use of tradition that such matters as content and style have been for the most part passed on but not invented by the performer. 

Dynamic recognizes, on the other hand, that in the processing of these contents and styles in performance, the artist’s own unique talents of inventiveness within the tradition are highly valued and are expected to operate strongly. Time and space dimensions remind us that the resulting variations may spread geographically with great rapidity (as jokes do) as well as down through time (good luck beliefs). Folklore is made up of informal expressions passed around long enough to have become recurrent in form and context, but changeable in performance.

…modern American folklorists do not limit their attention to the rural, quaint, or "backward" elements of the culture. Rather, they will study and discuss any expressive phenomena–urban or rural–that seem to act like other previously recognized folk traditions. This has led to the development of a field of inquiry with few formal boundaries, one with lots of feel but little definition, one both engaging and frustrating.


Jan Brunvand. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 2nd edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
Folklore comprises the unrecorded traditions of a people; it includes both the form and content of these traditions and their style or technique of communication from person to person.

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

Edward D. Ives. Joe Scott, the Woodsman-Songmaker. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.
No song, no performance, no act of creation can be properly understood apart from the culture or subculture in which it is found and of which it is a part; nor should any "work of art” be looked on as a thing in itself apart from the continuum of creation-consumption.

Dell Hymes. Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974.
[Folklore study is] the study of communicative behavior with an esthetic, expressive, or stylistic dimension.

Dan Ben-Amos. Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context, in Américo Paredes and Richard Bauman, eds. Toward New Perspectives in Folklore. Austin: University of Texas Press for the American Folklore Society, 1972.
…folklore is artistic communication in small groups.






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American Folklore Society
Mershon Center, The Ohio State University, 1501 Neil Avenue, Columbus OH 43201-2602 USA
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