What is Folklore?


Folklore (ˈfōkˌlôr) - the traditional beliefs, customs, skills, arts and stories of a community, passed on from person to person in living context. Artistic expression and local experience in informal settings. Some traditions are old, others are surprisingly new!

What is Folklore? One might as well ask "what is culture"? or "what is life"?

Folklore deals with cultural traditions and with the patterns of behavior and ideas that we share with others. It is art and artifact, architecture, lifestyle, custom, tradition, and lore-the "stuff of life" by which we define ourselves and our place in the world. In the west, folklore is closely related to cultural and social anthropology. In Europe, the terms ethnography or ethnology are used to identify a related field of study. The distinctions are a matter of emphasis rather than of substance, and in North America, the terms are often interchangeable.

As the Huculak Chair's Andriy Nahachewsky sees it, "Folklore studies concentrate on the culture that people bear, while the focus of anthropology is on the people who bear culture. Ethnography, strictly speaking, refers to descriptions of particular cultures, while ethnology implies a theoretical focus and a more analytical approach. In Ukraine, the word "folklore" is reserved for orally-transmitted cultural traditions, while the terms "ethnography" or "ethnology" are used to describe the study of material and social culture.

In Soviet Ukraine, academic theory was subject to the whims of politics, and the study of culture was deliberately restricted to descriptive, ethnographic models. Since Ukraine's independence, however, the term ethnology has gained favour. Ukraine's leading "ethnographic" journal, Narodna tvorchist ta etnohrafiia,has recently changed its moniker to Narodna tvorchist ta etnolohiia in accordance with the current trend to associate the discipline with a new theoretical base.

Whatever the word - folklore, ethnography, ethnology, or cultural anthropology - the goal is understanding how we create our reality and define who we are.

Contemporary folkorist Elliott Oring notes that "the collection of what has come to be called 'folklore' began in Europe at the close of the eighteenth century. The enterprise was an outgrowth of the twin movements of romanticism and nationalism-ideologies that transformed the artistic, political, and social life and thought of all Europe."*

The Romantic era was marked by cultural nostalgia, the dissolution of social and class barriers, and the glorification of the common man. There was a strong reaction against urban complexity and artifice, and a new-found fascination with ritual, song, language, and ethnicity. In Ukraine, as elsewhere, there were strong links with the new movement of national consciousness: "Ukrainian-ness" as reflected in folk culture became implicit in defining the national identity.

Before the Sovietization of Ukraine, Ukrainian village culture was well-documented, and Ukrainian ethnographic scholarship was among the most progressive of its time. Its leading proponents-Volodymyr Hnatiuk, Filiaret Kolessa, and Khvedir Vovk-were scholars of international repute. Their work, like that of their contemporaries, focused on the culture of the people-on the expressive behaviour of average folk, and of peasants in particular.

From a sociological perspective, peasant society is defined as rural, technologically-unsophisticated, agricultural, and family-based. As a colony of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires through the 1800s, Ukraine was relatively underdeveloped and rural, and an exceptionally rich area for the preservation of ancient and archaic customs, songs, tales, crafts, arts, dance and other traditions.

By the turn of the century, the spread of industrialization had exposed Ukrainian peasants to rapid and fundamental change. This experience, and the resulting dislocation from the old and the familiar, was felt even more strongly by Ukrainians who emigrated to Canada. Examining the transition from peasant culture to urban technological society is therefore one of the focal points of Ukrainian folklore studies.

While folklore still includes the "unofficial" culture of everyday people, contemporary scholars recognize and explore the dynamic interface between folk art and fine art. Contemporary folklore studies are not bound either by romantic patriotism or by the ghettoization of ethnic identity. Rather, folklore is a discipline which crosses cultural borders and ethnic boundaries. It includes comparative studies which define the place of cultures and ethnicities within the family of humankind. It builds bridges of understanding, and as such, it is very relevant to our appreciation of how the world works, and how the parts relate to the whole.

The emphasis of folklore studies is different in different parts of the world. Ethnographic studies in Ukraine have traditionally focused on the origins of culture and the significance of cultural artifacts as expressions of national identity. North American folklore studies, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century, have emphasized function and symbolic connections-on what culture and cultural artifacts mean rather than where they come from.

According to Andriy Nahachewsky, this approach is partly explained by North America's historical experience, which has been one of immigration and cultural contact. The result has been an emphasis on the "edges of culture-on what happens when cultures meet, and on why some traditions survive while others fade or are reinvented."

The dynamics of cultural change are particularly relevant to the study of Ukrainian Canadian folklore and ethnography. Ukrainians in Canada form a large and visible minority which has travelled its own unique cultural path. While it is important to recognize historical ties to Ukraine, it is equally important to examine the Ukrainian experience within the context of Canadian culture. As Andriy Nahachewsky describes it, this involves the study of both CanadianUkrainians and UkrainianCanadians. Such study is particularly significant at a time when Canada is on the brink of its own identity crisis, and Quebecers contemplate separation.

Cultural identity has profound implications for Ukraine as well. The whole concept of ethnicity and national identity is raised as Ukraine redefines its national symbols and comes to terms with the issue of how to treat its own minorities.

Folklorists explore the interplay between cultures as a dynamic relationship which encompasses past, present and future. In our own era of global economics, where cultural contact is facilitated through technology and telecommunications, understanding the processes which shape our identity is of prime importance. As Andriy Nahachewsky puts it, "In a complex, confusing and changing world, ethnicity is an anchor in the storm, a sense of permanence, a cardinal direction that helps us make a more humane, more human, and more intimate connection with the world around us."

The importance of folklore studies is recognized at universities across Canada. There are folklore programs at Memorial University in Newfoundland, CELAT (Centre d'etudes sur la langue, les arts et les traditions populaires des francophones en Amerique du nord) at Laval in Quebec City, CEETUM (Centre d'etudes ethniques) in Montreal, and a department of folklore and ethnology at the University of Sudbury. In western Canada, folklore studies have been included in English departments, Canadian studies programs, anthropology, and other university faculties. The only Ukrainian folklore program in Canada is offered at the University of Alberta.

Dr. Andriy Nahachewsky

* Elliot Oring in the introduction to an essay by William A. Wilson in Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: A Reader, Elliot Oring, editor (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1989), p.21.