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Anthropology 160: Forms of Folklore - UC Berkeley

Anthropology 160: Forms of Folklore

Folklore, everyday cultural forms of expression, are communicated, enjoyed, replicated, passed on, modified, deployed and interpreted by all of us. We weave folklore effortlessly into our daily lives, using folklore to shape and understand our world and our place in it. We are all experts. So much so that most of the time our use and reception of folklore goes unnoticed. Folklore operates in the realm of the obvious, taken for granted, self-evident, and thus is not designated as being open to interpretation. Thus, Folklore has been described as “quotidian” – the stuff that makes up everyday life, ordinary. But in the potential to convey meaning, create boundaries, constitute identity, and create sense out of nonsense, Folklore is anything but ordinary. Folklore, that stock of knowledge brought into specific situations, “…substantiates our belief in the connectedness and orderliness of the larger context of the everyday lifeworld.” (S. Stewart, Nonsense, pg. 11)

At the same time, as a construct, when we self consciously address the concept of folklore, it is laden with the historical legacy of 19th century European Romanticism, and much of what is recognized as “legitimate folklore” is derived from such concepts, which ultimately relegate folklore to “old wives’ tales” – falsehoods and superstitions that are grounded in anti-modern premises. Thus the term Folklore has come to encompass both subject and object, “theory” and data, “folk-wisdom” and disciplinary construct. Because Folklore is at once seen as both marginal and central to our daily endeavors, it is the object of “heritage preservation” and the salvage work of archives as well as being derided as old-fashioned, irrational, nonsense.

Any study of Folklore necessarily investigates these paradoxical and oppositional tendencies, and this course is no different. A major portion of the class is, and has historically been, devoted to the processes of collection and archiving – an appeal to a rational, typological, genre-based methodology. However, this is not a class devoted to collection and accumulation of data for its own sake. We are interested in how folklore can be analyzed to reflect on social organization and cultural logics, themselves changing and contingent. We will look at Folklore as deeply contextualized discursive terrain – socially constructed and yet undergirded by a deep belief that not only are these expressive forms “obvious” but that they are shared by others.

Course project

The course project turns each student into a contributor to the field of folklore by collecting traditional knowledge from his or her milieu and placing it in the Berkeley Folklore Archive.


Anthropology 160 is offered yearly in the Fall semester. For a current schedule, see the Courses page.

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