Think Like a Folklorist

January 18, 2022

What does it mean to be a folklorist? 

In some ways, it’s easier to say what a folklorist isn’t.

Being a folklorist isn’t about hoarding a million books (though we approve of this), actually reading those million books (we approve of this even more), or being able to rattle off lots of cool facts (interesting and commendable!)

This is what being a folklorist often looks like, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of what folklorists do or why studying folklore is so important. 

When you really drill down, being a folklorist is about learning what questions to ask.

This is a huge part of what we learned from reading those million books, taking notes during lectures and seminars, doing fieldwork, and geeking out with other folklorists at the bar after hours after listening to conference papers all day.

It’s about asking the questions. And then listening for the answers.

This sounds too simple, we know. It sounds like nothing. 

But it’s everything. 

Sometimes, tiny changes in how you ask, in what you search for, can refocus your view from distractions to a beating heart – from the trees to the whole forest.

To show you what we mean, here are some questions that can take you from Folklore Rookie to Folklore Pro:

Rookie: “Where and when did Cinderella stories first originate?” 

The pitfall here is that folklore is, by definition, oral and has multiple creators. Cinderella-esque stories are hundreds, possibly more than a thousand years old, and because people told them out loud, there is no way to know exactly when the first version was told or by who. It’s an unanswerable question. It’s also just not the most interesting question to ask.

Pro: “What are some of the oldest Cinderella stories we know about? What did they mean to the cultures that told them?”

This is way more fun to dig into! There are really old Cinderella-ish stories from all over the world – China, India, Europe – featuring male and female Cinderella figures, and they’re all doing something slightly different for the culture that’s telling them, though they often explore themes like jealousy, security, and overcoming adversity. They can be snarky, scandalous, or saccharine, depending on the teller, and they might extol the virtues of beauty and subservience or cunning and athleticism or creativity and nerve. They don’t all mean the same thing, which is WAY more interesting! 

Rookie: “What’s the most authentic version of this story? What’s the best/ real one?”

It’s the easiest trap to fall into. People want to know if things are “authentic,” meaning true, best, from a real source, pure from outside influence or interference. The thing is, again, folklore by definition exists in multiple versions, with multiple creators. There is not ever one definitive, correct version – otherwise it wouldn’t be folklore. Also, chasing “purity” is never going to be a great idea on a cultural scale. This way leads to the badness.

Pro: “Who is telling/ creating this version? What does it mean to them and why are they telling it? Who are they telling it to?”

So much more interesting! And actually answerable! You can learn so much more about the story and about its teller(s) and culture this way! And it leads to more questions (“How did you learn to tell this story? How long have you been telling it? What changes did you make to it? Why do you tell it this way rather than that way?”) rather than shutting it down.

Rookie: “Are vampires real?”

I mean, the answer could be pretty interesting, depending on who you’re asking, but the tricky thing is that the point of legends (like old vampire stories that used to circulate orally) was to make people wonder whether they were true or not – to raise the specter of the “truth status” of a story again and again, never banishing it. If the point is to wonder, then this question will never be definitively answered.

Pro: “Why are vampire tales so popular? What kinds of anxieties are vampire stories getting at?”

Legends that hang around for years, decades, or centuries often contain important information about what makes us anxious or scares us. So why are vampire stories still around? Maybe because they make us think about things we can’t ever truly understand, like death. Maybe it’s because vampires make more of themselves by infecting others, just like contagious diseases do. Maybe because assault is still terrifying and often inexplicable. Each of these possibilities can lead to more stories, more beliefs, and more questions!

If we take a step back from these questions, there are some patterns that we can extrapolate from:

  • In the context of folklore studies, questions with a yes/ no answer don’t usually yield much and aren’t going to be that interesting.
  • Questions about origins are generally pretty unsatisfying because they’re almost always unanswerable (although internet folklore can have some pretty delightful exceptions, for example the internet legends about Slenderman, which we actually can trace!)
  • Asking why a particular story or version matters and what kind of social work it does > is it “authentic”?
  • Open-ended questions tend to lead to more (and cooler) data!
  • Specifics about a particular version > speculation about origins
  • Embracing hybridity, change, and variation > The Hunt for Purity

Folklore is the study of traditional, unofficial culture (thanks, Dr. Lynne McNeill!) and of how we communicate what’s important to us, artistically, to others (thanks, Dr. Dan Ben-Amos!) Learning how to understand bits of culture – stories, beliefs, artifacts – by wondering, asking, and listening, is how we put those pieces together.


  1. Collette+Cumella

    Hi Docs!! I love Clarissa Pinkola Estes , Phd., who keeps the old stories and says she adapts her stories for her audience, maybe not as scary for little kids?? Emphasize one aspect for a given group? I so love to find secrets to our day to day culture in stories we all tell. Thanks for opening my eyes to that.

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