What Does a Folklorist Do?

August 31, 2021

You know how a routine part of small talk is asking and answering the question: “So what do you do?”

No one ever expects you to say “I’m a folklorist!”

Weirdly, the second most common response we get to this statement is “So you study quilts?” We have no idea why, anecdotally, quilts seem to automatically encompass folklore in the cultural zeitgeist, but this is definitely a thing.

But the most common response is “Huh, what is that? What does a folklorist do?”

(Delightfully, we have an essay in an actual book called What Folklorists Do, edited by Tim Lloyd, the former director of the American Folklore Society. It’s available for pre-orders and is filled with pieces from dozens of our amazing friends and colleagues in the folklore world!)

But the short answer is that we study and teach about the ways that people make meaning.

We had an aha! moment last week. Maybe it’s painfully obvious, but it felt profound enough that Sara called Brittany on the actual phone (Brittany hates the phone, so Sara usually tries to spare her) to run it by her. 

Brittany agreed that the revelation did indeed merit an actual phone call. Here it is:

Folklore is the study – and the actual practice – of how we make meaning in life and how we connect to ourselves and others.

(It’s also everything we talk about here.)

And that’s why we love it. That’s why we study it and teach it and believe in it so profoundly.

When we talk about making magic, that’s at the heart of what we’re trying to convey.

The most famous definition of what folklore is (in folklore studies, at least) is: “artistic communication in small groups” (Dan Ben-Amos).

If you break that down into non-academic speak, it basically means “the ways that people make meaning together by connecting through creativity.”

To us, folklore is how we make magic. How we make meaning.

This has been an unbelievably difficult year and a half. When we wrote this blog post in March of 2020 about how folklore could help us all weather the pandemic, we never could have imagined what was in store, for all of us. 

But we still know with every fiber of our beings that folklore matters and that it can help. Even during times like these. Especially during times like these.

Burnout, despair, and exhaustion are real and rampant right now. And while systemic support and big social changes are needed, we also deeply believe that what we do on the micro-level is absolutely crucial. For our own well-being and for making the world better, one tiny bit at a time.

Making meaning helps. Making folklore helps. Connecting with yourself and your community in playful, artistic, creative ways is how we recharge, define ourselves, and strengthen our social bonds. 

Folklore is what makes us tick, what tells us who we are, what binds us together or drives us apart. It’s the social fabric we weave together every day, often without any particular awareness that we’re making it. 

It’s hardcore

So that’s what we do.

And it’s what you do. 

When you use a beloved nickname with your friends, when you blow out the candles on your birthday cake, when you make a carrot cake from your grandmother’s recipe (but throw in some lemon zest just because) (it’s Sara’s birthday this week, can you tell?), when you re(tell) a story with your partner about the time you met for the 10638th time…you’re making folklore. 

Making magic.


  1. Elizabeth

    As someone who worked and trained as a professional career counselor, I love this post! “So what do you do?” is a powerful question — at least in our culture — that helps us locate others on a certain mental map. (Interestingly, as an American living in Austria, I have observed that this is rarely a leading question in social settings here.) Also, I can’t help but see the parallels between the work that counselors and folklorists do: helping people connect more deeply to themselves and others, while assisting in the meaning-making process. It’s probably why I was attracted to folklore before counseling, and the thread that connects both of these interests. I look forward to reading the book!

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