Skip to main content
Indiana University Bloomington

HomeFolklore InstituteEthnomusicology Institute

Collaborative Research Fora: Belief

Belief: An Integral Component of Human Knowledge and Action

Belief can be defined as an acceptance of something’s truth or existence. In the context of the kinds of discursive processes that folklorists and ethnomusicologists study, we might think of belief as something closer to an interpretive frame and/or guide for intent and action. Especially, folklorists are interested in the beliefs that arise from the traditionalization of explanatory systems, cosmologies, and worldviews.

(1) Belief constitutes a ubiquitous but under-defined term in folkloristics and ethnomusicology. Can belief be more clearly defined in ways that are actual and applicable across different usage contexts?
(2) Beliefs seem to fall on a continuum—where one end includes sets of socially innocuous or trivial beliefs (e.g. I believe it will be a cold winter) that remain safely objectionable and the other end includes socially powerful or sacred beliefs (e.g. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah) that remain dangerously unobjectionable. How do we reconcile both ends of this continuum under the single referent of belief?

Several members of our department work directly with the issues of belief in subjects like mythology or other narrative genres, health, the supernatural, religion, etc. More generally, however, ethnographic description of any given tradition, performance, or artistic creation almost always includes a description of the group’s beliefs attendant to various aspects of that tradition, performance, or artistic creation. Many if not all of us work on issues of belief in this general sense.

We envision a symposium for which belief can act as a magnet, or umbrella, term. Michael Foster and Diane Goldstein have already demonstrated interest in a belief-oriented project, receiving a Conference Grant from CAHI of $5,000 to fund travel and accommodation costs for guest speakers attending the “Transcendent Visitors: Critical Approaches to Belief Tourism” workshop. While such a workshop would involve hosting scholars from other universities, it is hoped that interested faculty from our Department would also participate in the workshop or concomitant projects; this would especially be possible if we were able to secure complementary funding from another source.

We add here that while it seems self-evident that a symposium on belief would resonate within the disciplines of folklore and ethnomusicology, belief also provides an excellent platform for interdisciplinary conversations. Even the term, folk belief, holds an important place in tangentially related work on epistemology in disciplines like philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and cognitive science. Though, what exactly is meant by folk beliefs differs—often significantly—in other disciplines.     

Belief would seem to be an integral component to all human action, and thus could be factored into to any grand challenge initiative – whether on the level of the problem (health issues, forced immigration, war and ideological oppression, etc.), or on the level of proffered solutions (technology, engineering, social science, development, etc.).