Interpretive Approaches: Historic-Geographic Method

The dominant approach in folklore study during Warren’s early years in the field, the historic-geographic method focused on establishing the hypothetical archetype of a given folk narrative, its geographical starting point, and its historical routes of travel. The subject of the study is the tale itself. Warren’s dissertation, The Kind and Unkind Girls, is a masterwork of this method. In 1972, Richard Dorson declared the historic-geographic method “the dominant force in folklore science,” yet it was under heavy attack by critics who charged that it ignored aesthetic and stylistic elements and the human side of the narrator. Warren’s ever-deepening understanding of traditional material culture and folklife that followed his epiphany in Norway was influenced by new approaches of younger colleagues that placed the folk item in cultural context.

The founding of the Pioneer America Society in 1967 brought together material culture scholars and enthusiasts from a variety of fields. Wrote Warren: “This was a vital development for the study of traditional material culture. It also was of vast importance for folklife research in that it awakened folklife researchers, or at least this folklife researcher, to the methods and goals of other disciplines dealing with traditional material culture.

"Prior to that time I had conceived of folklife research purely in the light of folklore research. And folklore research when I was a graduate student meant the historic-geographic method: collecting, archiving, type and motif indices, and historic-geographic monographs. Hence I felt that folklife researchers should collect by photographing and measuring old houses, should establish house types such as the saltbox type, and should study the distribution of the type as a main step toward discovering the age and origin of that type."

Warren Roberts, “Introduction,” in Viewpoints, 8.