Tenets: Folklife and Fieldwork

In this passage, Warren responds to comments made by Michael Owen Jones, a former student, on the complex definitions of folklore, folklife, and folk art, and the nature of fieldwork. To Warren, fieldwork is essential to folklife research, or the study of the old traditional way of life of the pre-industrial era. Jones prefers the term “folkloristics” over fieldwork, and advocates a model of study that examines the continuities and consistencies of human behavior. Despite their ideological differences, both are committed to an essentially contextual, holistic approach to material culture and the primacy of fieldwork.

"Folklife research is properly the study of the old traditional way of life of Western Europe and of the peoples of North America of European ancestry with emphasis on the material manifestations of that way of life—the persistence of that way of life into contemporary times and its influences on modern life. I have adopted this description for several reasons. First, it adequately portrays what people who call themselves folklife researchers have been doing and are doing in Scandinavia, Great Britain, and the United States. Should anyone question the validity of this assertion, let them look through the pages of the Swedish journal Folk-Liv, the British journal Folk Life, and the American journal Pennsylvania Folklife. Most of these articles will be found to treat subjects that are included in my description.

Second, this description represents a holistic approach and avoids trying to isolate items of culture from their context as happens when one tries to study anyone anywhere at any time. I feel strongly that if one picks out a few items such as artifacts from a strange culture, one can hardly understand them or deal with them successfully. It is hard enough to understand all of the ramifications of items from our own culture, but with the help of fieldwork one at least has a chance.

Third, I feel that fieldwork is basic to folklife research. I also assert that it will not be productive in a culture in which the fieldworker is a stranger and where a language is spoken which the fieldworker cannot understand or can only imperfectly understand. The American folklife researcher therefore should work in Western Europe and in North America."

“Reply: Folklife Research and Folkloristics,” “Investigating the Tree-Stump Tombstone in Indiana” in American Material Culture and Folklife: A Prologue and Dialogue,151.