On the Differences between Folklore Fieldwork and Oral History

On the Differences between Folklore Fieldwork and Oral History

by Tim Lloyd

The ethnographic research activities of folklorists–generally called “fieldwork”–have a number of important differences from, as well as similarities to, the research activities of oral historians–generally called “interviewing”.

In general, we might say that folklorists are most fundamentally interested in those occasions, practices, and performances in which artfulness and everyday life intersect.  Folklorists study, document, and seek to understand a large number and wide variety of traditional cultural expressions that can very broadly be characterized as oral traditions (such as jokes or legends), material traditions (such as folk craft or architecture), traditions of belief and custom (such as folk medicinal belief or religious practice), and performance traditions (such as folk music or dance).

Particular traditional cultural expressions often cross these lines. Most traditional cultural expressions, for example, are realized through performance of one sort or another. In fact, to folklorists the concept of “performance” is extremely relevant.  Folklorists would consider an oral history narrative, for instance, to have a performative aspect, in which the narrator artfully shapes her narrative to embody and convey her point of view, as well as a descriptive one.

Folklorists regard a very wide range of human activities as containing an artful aspect. They are interested, for example, in the both the work activities and work songs of commercial fisherman, and in the ostensibly mundane craft work of making “cootie catchers” by middle-school girls, as well as the more recognized art-making of their elders.

Folklorists are interested in these traditions in and of themselves as cultural texts, but in their fieldwork and analysis they also seek to document and come to understand the artistic styles or linguistic textures through which they are performed and the contexts in community life in which they are performed.1 Thus, folklorists doing fieldwork document actual performances (a joke-telling session, a healing ritual, a gospel singing convention), but in their follow-up interviews they may query the healer or the gospel singing leader about the sources of their traditions, the methods by which they learned them, and the place of those traditions in contemporary community life. In their analyses, the folklorists may attend to the linguistic or musical details in the performance that convey the gist and significance of the joke or the social background and religious beliefs of the singers.

Many traditional cultural expressions are customarily performed by groups rather than individuals. It takes, for instance, a group of women to design and construct a St. Joseph’s Day table, a crew of men to run a gill net fishing boat, or a long-married couple to tell a joint narrative of their courtship days.  Thus, folklorists often document or interview more than one person at a time. Sometimes this is because the group is the relevant author, performer, narrator, or informant. Other times this is because the interaction of narrators takes over the interview in such a way as to render the event more “natural,” resembling a conversation in the course of everyday life rather than one in a more artificial interview setting.  Folklorists pursue rapport with their informants in many ways to achieve this goal of a more natural setting.

Of the many genres of traditional cultural expression that folklorists have identified, named, and documented, a few correspond more closely than others to the oral historical narrative. These include the personal experience narrative (which may focus on any scale of life experience- from a particular incident to a series of events spanning decades) or the longer-scale life history or life review narrative, often told by the elderly.

The fieldwork folklorists do leads to the creation of ethnographic field collections. In library and archival terms, these are multi-format, unpublished groups of materials documenting human life and traditions that were created, gathered, and organized by a folklorist or other cultural researcher as part of community-based field research. Such collections are created works, brought together through the intentions and activities of the folklorist. This folklorist often works in collaboration with members of the community whose traditional expressive lives are the focus of study.

A particular collection, for example, may comprise materials in several formats, including manuscripts (e.g., field notes and correspondence), audio and video recordings, still images, ephemera, and works of art on paper. Although each item in an ethnographic field collection has intrinsic worth, its overall significance increases dramatically when it is viewed in the context of the other materials gathered by the fieldworker through interactions with the people and activities being documented.

The unity and vision imposed by the collector on a group of materials is central to understanding folklore archival collections, as explained by reference librarian Gerald E. Parsons, formerly of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress:

Folklore archival collections of even the most informal sort come into being through a different process [than accumulations of personal papers]. The fieldworker takes a photograph of a musical instrument, makes a sound recording of it being played, and jots down notes on the recollections of a virtuoso player because the fieldworker has determined that photographs, sound recordings, and written text must be yoked together to fully represent the performance. Even if there is no intent to publish the documentation, there is, in every ethnographic collection, a conscious weaving together of different representational media to achieve a rounded statement.2

1 Dundes, Alan. 1971. “Texture, Text, and Context.” Southern Folklore Quarterly, 28:251-65.

2 Parsons, Gerald.  Unpublished memorandum to the American Folklife Center Board of Trustees, January 7, 1991.

Citation for Article


Lloyd, T. (2012). On the differences between folklore fieldwork and oral history. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/on-the-differences-between-folklore-fieldwork-and-oral-history/.


Lloyd, Tim. “On the Differences between Folklore Fieldwork and Oral History,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/on-the-differences-between-folklore-fieldwork-and-oral-history/

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