Book Review: Mapping the History of Folklore Studies: Centres, Borderlands and Shared Spaces

This collection of twenty articles is the outcome of a conference that was held in Riga in 2014 to celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the Archives of Latvian Folklore. The book sheds light on the history of folkloristics in Europe, its ideological background, success stories and hardships, and the complicated relationship of the discipline with political realities. As Dace Bula notes, the change of political regimes has meant “repeated transfer from one space of truth and epistemological practices to another” (43)—and these ruptures and transitions are discussed in several of the book’s articles.

As expected, Latvian research tradition forms the center and main focus of this volume, with as many as nine articles addressing historical aspects and developments of the subject. Vilmos Voigt deliberates on the formative years of scholarship in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and shows the importance of Latvian folklore for comparative research. Aigars Lielbārdis assesses the work of Fr. Brīvzemnieks, a fieldworker and one of the founders of Latvian folkloristics in the 1860-1870s. Guntis Pakalns outlines the impressive work of Pēteris Šmits, who in the 1920s and 1930s studied Latvian folktales and legends and prepared the scholarly publication of these stories in fifteen volumes. Rita Treija examines the European contacts of Anna Bērzkalne, the founder of the Latvian Folklore Archives (1924) and an advocate of the Finnish method. Dace Bula expands this international picture by showing the active role of Latvian folklorists in building international bridges during the interwar period. Susanne Ziegler investigates one special case of cooperation with Germany in 1924, when Wilhelm Doegen, a scholar from Berlin, made sound recordings of Latvian folklore in Riga. Sandis Laime gives an overview of the development of scholarship on witch persecution in Latvia, covering the period from 1807 to 1941. Martin Boiko examines the discourse on Latvian laments and their alleged extinction—an imagined genre with no textual evidence. Toms Ķencis discusses post-war Soviet Latvian folkloristics and the politically coordinated efforts to produce and collect modern folklore about Stalin, his victory in the Great War, and the happy life on collective farms, etc. Parallel processes in Soviet Estonian folkloristics are analyzed by Kaisa Kulasalu, who has explored the post-war project of cleansing the folklore archives of anti-Soviet and obscene elements and attempts to reconfigure scholarship according to Marxist-Leninist prescriptions. Anu Korb examines the relationship between professional archivists and local folklore collectors in the 1960s and 1970s. She shows how hierarchical relationships shaped the documentation practices of the folklore department of the State Literary Museum in Estonia. Ave Goršič introduces archival sources from the 1960s, reflecting the work of one collaborator who was interested not only in collecting Estonian folklore but also in its cultural context and the biographies of performers.

9781443872904Lina Būgienė has outlined the changes in Lithuanian folkloristics during the last decades. Using folklore as a means of anti-Soviet resistance lost its relevance with the advent of independence, and folkloristics and ethnology faced marginalization and crises. A true revival of scholarship followed in the twenty-first century, when the focus of research shifted to live narrative traditions, and folklore was studied as a linguistic activity and as an expression of cultural and communicative memory. Barbro Klein in her article connects Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian research traditions, as she discusses the work of those folklorists and ethnologists who escaped the Soviet invasion of 1944 and settled in Sweden. Based on their scholarly production in exile, on oral histories and personal memories, Klein shows their role in “keeping Swedish folklore and folklife research alive right after the Second World War” (99). Although often marginalized and even forgotten, scholars like H. Biezais, J. Lingis, O. Loorits, I. Paulson, G. Ränk, K. Straubergs, I. Talve, and others have a special position in the link between the Baltic and Nordic research traditions.

Ulf Palmenfelt’s article expands the circle around Baltic folklore studies, which forms the Schwerpunkt of the book. He sheds light on the intellectual history of folkloristics, highlighting the Swedish research tradition from the middle of the sixteenth to the late nineteenth century. Palmenfelt shows the changing paradigms from national romanticism towards evolutionism and diffusionism and asserts the priority of empirical folklore research over abstract theories. Diarmuid Ó Giolláin extends the historical map of folklore studies further, towards the South and margins of Europe as he discusses the works of three scholars: Douglas Hyde from Ireland, Lamberto Loria from Italy, and René Maunier from France. All of them carried out research both in their home countries and distant colonies, and their work reveals that the triadic configuration of metropolis, provinces, and colonies has influenced the formation of folklore scholarship.

With Ó Giolláin’s comprehensive article the book could well end. However, the reader is offered four more pieces of research whose connection with the above surveyed articles is not so apparent. Anita Vaivade reflects upon the vocabulary used by UNESCO in cultural heritage documents. The article discusses institutional endeavors to eliminate the concepts of authenticity, uniqueness, purity, and other examples of “inappropriate terminology” that appear in national discourses about safeguarding intangible cultural heritage. The article also signals the risk of legislative and political discourses “to have direct influence on the prospects of folkloristics as a scientific discipline” (329). Svetlana Tsonkova deals with another terminological problem—the concept of “apocryphal prayers” as a synonym for verbal charms in the history of Bulgarian folkloristics. Svenja Reinke-Borsdorf studies the oral history of the Kaliningrad/Königsberg region and the position of Germans as the former property owners in this discourse. And finally, James I. Deutsch takes the reader to the other shore of the Atlantic, discussing the role of the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in fostering cultural communication between Africa and America.

The articles in the book are published in the alphabetical order of their authors’ surnames, giving the impression of conference proceedings. The volume is introduced with a brief foreword by Dace Bula, but there is no afterword, and in the case of such a diverse collection, an afterword could have helped the reader to find patterns in these kaleidoscopic reflections. Unfortunately, there is no index, and this is a major shortcoming, since most articles in the book abound with names and historical data. Information in the book is to a great extent new to the international audience, and many contributions are illustrated by excerpts from unpublished archival sources. Some of the authors also offer theoretical insights or methodologically useful approaches, such as Lina Būgienė with the concept of homo narrans, Dace Bula with Burke’s “geographies of knowledge,” Toms Ķencis in his discussion about knowledge production and power, and Svenja Reinke-Borsdorf with Christopher M. Hann’s “property relations.” Altogether, Mapping the History of Folklore Studies offers fascinating reading for anybody who is interested in developments in the discipline.

Reviewed by Ülo Valk, University of Tartu, Estonia

Journal of Folklore Research, 01.02.2018


To find out more about Mapping the History of Folklore Studies and to purchase a copy, click here.

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