Folklore and British Cultural Studies
As an American folklorist studying postcolonial literature in a cultural studies centre in England, I felt a bit colonized myself when, upon browsing in Fred Inglis' Cultural Studies, I read about "the large vacant spaces now being staked out by cultural studies" (181). It reminded me of the nineteenth-century maps of Africa, made by Europeans, that depicted the continent as an unfilled void, even though it teemed with people, cultures and boundaries. So, too, with cultural studies, which now is settling into intellectual territory also claimed by a number of other disciplines, including anthropology, popular culture studies and folklore.
I have become a resistant reader of cultural studies texts, thinking sometimes as I read: But what about folklore? Folklore did this long ago. Folklore does this better. Folklore has an answer to this problem.
I have concluded that folklore and folkloristics (a term recently adapted from European usage to refer to the study of folklore) are absent from cultural studies discussions and programs in England because they are inadequately or wrongly understood--yes, in the land of their origins. As Gillian Bennett has pointed out, folklore has never thrived as an academic discipline in England, apparently because it has not been able to separate itself from its origins in a genteel English antiquarianism.
Consequently, many English academics tend to think that folkloristics is obsessed with inconsequential survivals and revivals--such as, for the former, the soulcaking play still given in Cheshire and, for the latter, the 1960s revival of folk songs. Of course, these, too, are manifestations of traditional folk culture, worth studying by folklorists or cultural studies scholars.
But contemporary folklorists are much more interested in the emergent and dominant folk traditions that they find in everyday life right now, whether that be Monica Lewinsky joke cycles, AIDS Mary urban legends, Diana Princess of Wales grief rituals, or dense cultural descriptions and analyses such as Jack Santino's of U.S. railway porters' lives or Henry Glassie's study of Ulster village life.
To clarify how folklore complements cultural studies, I will discuss four important aspects of folkloristics as currently understood by folklorists: its analysis of cultural spheres, its sense of genre, its creative resistance, and its function in building and expressing communal culture across time and space.
A. Cultural Spheres
Although folklorists agree, with Raymond Williams, that "culture is ordinary" and that it constitutes a "whole way of life," and, with Susan Bassnett, that culture is "a complex network of signs, a web of signifying practices" (xviii), folklore offers a more discriminating analysis of the "whole" of culture than cultural studies does.
Cultural studies seems to see culture as consisting of two competing spheres, "high" culture as opposed to "popular"...